By Thomas Clements
Veedu Vidz uses satire to poke fun at extremist speakers within the Muslim community in order ‘to beat bigotry with a smile’. Will this approach work?
After noticing a dearth of Islam-related comedy, Waleed Wain decided to make low-budget satire skits mocking popular Salafi televangelists like Zakir Naik and Dawah Man, both of whom promote ideas that are anti-science and anti-democracy. He’s so far garnered effusive praise from Maajid Nawaz, the UK-based Muslim reformer, and has had his work noticed by the Clarion Project and the National Secular Society.
Islam is a subject few comedians in the West want to broach. While Western Christianity is seen as an easy target for ridicule, the other great monotheism rarely gets the same treatment. Many fear coming across as bigoted for poking fun at a faith associated primarily with non-whites, while others are perhaps wary of a credible threat of violence after the Danish cartoon affair and Charlie Hebdo.
With the global spread of austere, fundamentalist Wahhabism, however, the need for humour as a counterbalance to the sort of humourless fanaticism we’re seeing now has never been greater. At least one man in the UK is attempting to change all that.
Operating on a shoestring budget out of his house in suburban London, Waleed Wain, known online as Veedu Vidz, creates some truly brilliant comedy animated by a zeal for free speech. I contacted Waleed. What follows is the content of our discussion.
Thomas Clements: Thanks for agreeing to talk to Conatus. Tell us a bit about yourself and what it is you do.
Waleed Wain: I am a YouTube comedian who makes satirical videos on Islam and politics with the aim of furthering free speech and critical thinking. I am from a Muslim background but consider myself agnostic. I believe comedy and satire can go a long way in highlighting important issues in society and Muslims could benefit greatly from adopting this tradition.
TC: What prompted you to start making comedy videos?
WW: I had always had an interest in religion and comedy and felt there was a real dearth of satire on Islam, so I put my two interests together and took a risk. People responded very positively to my videos (Muslims and non-Muslims) and the rest is history.
TC: It’s great to hear that your videos have been so well-received. You seem to have garnered a fair bit of attention online, most recently from prominent Muslim reform voice Maajid Nawaz whom you’ve parodied before. Do you think comedy can play an important role in reforming the faith as a whole?
WW: Maajid has been really supportive of my satire and has led by example, as he shares the videos I parody him in. Comedy and satire can play a huge role in changing people’s minds and making difficult conversations more digestible. I think as a community we really need to learn how to laugh at ourselves and enjoy our religious and cultural traditions.
TC: Based on the violent reactions to satire of Islam, some could be led to assume that Muslims lack a sense of humour about their faith and often display a hair-trigger sensitivity to any criticism of it. Is this necessarily true of the majority of Muslims and if so, has this always been the case throughout Islam’s history?
WW: I certainly think there is a cultural problem within Muslim countries nowadays that permits you to mock most things in life, except religion. An example of this would be Pakistan, as people ridicule and satirise politics and politicians, but would not do with same with religion. It is hard to tell how many Muslims would be open to religious satire as blasphemy law and cultural pressures silence free speech and expression. I sometimes receive messages from Muslims saying I really like your videos but I can’t comment on or share your videos as I can’t be seen liking or watching such material. The internet has allowed people across the world to gain access to a variety of content and ideas that wouldn’t usually be available in their local bookstore or mosque.
Was this always the case in the past? I have heard from friends and family that in certain periods in Muslim history, the culture was much freer and open to controversial/unpopular ideas. I guess the task for Muslims is to rediscover and learn from these eras in their history as it may be more illuminating to learn about free speech through their own traditions than through a Western lens.
TC: Interesting. The internet seems to be facilitating communication between freethinkers and skeptics across the Islamic world. Communities of ex-Muslims have emerged and those declaring themselves as agnostics and atheists appear to be growing in number. Do you think religious fundamentalists feel threatened by people like you? Have you yourself been at the receiving end of abuse or death threats?
WW: Prominent Muslim speakers have reluctantly acknowledged the growing presence of ex-Muslims/agnostics/sceptics in recent times and have delivered talks specifically geared towards Muslims leaving Islam. The internet and social media have broken their monopoly on discourse and allowed minority/suppressed opinions to have a platform. I have never personally been threatened, perhaps because I do not have a large enough audience, but the threat of violence is very real for many people who speak out in Muslim majority countries.
TC: In a recent discussion you had with agnostic Muslim writer and activist Hassan Radwan, you spoke of how Saudi petrodollars have been poured into the proselytising of ultra-conservative Salafi Islam around the world. Would you say this form of Islam is still growing in popularity in Muslim communities? Do you feel it’s responsible for rising intolerance and sectarianism in the Islamic world?
