In the name of laughter

The people of Pakistan during the past couple of days have had the chance to enjoy a relatively humorous event. On July 5th, Pakistani security forces captured Maulana Abdul Aziz, the leader of a radical mosque in Islamabad, trying to escape wearing a woman's burqa. The implications of this event are far beyond what may appear at first.

Abdul Aziz is known for his revolutionary and Jihadist rhetoric that captivated many youth to his mosque. He has been one of the leading advocates of using force and, has been quoted to promote suicide bombings. This brave and bold figure, who was perceived to be a strong leader, was captured wearing a burqa while escaping his mosque. His image has been plastered all over the media and people are simply laughing at him.

What is very interesting to observe is the emergence of using humor and comedy in dealing with oppressive ideologies or regimes.

Pakistan is not the only country that is affected by this relatively new wave. It has almost been twenty years since the end of the Iran-Iraq War or the “Imposed War” (Jang-e-tahmil) as it is known to Iranians. The Islamic Republic of Iran has repeatedly used this war as a propaganda tool to enforce its domestic and international policies on the Iranian citizens.

The Islamic regime has frequently used the martyrs in order to face any opposition to social or political change in Iran. Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, widely seen as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's spiritual advisor, and a member of Iran's Assembly of Experts, has been quoted to say, “What did our martyrs die for? So that we can trample on all the sanctities and our youth can have more freedom? If freedoms were desirable, why did we bother to get rid of the Shah? He did give such freedoms.”

Yazdi is not the only cleric who uses the martyrs of the “Eight Year War” to make a point about the social or political changes that he feels are necessary to be implemented. This is a common practice of the supreme leader all the way down to principals of schools who try to encourage the young minds to study harder. As a young student growing up in Iran, I clearly remember our teachers giving us lectures about how we should not forget the blood that martyrs shed. “They sacrificed their lives so you can sit in peace and study the periodic table of elements” my chemistry teacher would often announce!

These practices have had an ironic backlash. With a booming young population, the Iranian clerics are now faced with an enormous challenge. Young Iranians make up an estimated 70 percent of Iran's population. The generation born largely after the shah's 1979 deposal is increasingly showing frustration with Iran's lack of social freedoms. The high rates of inflation and unemployment, especially among the youth, make it harder to believe that what we have today in Iran is exactly what the martyrs sacrificed their lives for.

As Stanley Brandes mentions, in his article on effects of political humor in times of crises, “people who live under politically repressive circumstances are more likely to vent their anger and frustration through narrative jokes, riddle jokes or related genres, and thereby create for themselves a temporary escape from omnipresent and severe restrictions on freedom of expression.”

It is interesting that Iranians have moved beyond just jokes and riddles and have put their focus on making big box office hits such as Marmoolak (Lizard) or Ekhrajiha (The Outcasts).

Marmoolak, directed by Kamal Tabrizi, enjoyed an unprecedented popularity so much so that extra screenings were scheduled past midnight and the tickets were sold for much higher prices in black market. Marmoolak is the story of a thief and fugitive known as Reza Marmoolak who by disguising himself as a clergyman (mullah) is able to escape prison. The pretense is complete when he, seemingly affected by his own outfit, begins to preach the way of God. He himself is eventually converted to the path of “righteousness.”

Ekhrajiha, written and directed by Masoud Dehnamaki, is set during the Iran-Iraq War. The movie depicts Majid, a local thug and his friends who join the army during the last days of war in order to impress Majid's future father in law who is a very pious man. The film is one of few Iranian war movies in which the heroes are extremely flawed and shown to commit acts often viewed as “immoral” by authorities in Iran. Majid and his friends don't pray, gamble, use foul language, smoke and use drugs.

The Iranian population has expressed a tremendous amount of interest to such movies and the aforementioned films have broken many box office records. These movies could be looked at as a type of peaceful protest. These works do not specifically attack an individual or a certain policy imposed by the regime, but in their own clever way they act as a safety valve which creates a momentary sense of relief.

Marmoolak, which is the main character's family name, skillfully associates itself with the characteristics that are associated with “marmoolak” (lizard) in Iran. In the Iranian common culture, “lizard” is often used as an adjective to refer to people who are sneaky, devious, scheming and two-faced. This is a clear hit at the mullahs and the ruling authority which the main character disguises himself as.

The power of humor and comedy should not be taken lightly. Social and political culture of the Middle East is in transition. Such movies and political jokes provide a viable stage for political expression during the stages of transition. These often act as safety valves for the population and often as political forums, and it does not hurt if once in a while you have a religious figure trying to run a way in a burqa

Although not specifically directed at a politician or ruling elite, humor is a form of peaceful protest to the current regime and an excellent stage to point out the flows of the ruling authorities. The names of different saints and Imams, as well as using the name of the martyrs as a propaganda tool are proving to be not as effective as they once were. In the name of humor, rather than in the name martyrs, a new peaceful revolution is on its way.

Reza Akbari, Scholar Intern, Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, D.C. 2

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