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Furor over cartoons has some asking, `Can't Muslims take a joke?'

CAIRO, Egypt—As part of the "Allah Made Me Funny" comedy tour, Azhar Usman tests his Western audience's tolerance with skits about suicide bombings, airport security, bad beard days and other aspects of Muslim life.

He even jokes that an Arabic greeting translates into "I'm going to kill you."

But as much as Usman pokes fun at his faith's stereotypes, there are limits. That's why he didn't find anything funny about the now-notorious Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which have triggered Muslim riots around the world.

While mobs rally to defend the prophet, a debate is unfolding on Islamic Web logs and in youth groups: Can't Muslims take a joke?

"There have to be some boundaries. The butt of the joke cannot be God or the prophet or the religion itself," Usman, a 30-year-old comedian of Indian descent, said in a telephone interview from Chicago, his hometown. "I'm very careful about sacrilegious humor. I'm not a shock comic who's going to do something that will inflame Muslims."

Broadcast images of Muslims torching Danish flags and vowing revenge over the newspaper cartoons only reinforce the futility implied in the title of Albert Brooks' new movie, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World."

The furor over the prophet's caricature is cast as East vs. West or free speech vs. religious tolerance, but to many Muslims it also tests the boundaries of humor in the Islamic world. Even the most liberal-minded Muslims don't dare laugh at their prophet.

"The best comedians in the world are Muslims, and the funniest jokes I ever heard come from Muslims, but freedom of speech stops when it hurts others," said Sami al Bawardi, a Saudi businessman who owns an amusement park in Riyadh, the capital. "We joke about everything except our prophets and our God. That's just the rules."

A new generation of Muslims is testing those rules with dark, post-Sept. 11 humor that plays on the stereotype of Islam as a religion for gun-toting terrorists and oppressed veiled women.

The Pakistani-British comedian Shazia Mirza cultivated a devoted fan base with her searing jokes about virginity and arranged marriages. And the Palestinian director of the Oscar-nominated film "Paradise Now" earned laughs for a scene in which a nervous suicide bomber somberly tapes his final message to the world, only to be told that he has to do it again because the camera wasn't working.

Nowhere are the limits stretched more than they are on the Internet, where young Muslims share political and religious jokes. One Web site that compiles Islamic jokes warns readers not to enter if "such musings are hazardous to your spiritual health."

One popular T-shirt for sale online shows a bearded mullah striking a disco pose with the slogan "FUNdamentalist."

Dalia Ghanem, a 29-year-old Egyptian-American who founded the Web site, said other Muslims sometimes criticized her for selling a tight women's shirt emblazoned with the word "halal," which means "permissible," but is usually associated with meat that's prepared in accordance with Islamic law.

"Some people said, `Don't you think that's pushing it a little?' And I said, `No, I'm a halal kind of girl,'" Ghanem said. "It's what you read into it."

But even young Muslims who find humor in the modern Muslim experience seldom cross the red line: lampooning the religion or its prophets. Any representation of Muhammad or other messengers is forbidden as idolatry. In some Muslim countries, drawing the Prophet Muhammad or other messengers is considered blasphemy and is punishable by death.

Husam Chadat, a Syrian filmmaker based in Munich, Germany, said the ban on images was so ingrained in him as a boy that he still felt guilty for his childhood visions of God as an old man with a long, white beard.

Chadat, a secular Muslim whose latest screenplay is a comedy about terrorism, said he wasn't offended by the Danish cartoons but that he found no humor in them.

"We are funny people; we enjoy laughing. We enjoy self-deprecating; we're actually like the Jews in that respect," Chadat said with a chuckle. "But this matter is different. There is a buildup of several years of Arabs feeling alienated and isolated by the West. This accumulation of many feelings is what we're seeing in the exaggerated reaction to the caricature."

On the Internet, almost all Muslim bloggers condemn the cartoons but they squabble over where to draw the line between humor and sacrilege. Many postings note that the Prophet Muhammad was recorded in history as laughing so that "his front teeth were exposed." Others counter with a quote from the prophet telling Muslims that "if you knew what I know, you would weep much and laugh little."

Sunni Sister, a widely read Muslim blogger, posted inspirational messages this week as an antidote to what she called "the stupid cartoons and the equally stupid reaction of some Muslims."

Similarly, the Angry Arab, also known as As'ad Abu Khalil, a political science professor in California, posted a recent musing about the cartoons that summed up many Muslims' views.

"Should mocking religion be considered part of free speech? For me, the answer is a categorical yes," Abu Khalil wrote. "To mock religions is free thinking, but to selectively mock one religion, while showing complete respect for others, is often prejudice."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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