Don't mention the Prophet: Omid Djalili as Mahmud in "The Infidel"
I vividly recall trotting off to see Monty Python's Life of Brian as a first-year college student. There would be a media storm surrounding it. I especially remember an indignant Malcolm Muggeridge attempting to condemn it in the face of a hostile audience on TV and looking silly. For us, you see, it was no big deal — we'd grown up and still lived in a cultural atmosphere that saw religion as a legitimate and hilarity-inducing punchbag. Muggeridge was an old fogey. The notion that we should refrain from causing offence by laughing along would have struck us as absurd — would have made us, indeed, laugh longer and harder.
I saw the movie again recently and it holds up well. It's available on DVD, and features regularly in those lists of Best Comedies Ever. Its closing number, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, is a bona fide pop culture classic, still a sing-along fixture at good-natured drunken gatherings and coach journeys home up and down the country.
Thirty years ago, that country was ravaged by economic decline but culturally still knew what it was, and the assumptions it could safely make. Then again, few of us freshers had even heard of Islam. As we queued for the movie, we knew that something was going on over in Iran, yes, but we'd been told the Shah was a fascist tyrant. So the establishment of this new regime must have been some sort of victory for something we could vaguely assume was good, progressive, and to be supported.
The Shah's replacement was an old man who famously went on to say: "There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humour in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious." So there would be no Life of Iqbal showing in downtown Tehran. Blinded by a misplaced sensitivity, cringing cultural cowardice and a very well-placed sense of genuine fear, we followed suit. Now, three decades later, we can say with certainty that there will be no Life of Iqbal at Bradford's local multiplex.
What we get instead in our brave new world is The Infidel. This new British comedy was written by the comedian and novelist David Baddiel, who says on the film's website: "I think that people are terrified about race and religion, especially issues surrounding Muslims and Jews, and when people are terrified, what they really should do is laugh." That's all well and good, though I think it's fair to say that there's some disingenuous equivalence going on here. I don't think many people are "terrified" of Jews, for the very good reason that they can be sure they wouldn't have to live under constant police vigilance or fear their property being torched if they drew a few satirical cartoons incorporating the Star of David. Baddiel seemed to tacitly admit this when he spoke briefly at the screening I attended. The film-makers had striven not to be offensive, he said. "But what's the most that Jews are going to do? Ban you from eating at Bloom's?"