Many people might find these jokes offensive. Religion-based humor is the touchiest. Anyone who ventures into it must walk an exceedingly fine line -- especially in the middle of a conflict over terrorism that has religious overtones.
Just ask Roy Peterson, award-winning editorial cartoonist for Canada's Southam News Service. He has just been hit by a petition signed by more than 300 angry Muslims. Peterson's contentious cartoon portrays terrorist Osama bin Laden pointing a video-camera at himself and saying: "Yo, Allah! Smile, we're on candid camera." A voice from above replies: "...we?"
Muslims complained the Peterson cartoon fails to be "unquestionably deferential" to the divine and "insults Islam and injures the feelings of Muslims," dragging God down to the foible-ridden level of humans. Peterson, however, says he aimed his cartoon solely at bin Laden, whom he considers a "zealot." He purposely wanted to show there was no connection between terrorism and the deity. "But in the game of editorial cartooning, you're not going to please everyone," Peterson said, noting he's offended conservative Christians in the past.
In the past, religious people would laugh about their religion only among themselves. But more are taking their humor out into the wider society. While Jewish comics have been in the entertainment industry for decades, Christian comics are now popping up all over, with some moving into secular venues. Meanwhile, a female Muslim stand-up comic in England, probably the only one in the world, is making a big splash in the West.
Do members of some religions have a stronger sense of humor than others? In Vancouver, Regent College professor John Stackhouse, who specializes in theology and culture, says Jews are the most open about religious humor, Muslims the least receptive to it, and Christians somewhere in the middle. Generalizing about the three major monotheistic religions, Stackhouse said Jews have a tradition of struggling in a close relationship with God -- willing to argue, complain and make wisecracks with the divine. Christians are not quite there yet. However, Stackhouse said.
Christians, unlike Muslims and Jews, don't object to visual representations of the deity, believing God became human in the person of Jesus Christ. That also connects God to human vulnerability, which is often pretty funny.
The world's one-billion Muslims are not all humorless, Stackhouse says, although many are sensitive because they feel under attack by the West. Muslims also see the divine as utterly transcendent, a being who cannot be portrayed in human terms -- including chatting with bin Laden.
It's not as if Christians don't often get offended by satire, though. Stackhouse, an evangelical Christian, remembers getting riled by a newspaper cartoon that showed Jesus hanging on the cross, remarking to those below: "Oh, Peter, I can see your house from up here." Christians hate seeing Jesus trivialized, Stackhouse said. "Christians don't want to see anything that cuts too close to the heart of piety." Still, Stackhouse said, if Peterson's cartoon had portrayed a sinful Christian talking to God, he would not have been offended. "It's the kind of joke Christians could go for. It makes God look good. The joke's on us."
Itrath Syed, of Vancouver's Islamic Resource and Media Council, says most Muslims are not yet at a point where they can easily accept humor about their religion. "As a community, we feel attacked, so we're always on the defensive," Syed said. Still, Syed, 30, has a lot of young Muslim friends who share religious jokes on the Internet and are not above making jokes about religious practices, though not about God. These young Western Muslim swap jokes, such as the "Top 10 Muslim pick-up lines." They include: "Oh my gosh, I just saw part of your hair. Now you're obligated to marry me!"
Syed believes Muslim tradition leaves space for humor, she says, noting the Quran refers to God being as close to humans as their jugular veins. To Syed, that suggests Muslims are expected to have an intimate relationship with God, including laughter.
In London, England, Muslim stand-up comedian Shazia Mirza is gaining a lot of attention and applause from non-Muslims since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Conservative Muslims can't stand one-liners such as: "My name is Shazia Mirza -- at least that's what it says on my pilot's license," or, "I was walking round the Kabbah, the black stone (in Mecca), and somebody pinched my bum. I thought: It must have been the hand of God."
The authors of "Arab Comic Strips: Politics of an Emerging Mass Culture," say there is a humorous strain among the world's moderate Muslims, much of it based on legends about misers and other characters from medieval times.
Many Muslims will also joke among themselves about their politicians, including fundamentalist religious leaders, Douglas said. At the same time, fundamentalists have beheaded satirical cartoonists in Algeria and elsewhere, say Allen Douglas and his wife, Fedwa Multi-Douglas, who both teach at Indiana State University.
Most Muslims believe it taints the religion to even portray Mohammed. "You're not supposed to imitate in any way God's ability to make form," Douglas said. He added that many Muslims considerate it offensive to put words in God's mouth, as Peterson did in his cartoon.
Given such humorous strains in religious tradition, Leland Klassen, a Winnipeg-based Christian comic, becomes frustrated when Christians get upset at someone taking a jab at how Christians practice their religion. Such no-fun Christians don't want outsiders to have any ammunition against them, said Klassen, who hosts a show on the religious network, NOWTV.
But he finds it sad many evangelical Christians would probably have been angry if Roy Peterson had switched characters in his cartoon and portrayed George W. Bush, a Christian, trying to claim a reluctant God as his ally. "I'd say it's time to lighten up," Klassen said. "Humor is a release. It's a way to laugh about life and show we're not perfect, and say it's OK." In that spirit, Klassen's religious jokes typically make fun of himself. "Like Solomon in the Bible," he says, "I've prayed and prayed to God, asking for wisdom. But I guess the answer is `No.'"
Like other comics with a religious bent, Klassen makes it clear he's in the same camp as the famous 16th-century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, who said: "If you're not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don't want to go there."