Looking for stereotypes in the Muslim world

Just made the mistake of finally watching "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World".  Good grief.  I was ready for a stinker, but I didn’t expect such an unearthly stench.   I haven’t awaited a film’s end so eagerly since I endured the numbingly dull "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues".  Not even the cursed souls of of Mystery Science Theater 3000 could find humor in this agonizingly uninspired flick.

Having never once so much as cracked smile at a word Albert Brooks has uttered in his various films, I am not all that surprised that it comes up wanting in laughs.  In my opinion, Brooks has a sort of reverse Midas touch when it comes to comedy.  I mean, let’s face it:  Hasn’t his best comedic performance to date has been as an animated fish?

In fact, the only funny thing I can think of in connection with this movie is its NetFlix blurb [login required].  Notice the two parts that I’ve highlighted:

Funnyman Albert Brooks plays a comedian sent by the U.S. State Department to India and Pakistan to find out exactly what makes Muslims laugh — all with an eye toward helping everyone to get along better in the post-Sept. 11 world. Directed and written by Brooks, this smart, thoughtful and, yes, funny film essentially bypasses religion, instead focusing on where people find humor, regardless of culture or beliefs.

But I didn’t expect the movie to be so blandly hypocritical and ultimately offensive. 

The movie’s silly premise is that the US State Department launches a project to study humor in the Muslim world in order to foster better understanding between America and Muslims.  Yet with exception of a brief foray across the border to a campfire in the Pakistani countryside, the movie never sets foot in the Muslim world or even a Muslim community.  Despite its title, it is set in India and features mostly Hindu characters.

More importantly, in the few scenes where it even momentarily concerns itself with Muslims the movie dutifully trots out Islamophobic stereotypes, and presents these traits in implicit contrast to the non-Muslim characters, who with the exception of one eccentric figure that makes a momentarily appearance are  portrayed as entirely normal. 

But every Muslim character displays an offensive trait.  Muslim anti-Semitism is a running joke through the film and the only recurring Muslim figure is shown to be a madly jealous caveman.  And not only does the film make the obligatory allusion to terrorism as permeating Islamic societies, it presents what normally is expressed tongue in cheek as factual by having its one Muslim (an Iranian) refer matter of factly to his high school "bomb-making class".  Oh, and the only other Muslims are a band of Pakistani comedians who carry machine guns and threaten our hero like thugs when he initially refuses to perform for them.   Har har.

Now, I don’t have a problem with edgy, politically incorrect humor, nor do I don’t expect pop culture to studiously ignore real world social problems.  Still, I expect responsible entertainers to portray a widely misunderstood and highly unpopular community with a modicum of balance  and respect.  Most importantly, I would not expect a complex community to be entirely reduced to a few crude ethnic cliches.   Even "Blacksploitation" films and shows portrayed African-Americans as normal human beings.

In a story featuring slightly developed characters, these issues would be fairly trivial, but when a diverse community is entirely reduced to a few crude stereotypes you have a serious problem.

Then there’s the premise of the film and the way it never gets examined.  Among Westerners today, Muslims aren’t known for their sense of humor–but then neither are Germans–so one can forgive the choice of topic.  What is hard to comprehend, though, is how the film never gets around to challenging or nuancing this impression.  The filmmakers have obviously had not been exposed to Punjabi Muslims’
celebrated sense of humor, or the wicked quips Arabs make
among themselves at the expense of their often despotic regimes.   And even if they have yet to acquire a rudimentary familiarity with the objects of their speculation, you’d think that common sense would eventually force them to move beyond these cartoonish stereotypes and entertain the remote possibility that Muslims share this basic human faculty.

One scene is particularly ironic:  Brooks has a meeting with the local bureau of Arab mega-network Al-Jazeera and they offer him a part in a new sitcom entitled something like "Watch the dirty Jew".  When Brooks passes on their generous offer, the boss barks to his assistant, "Find me another Jew!"   

This is a veritable play within a play, as in the final analysis this cheap film treats Muslims not much better than its wooden anti-Semite Muslims would Jews.  Most galling of all, it traffics in these crude stereotypes at the very same time that it preaches about dialog and understanding.

In this respect, as forgetable and insignificant as it is, the film captures the spirit of much contemporary  analysis of Islam and Muslims.  When confidently making generalizations about other cultures, observers often expose their own prejudices and ignorance as they self-righteously denounce the bigotry of others.

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