Most comedians have to put up with a fair degree of heckling in their careers, but British comedian Eshaan Akbar has received violent threats for his new stand-up routine at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In Prophet Like It’s Hot, the 34-year-old attempts to show the funny side of the Quran to educate a western audience about Islam. “With Islam, people have such a lack of knowledge about it – and they are scared of it. I want to soften the blow for people. When we make jokes about this, we break down the barriers,” Akbar says.
The dangers of joking about religion
In the hour-long show, Akbar, who was born to Muslim parents in London’s diverse East End, reads passages from the Quran and discusses the five pillars of the faith, examining how extremists have hijacked the religion. While Christianity and Judaism are frequently satirised in British comedy, Islam is generally considered to be a no-go area for most comics, fearful of reprisals or appearing racist.
“Often, it’s not OK to make jokes. For me, if something’s not OK to laugh at and people feel uncomfortable with it, I like doing that thing because I want to test the reasons why that is.”
Joking about religion can be dangerous territory, as seen during the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, something that Akbar references during his show, as well as other attacks.
Would he change the show in the event of a major terror attack in Britain? “Probably not,” he say. “And people might think that that’s insensitive. In the show, I talk about how we have to acknowledge that people use the Quran to justify their attacks. It’s just an unfortunate reality.
“This might seem glib to say, but if I change it, they win. It’s not funny for someone to be injured or killed in an attack. But I want people to be able to laugh at the stupidity of the terrorists to think that this will make a difference.”
But because of the content of his comedy, Akbar has been sent messages from people who say he should be hurt or killed. “My dad was worried for my safety because members of his own family have reacted negatively to the things that I do and have said that I’m condemned to hell. They’re very forthright in their dismay at what I’m doing.”
Humour as a powerful tool
In a country in which former foreign secretary Boris Johnson recently compared people who wear the burqa to “letter boxes”, does Akbar see community cohesion getting easier for Britain’s three-million-strong Muslim population? “I think it’s going to continue getting worse,” he says. Akbar is critical of Johnson’s “joke”, which he says failed because most letter boxes do not have eyes behind them.
“There’s no representation on TV of Muslims having a laugh. There isn’t anything out there that allows white British people to see Muslims just being normal. And there certainly isn’t enough out there being produced by the Muslim community to show them as being lighthearted and fun.
“It’s just going to get worse and worse and worse, until I get my own BBC special,” he jokes.
"I'm not Martin Luther King by any stretch of the imagination, but I just think humour is quite a powerful way to get people to chill"
Eshaab Akbar will perform Prophet Like It’s Hot at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe until August 26