The Terms on Which Jews and Muslims Join Western Civilization


Faced with hostility in eighteenth-century Germany, Jews won some acceptance by poking fun at themselves. Might the Canadian sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie do the same for Muslims today? Here, protagonists Amaar Rashid (a liberal imam) and Rayyan Hamoudi (a feminist doctor) chuckle at their hen. Credit: CBC Television.

“Laugh and the world laughs with you.” Everyone knows that you have to be able to laugh at yourself. It is a hallmark of being a “good sport” and a member of the team.

But what happens if you are not exactly accepted as a member of “the team”? What happens if you are part of an ethnic or religious group that is demonized, discriminated against, incarcerated without justification, and subject to hate crimes and violence in the society in which you live? And what if those with the most power in your society—the lawmakers, judges, police, corporate leaders, media, and so on—often laugh at you in ways that are cruel and dehumanizing? Such a situation certainly shifts the stakes and the effects of laughing at yourself.

When caricatures of Muhammad were published in a Danish newspaper back in September 2005, the rationale was that if Muslims were going to be part of Danish society, they had to learn to laugh at themselves. The culture editor of the Danish Jyllands-Posten (Flemming Rose) presented this stance in the same September 30 issue that contained the caricatures:

The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule.

He made this point more explicitly in the Washington Post on February 19, 2006, after the furor had blown up, months after the original cartoons appeared:

The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.

Today this seems a truism to many Christians and Jews. Don’t all religions accept that they must be able to be the butt of the joke? Indeed, isn’t embracing that ability exactly what makes Jews funny? We laugh at ourselves and can take it when we are laughed at. But this was no natural inclination—Jews learned to laugh at themselves as part of their acculturation into Enlightenment society in the course of the eighteenth century when the meaning and social structure of jokes were laid out in self-help books for the burgeoning middle classes.


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Sander L. Gilman teaches humanities and medicine at Emory University in Atlanta. Having taught earlier at Cornell and Chicago, he is one of the creators of Jewish cultural studies as an academic discipline.

Source Citation

Gilman, Sander L. 2012. The Terms On Which Jews and Muslims Join Western Civilization. Tikkun 27(1): 13.

tags: Culture, Politics & Society, Rethinking Religion   
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