In a new film, Looking for Comedy in the Moslem World, comedian Albert Brooks is dispatched to south Asia by humourless Bush administration officials to look for, well, comedy in the Muslim world.
Trying to cope with the depressing reality of a post-September 11 world in which Americans now occupy some parts of an angry anti-American Muslim universe, the gloomy bureaucrats in Washington hope a Jewish comic from Hollywood will help them discover what makes Muslims laugh.
After all, laughter is a universal trait, and if we Westerners laugh, the Muslims will probably laugh with us. And who knows? This could be a form of Preventive Comedic Diplomacy: A laugh a day in Baghdad, Kabul and Tehran could keep the US military away.
Unfortunately, Brooks's mission of making the Muslim world safe for comedy proves to be a sad joke. As with most of his liberal Hollywood colleagues, Brooks believes that all cultures can be brought together by shared commitment to universal values. But these fellows in India and Pakistan just don't get his sarcastic and self-deprecating sense of humour, not to mention the double entendres and sexual innuendoes.
His Comedy Hour is a flop and he discovers to his chagrin that while Muslims do laugh "like us", their concept of what is funny is not the kind that might work for a stand-up comedian in New York, Melbourne or, for that matter, a
cartoonist in Copenhagen. It's not that the 12 cartoons of the prophet Mohammed published in the small Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were very funny; they were quite tasteless and offensive. But you could say that about much of the stuff that we find any day of the week in our Western media, including caricatures that mock Jesus, bash Catholic priests, offend Jews and insult racial minorities.
If you don't like what you see, feel free to send angry letters to the editor, boycott and demonstrate against the offensive newspaper and ask public figures to condemn it. But in a society where freedom of expression is valued, you don't threaten the life or use violence against those who disturb your political beliefs or religious sensibilities. And that includes crude anti-fill-the-blank cartoonists.
That this kind of commitment to a free exchange of ideas and tolerance of dissent that those of us who were raised and educated in the West seem to take for granted, like the air we breathe, is not shared by many Muslims across the world, and especially those residing in the Arab Middle East, has become quite evident in a very dramatic way in recent days.
The violence perpetrated by the mobs in centres of Arab civilisation, such as Beirut, Damascus and Cairo, is very disturbing and reflects an illiberal political culture that is breeding religious intolerance and anti-modern attitudes. And it is strengthening the power of radical Islamic groups, ranging from the Arab-Sunni Muslim Brotherhood to the Shia Hezbollah.
What is even more disturbing is that some of this anti-Western frenzy has exploded in places in the Arab Middle East -- in the new Iraq and in Palestine -- where the Bush administration has been promoting its campaign to spread freedom and where open elections were show-cased by Washington as highlighting its Wilsonian agenda of making the region safe for democracy.
Indeed, members of the radical political Islamist groups elected to power during this US-produced celebration of democracy -- Iraq's Shia clerics and Palestine's Hamas terrorist group -- have, with rare exceptions, been serving as cheerleaders for mobs attacking Americans and Europeans, including Danish troops maintaining peace in Iraq and officers of the European Union in Gaza, which is the main source of economic assistance for the Palestinians.
But the neoconservative intellectuals who have been the driving force behind the pro-democracy campaign in the Middle East refuse to admit that, not unlike Brooks's comedy spiel, their own democracy shtick has been a policy disaster. In two strategic parts of the Middle East -- the Persian Gulf and Israel/Palestine -- it has led to the victory of political parties whose values run contrary to that of the US.
These groups, for instance, would reverse women's rights and give second-class citizenship to non-Muslims. And their goals -- in Iraq, an alliance with Iran, and in Palestine, a refusal to recognise Israel -- would harm US strategic interests, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and hinder efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
So much for the idea that free elections give birth to liberal pro-Western governments. As policy analyst Fareed Zakaria argues, elections that take place in societies that lack the necessary institutional foundations -- a functioning civil society, free markets, independent press and judiciary, religious tolerance -- tend to produce an "illiberal democracy" that only exacerbates the problems of divisions and dysfunction and bring to power nationalist and religious populists who exploit their people's fears of the "other".
From that perspective, the US push for democracy in the Middle East has been a self-defeating strategy that has made the region safe for nationalism and other radical forms of ethnic, religious, and tribal movements that regard the US and its allies in the region as the source of all evil. It's difficult for American neoconservatives who fantasise about a global multicultural community committed to liberal democratic values to admit that perhaps the Muslims are not "like us" after all.
They laugh, but don't appreciate our sense of humour. They want to be free, but don't share our concept of liberal democracy, a set of values and institutions that can only develop through a long process of trial and error and in a hospitable environment. Perhaps the time has come for Washington to adopt a more realistic approach and stop looking for democracy in the Middle East while pursuing a policy that secures the real interests of the Western democracies in the region.
After all, liberal democracy, like humour, is not an export commodity. And, unlike humour, it's a very serious business.