WW: The Salafi/Wahhabi movement for the most part has been responsible for the growing trend in literalism and intolerance over the past few decades. They have dominated the tone of the religion and have been very tech savvy in spreading their beliefs. This sect still holds much sway over people across the world as it is funded by Saudi Arabia and they, also by virtue of geography, have a monopoly over the two holiest sites in the Muslim world. I think there is no better time to challenge their hegemony with so many open minded Muslims and ex-Muslims telling their stories and sharing their ideas.
TC: In one of your videos you lampoon those Muslims who, when presented with a violent quote from the Quran, respond reflexively by claiming ‘you’ve taken that out of context’. Do you feel there is a culture of denialism in Islam that exists as a result of a belief in the infallibility of the scripture? If so, how can we get Muslims to look at the text from a more rational perspective that acknowledges the possibility that the Quran may in fact be fallible?
WW: It is a tricky question, because Muslims see the Quran as the direct word of God, which has not changed and will not change. One has more room to manoeuvre with the hadith, though. But Muslims will have to reform not just the conclusions they have reached from reading the scriptures, but largely reform how they view them, which is a much greater challenge.
There could be a culture of denialism and it may not be the fault of every Muslim as the literature in Islam is so vast and practices across the Muslim world vary. Depending on your upbringing you may come across a side of Islam that may be grounded in tradition or literature, but is completely alien to you and your natural instinct is to say it is ‘out of context’ or ‘it has nothing to do with Islam’. But these types of statements do little to address the issues. One must have enough courage to wrestle with tradition and confront personal demons.
Furthermore, due to geopolitical reasons, Muslim might view any attempt to reform as pressure from the West and may dismiss it as colonisation. This is why Muslim reformers have been persecuted and apostatised in the past and present and unfortunately their views have been silenced.
TC: Observer columnist Nick Cohen recently highlighted in a BBC radio show the Left’s lack of support for moderate Muslims, referring to the ‘spectacle of non-Muslims telling actual Muslims that they’re anti-Muslim bigots’. Is the unholy Left-Islamist alliance effectively marginalising liberal and secular voices like yours?
WW: Nick Cohen is spot on, many on the Left lack the courage and moral fibre to call out bigotry within Muslim community, shielding them from any criticism or ridicule. This is made worse by the fact that they try to label Muslim reformers/liberals and ex-Muslims as sellouts. This stance is not only inconsistent with their own values, but also paternalistic and infantilising to Muslims. Muslims need to be subjected to the same level of criticism and ridicule as any other community in order to develop and clean out their own backyard.
I have seen this painfully play out in the comedy scene (which is largely liberal) as comics are quick to mock Trump and the Right (as they should) but go awfully quiet on Islam and Muslims. There is much to ridicule and criticise Islam and Muslims on, just like everyone else, but their silence is not helping Muslims but holding them back. This is one of the main reasons why I started a comedy channel focusing on Islam and Muslims because there is such a dearth of honest satire on this subject.
Very recently I received several bans on my Facebook page for posting satirical videos on Islam and Muslims preachers Dr Zakir Naik and Dawah Man (Imran Ibn Mansur). Then my page was unpublished from Facebook as these videos violate their community guidelines.
I understand Facebook is a private company and they can do what they want, but what does it say about their values and principles that Dr Zakir Naik and Dawah man, who hold questionable views, can use Facebook to promote their beliefs, but if I mock them, I am silenced?
As far as I am concerned freedom of speech is non-negotiable and no group of people is exempt from criticism and ridicule.
TC: Millions of Muslims that live in the West have now been here for several generations. Why is it that, unlike other religious groups (e.g. Hindus) who’ve largely secularised and assimilated, young Muslims have generally gone in the opposite direction and become more devout than their forefathers? What is it that attracts street youth and perhaps those with checkered pasts in particular to follow their religious path with such fervour?
WW: This is a real complex question, one which I discussed with a friend of mine on a live stream who specialises in Asian ethnic minorities in the UK for his PhD. A few things to consider are that the first Muslims groups that came to the UK from Pakistan and Bangladesh were working class people whereas the immigrants of Indian origin (most of which came via Africa) were more skilled and did better in the labour market. The economic aspect certainly plays a role in integration but it is not the complete picture, as events like the Iranian revolution, the Satanic Verses, and 9/11 have all challenged what it means to be a Muslim living in the West. Muslims view themselves as part of the ‘Ummah’, the wider global Muslim community, so when the aforementioned events take place, Muslims living in the West may feel conflicted as to where their allegiances lie. However, according to a 2009 national survey, Muslims identify more as British than rest of the population, so there are positive signs.
TC: And finally, where online can people keep up to date with your work?
WW: My YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJ11LYqiqsaqfhJxprOa_ZA