Always look on the Shi’ite side of life

Religion is all the rage at the Edinburgh Festival this year. But is it all just self-satisfied liberals endlessly reprising The Life of Brian?

Dolan Cummings

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This year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe has been billed as ‘the religion fringe’, with dozens of theatre and comedy shows dealing with what is arguably one of the great issues of our time. With Islam all over the news, and fundamentalist Christianity apparently on the march in the American heartland as well as across Africa and South America, the traditionally godless world of fringe theatre turns its attention this month to the finer points of faith and religious doctrine.

If you were under the impression that Muslims are all bearded terrorists committed to waging holy war against the West, then you could be in for a shock at the atmospheric Underbelly theatre. In We Don’t Know Shi’ite, a group of well-meaning young theatre types sets out to disabuse themselves and us of such false stereotypes and explore what Islam really means. If, on the other hand, you are well familiar with the old saw that ‘Islam means peace’ (or more accurately ‘submission’, but derived from the word for peace…) – and that jihad refers to inner struggle etc, etc – you may find yourself wondering where these kids have been for the past five years.

Styling themselves WMD Theatre (that’s ‘white, middle-class degenerates’ this time), the group presents us with a kids’ TV-style series of rehearsed dialogues (Boys! What are you doing?), comic sketches and songs, along with performed transcripts from interviews and public meetings, in an effort to understand and explain a religion that has been thrust into public consciousness since 9/11. Never mind the endless discussion of Islam that has accompanied the ‘war on terror’, though. I found myself wondering how these people had managed to grow up in Britain without picking up at least a dim sense of what Islam is about. Didn’t they go to school with Muslim kids? Don’t they have any friends from Muslim families?

In part, the group’s profession of staggering ignorance is surely born of a desire not to condescend. However patronising the whole project might be, it is undertaken with a certain generosity of spirit. The show is not intended as a dig at the ignorant masses, or even at Daily Mail readers (the one group it really is okay to hate at the Fringe). Instead, it seems to be born of a genuine sense of embarrassment that as educated, middle-class people, these kids didn’t know very much about a major world religion that’s in the news all the time. But as they scratched their heads theatrically over the five pillars of Islam and the distinction between Sunni and Shia Muslims, I couldn’t help wondering whether they knew any more about Christianity. How many people in Britain today can rattle off the Ten Commandments, or name the twelve disciples, or even come up with a satisfactory explanation of the difference between Catholics and Protestants?

The dozens of Fringe shows dealing with Christianity seem a lot less conscientious about educating the public. In Jesus: the Guantanamo Years, also at the Underbelly, Irish comedian Abie Philbin Bowman adapts Monty Python’s famous ‘dead parrot’ sketch, talking about the dead messiah. When it comes to comic potential though, Christianity itself is something of a dead parrot, or rather a dead horse. The rise of Pentecostalism in Africa does not make jokes about Jesus any more edgy at the Edinburgh Fringe. The posture of irreverence and iconoclasm in many of these shows is far from convincing.

In the more political play Hillary Agonistes, at C venue, writer-performer Nick Salamone imagines an America in the near future under President Hillary Clinton, who must contend with the dark forces of American Christian conservatism. Chelsea Clinton’s imagined conversion to Islam is presented as a sign of wisdom and independence of mind, and the Roman Catholic Church comes off not badly, but the evangelicals bear the brunt of Salamone’s liberal critique, with a warning in the programme notes that irrational ideas like belief in the imminent ‘rapture’ are all too influential at the highest levels of American politics. In truth, though, Fringe theatre audiences probably already have the same fears about Christian conservatism that WMD Theatre imagines they have about Islam. Maybe someone should do a show called ‘We Don’t Know Crapture’.

Of course, it is always a good thing to find out more about how other people think, to question your own assumptions and also to take a critical view of ideas that are influential in the world – and in that sense it is refreshing to see religion so prominent at the Fringe. But the idea that religion is the key to understanding the world today is perhaps mistaken. It is too easy to say that suicide bombers blow themselves up because they believe they’ll be rewarded with a busload of virgins in Paradise, or that the USA supports Israel because the evangelicals want to fulfil some Biblical prophecy. These explanations are just ways of avoiding serious engagement with the sometimes bewildering political realities of the world. There is nothing rational, or demystifying, about attributing everything to other people’s irrational motives. And it is equally naive to think that if we all just understood each other better we could get along.

We Don’t Know Shi’ite ends with a Q&A session. After the performance I attended, the group apologised for having printed the Arabic word Allah on the flier for the show, since it was likely to be trampled on in the street, which is considered offensive by Muslims. I asked whether they felt theatre companies should always be so sensitive. What about the controversies about Behzti and Jerry Springer the Opera, when Sikhs and Christians respectively campaigned against productions they found offensive? The kids had clearly not thought about this, but said that this was surely different, and that they thought it was wrong to be offensive for the sake of it.

Well, good for them, but history surely tells us that offence doesn’t have to be deliberate, in religion any more than in politics. If theatre, and the arts more generally, are to engage seriously with religion, we can expect more rather than less controversy in the future. We can only hope that controversy will be fresh and real rather than an endless reprise of The Life of Brian by self-satisfied liberals.

Dolan Cummings works at the Institute of Ideas and edits the Culture Wars website.

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