Islamophobia or divine comedy? Shabana Rehman on stand-up comedy, Mullah lifting and (not) burning the Koran.

Shabana Rehman is a Pakistani Norwegian. Born in Karachi and growing up in Norway, she speaks to us in English with a distinctly Norwegian accent. Her lively sense of humour is immediately apparent as she explains her decision to become a stand-up comedian. When she started in this male-dominated field twenty years ago she was  the only Pakistani woman in a group of Norwegian men. ‘The Vikings were my role models’ as she puts it.

This might explain her unorthodox approach. When she looked to her role models for material, the three main topics seemed to be; how to get laid, how to get drunk and immigrants. ‘So I did the same’, she tells us with a twinkle in her eye. Reactions from the Norwegian press included comments like, ‘You’re so outspoken’ and ‘You’re so controversial’, she tells us. Yet the same material from a Norwegian male comedian drew very different reactions. Rehman’s response, ‘It’s not my actions, it’s your reactions’ that require reflection. From the Pakistani community the response was even less equivocal – she was accused of being ‘a Norwegian whore’.

‘I didn’t have a problem with religion but it had a problem with me.’ – Rehman

The stand-up comedian did not however let such reactions intimidate or censor her. Shabana Rehman went on to grab headlines around the world for what is now widely known as her Mullah lifting stunt. She tells us how it came about. One evening she was at a nightclub where Mullah Krekar was preparing to speak about a book he had recently written. Described by some as Norway’s most controversial refugee, Krekar was in fact recently (July 2019) arrested by Norwegian authorities on the request of an Italian court which has sentenced him to 12 years in prison for planning terrorist acts. The comedian tells us that the fear in the room was palpable, even though Mullah Krekar was ostensibly there to reassure his listeners of the righteousness of his cause. Rehman offered to help diffuse the situation and was invited on stage by the Mullah. It was at this point that she decided simply to lift him up using an arm lift technique that she demonstrated to us on one of her fellow panel members!  

The reaction was immediate she tells us. There was a complete change of energy in the room – from fear to laughter. Indeed it was the Mullah now, she maintains, who felt fearful. ‘A woman does not lift a man!’ he shouted and went to the police station to lay charges of sexual assault against Rehman. Ironically, these charges were processed by the first Arab women police person in Norway. They were not upheld. Nevertheless, Rehman tells us, ‘ I could not go out in public immediately after that, because everyone wanted to lift me!’. The comedian’s humour is infectious and helps highlight how powerful humour can be  in undermining power and authority.

‘Islam is actually a lot of fun if you don’t believe in it’ – Navabi

However the incident also raises questions of where one draws the line, assuming there is one for comedians. Rehman admits that in her use of physical force without permission, she may have crossed a line. However, it was not premediated and did not cause physical harm to Mullah Krekar.  A similar recent incident involving  right-wing British politician, Nigel Farage, was raised by journalist and fellow panel member, Ali Rizvi. The Huffington Post columnist and co-creator of the Secular Jihadists for a Muslim Enlightenment podcast, admits that he found the incident in which a protestor threw a milkshake over Farage, ‘very funny’. But he agrees that it does cross a number of boundaries. His podcast co-host and founder of online, NGO, Atheist Republic, Armin Navabi is unequivocal in his response – no matter how bad the other side is, one should never cross the line into violence. ‘Two wrongs never make a right’. ‘The line of integrity is the only thing sacred to us’ – the Iranian Canadian continues. However he is also adamant that all bad ideas should be criticised, no matter where they come from and this includes minority groups. Navabi made headlines when he burnt his own copy of the Koran and posted it on Youtube. Before doing so, he provided arguments in response to 20 reasons not to burn the holy book.

Burning the Koran is something with which Rehman too has toyed. As one of the speakers at a literature festival on dangerous books, Rehman shows us a video of her holding a copy of the Koran in one hand and a large candle in the other. She tells us she wanted to draw attention to the fact that this book, possibly the most dangerous of all, had not been mentioned once at the festival. Although she told her audience that book burning should be more frequent in Norway, the comedian did not finally burn the Koran, arguing that this would have served only to increase its power. However her actions provoked outrage in the Muslim community and some accused her of burning the Holy book. As all of the speakers on yesterday’s panel agreed, comedy’s power lies in its ability to delegitimise and this is what those with power fear most.    Souwie Buis    2nd September 2019