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Why did the Mullah cross the road?

When I say Muslim what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Would fun, cheek or even humour come in your top ten? Some of the satire used thus far has resulted in tensions within the Muslim community often leading to retribution. Could this have something to do with what Ayatollah Khomeini once said ‘there are no jokes in Islam.’ However it is the perception that people of an Islamic faith do not have a sense of humour that causes harm. In a multi-cultural society it is this perception that extends an already marginalised community and makes them an easier target. The unfortunate reality of the situation is that Islam has had a rich history of humour. Unlike Christian texts, Turkish literature featured a Sufi sage by the name of Mullah Nasreddin who was notorious for his wit; even the prophet Muhammad was known to make the occasional joke.  The Hidah recalls ‘Why are there no old women in heaven? Because they become young girls when they get there!’ But yet this problem of all Muslims being fundamentalists persists.

2010 Public art project at North Yarra Community Health Centre[1].
Minority Rights Group International in their 2010 report states that the ‘rise of religious nationalism, the economic marginalization of religious minorities and the abuse of counter-terrorism laws have all led to a growing pattern of persecution against religious minorities globally. Minorities, particularly Muslims, across the USA and Europe, have been targets of increased state controls as well as nationalist campaigns by right-wing groups. In Switzerland, following a campaign by the ultra-conservative Swiss People's Party, a majority of participating voters backed a referendum, which proposed a ban on the building of new minarets in mosques.[3]

2008 Community Cultural Development Program [2]
Even the German Chancellor Angela Merkel came out and said ‘the so-called "multikulti" concept - where people would "live side-by-side" happily - did not work.[4]’ She further goes on to say that German society’s attempts to build a multicultural society have failed Germany. This follows from a recent survey conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation where more than 30% of population believed the country was overrun by foreigners. A high portion of these comments have arisen from xenophobic statements by Thilo Sarrazin a former senior official at Germany’s central bank who said ‘I don't want the country of my grandchildren and great grandchildren to be largely Muslim, or that Turkish or Arabic will be spoken in large areas, that women will wear headscarves and the daily rhythm is set by the call of the muezzin. If I want to experience that, I can just take a vacation in the Orient.[5]

Community building is one way perception can be overcome. MyPeace is one such organisation that is trying to change the perception of Islam through paid billboards and advertisements on television. ‘Mypeace came about to address the many misconceptions about Islam, to educate fellow Australians on Islam and invite them to ask any questions that they may have … organising Mosque Tours, speakers will be on hand to discuss anything to do with Islam, no question is off limits, we encourage the participation of all Australians.[6]’ One way of influencing ordinary perception is to get the public message across that Muslims are the same as everyone else. By being an institutional organisation, Mypeace has a clear voice which is effective in cutting through all the voices. It becomes loud and strong enough to address a large public audience.

Another strategy is on the front line through local community involvement. Crooked Rib Art is ‘an all-female art collective, held together through Islamic traditions and combined with a Melbourne flavour. Crooked Rib Art is an art collective of young Muslim female artists who not only aim to challenge perceptions of themselves, but also work to question perceptions of current social issues through the public art domain.[7]’ These young women directly confront existing stereotypes of what it means to be part of a minority group in a society that doesn’t necessarily fully accept it. Even the name ‘Crooked Rib Art’ gives an insight into the cheek and passions of the young women. In Islamic prophetic tradition women are referred to as the ‘crooked end’ of the rib cage, protecting the heart. ‘If you try to straighten it by force, it will break.[8]

The group originally came together in 2007 as part of the City of Melbourne’s Community Cultural Development Program with the support of the Muslim Women’s Council Victoria. The group have aimed to address issues of sex, age, and religion through their works in the Melbourne International arts festival in 2008 and 2010 and through the production of a community mural for the City of Yarra. The group haven’t just limited themselves to the public spectrum with artworks being displayed at the Desypher Gallery in Fitzroy. In addition to exhibitions the groups have been involved in the organisation of a number of workshops with high school students, youth groups and humanitarian organisations; further assisting in the breakdown of preconceived stereotypes and notions of migration, identity and a sense of place.

One of the key strengths of such a form of public art is the intimate involvement of the community into the formation of an art that is representative of their values. Crooked Rib Art is truly a form of public art rather than art that is public. It is a commitment to the people through a medium that is accessible and appreciates the personal interaction that public art can generate.

The biggest challenge to any form of religious prejudice is ignorance and a lack of understanding in the similarities between people. The advantage possessed by a truly public form of art is in how they engage with the public. It is the process that is critical rather than an outcome. A process that helps, educates and form a sense of place where every member of society is accepted is beneficial for both the individual and the greater society. Art at its core invites people to find out more – it is this act of questioning that challenges our ignorance’s; and it is through dialogue that any biases and fears can be overcome.

Since September 11 Muslims have struggled in communicating their message with the outside world to counteract the increased xenophobic commentary. For a truly multi-cultural society we need to focus on our similarities rather than our differences. Humour is one of the most effective ways defusing suspicion and integrating society. So to answer your question, the Mullah crossed the road to get away from the pork sausages.

[4] 17 October 2010
New Book Plunges Germany into Immigration Debate
[8] ibid


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