18 / 05 / 21
by Raahim Zafar
Somewhere in a dark, poorly lit office a poor overworked local authority official has to check off a list of boxes and provide evidence to prove that interfaith works. A few miles away, or perhaps spread across the country on Zoom, an interfaith dialogue is taking place and they are having the time of their lives laughing together over the fact that one person’s favourite place to go in town is the supermarket down the road.
When facilitating dialogue between faith and cultural communities, official reports might require formal indicators to demonstrate that community cohesion has been developed, but on the ground and in the moment the best indicator is the same as that for building any relationship: the sharing of laughter. Laughing together, sharing a joke, is something innately human and for all political talk on integration and assimilation, nothing brings people closer together than sincere humour.
On Thursday 29th April, the Woolf Institute brought together four giants from the worlds of academia, comedy and interfaith for a panel event titled “Humour and Interfaith: What can Humour Bring to Interfaith Outreach?” Among the illustrious guests that evening were comedian Imran Yusuf, writer and broadcaster, Andrew Graystone, researcher and founder of the Humour and Religion network, Lina Molokotos-Liederman. Oh, and Phil was there too.
Surprisingly, he had quite a few insightful points to make. It might have something to do with the fact he is Director of The Faith and Belief Forum. So why does he think humour is important to interfaith? Phil mentioned two vital reason.
The first reason: when humour creates laughter, it puts people at ease. Interfaith work involves working across difference, building relationships and developing understanding between people from different backgrounds. If you can laugh with someone, you instinctively relax and feel safe around that person. Safety and trust are the foundations of interfaith and every healthy relationship.
The second reason: oftentimes the topics we discuss in interfaith settings are sensitive ones. Humour allows us to broach uncomfortable themes in a light manner. Imran Yusuf, for example, mentioned that he felt that he needed to use his comedy to talk about his faith identify after the 9/11 terror attacks, but before he never really felt the need to do so.
Andrew Graystone mentioned the limits of comedy and the panellists discussed the notion of “offensive humour” and its relation to free speech. Comedy is to be used to bring the powerful down to reality and the accountability of the masses, Andrew argued, not to pick on those who are weak. He also recounted an absurd story of protest from his area where the council had once wanted to shut down the local library. To stop the plan in its tracks and campaign unconventionally, a group of people went and borrowed literally every single book from the library to show their protest at the decision.
Overall, through important insights from the panellists’ personal and professional experiences, the discussion shed light on humour being a powerful tool to resolve conflict. This can range from outsmarting tyrannical local councils hellbent on closing community libraries, to easing tensions and resolving misunderstanding between people of different faith and cultural backgrounds. The Faith and Belief Forum has been working in the latter of those areas for over 20 years, seeking to develop community cohesion across the country and humour is perhaps that invisible glue which can binds us together no matter where we are from.
Watch the full humour and interfaith panel discussion here