Sunday, 28 September 2008

A comedy of terrors

It was reported the other week that Chris Morris's plans for a TV spoof of the Islamic terrorist "threat" have been vetoed by worried Channel 4 bosses. Perhaps the executives are right (if cowardly) to be concerned. Today we learned of a fire-bomb attack on the London publisher of Jewel of Medina, the saccharine novel about Mohammed's child bride whose cloying prose I struggled through on behalf of HC readers some weeks ago. And Morris has a reputation for fearlessness, even recklessness, in the cause of purposeful comedy. This time, we are assured (disappointingly) that Morris had pulled his punches and made the whole project "fatwa-proof". But you can never be too careful. If the terrorists don't get you, there's still the dreaded charge of "Islamophobia".

In an interview about the project that he gave to the Sunday Times back in January, Morris said that he intended to show up the would-be terrorists as "scary but also ridiculous". "There is this Dad's Army side of terrorism and that's what this film is exploring," he said. "It will hopefully get over that terrorists do what we all do. They discuss the mundane, and plan things that sometimes then go wrong. People, that is viewers, are longing to laugh at terrorism."

That doesn't sound much like Morris's usual work. But perhaps no-holds-barred, foul-mouthed satire of the type he specialises in wouldn't be the most appropriate vehicle for lampooning the world of Islamist extremism. A gentle sitcom of the Dad's Army or Citizen Smith variety could be, if anything, more damning, pointing up the chasm between the delusions of worldwide Jihad, which wannabe terrorists share with the security experts and the tabloid whippers-up of paranoia, and the bathetic reality of their amateurish bumbling and low-rent views.

In any case, could any satire hope to match up to the tale the Sun presented us last week of Yasmin Fostok, pole-dancing daughter of alleged terror supremo Omar Bakri Mohammed?

Bakri, a bearded Syrian rentaquote whose British residency was revoked after allegations of closeness to the London tube bombers, has long been the British press's second favourite "mad mullah" (after the hook-waving Abu Hamza). Bakri was the "spiritual leader", first of Hizb'ut Tahrir and later of the banned Al Muhajiroun. With his sidekick Anjem Choudary, he could always be relied upon to come up with some blood-curdling soundbite about the 9/11 hijackers ("the magnificent 19"), or Israel ("a cancer.. which must be eradicated") or the Bush/Blair axis and western foreign policy in general. Earlier this year he was one of the few prominent Muslims publicly unshocked by Geert Wilder's provocative film Fitna, the content of which he found reassuringly similar to material on Jihadist websites.

Just over a decade ago, Bakri was the subject of an amusing documentary by Jon Ronson, The Tottenham Ayatollah. Filmed over the course of a year, the film depicted Bakri's Islamic revolution as entirely farcical, and the cleric himself as an almost loveable buffoon. Bakri is seen handing out leaflets against homosexuality (it's bad for your tummy!) and declaring that the Spice Girls would be among the first to be arrested under the new Islamic dispensation. There's a strange disjunct between the undoubted extremity of his views and the humorous, oddly charming personality that he projects.

Ronson himself described Bakri as "likeably clownish" and his campaign as being "like a Carry On film". "Has the government gone after a very silly man because it's easy to do so?" he asked years later, after the cleric had been expelled from Britain. Perhaps. But perhaps, too, Bakri's bonhomie is part of a well-crafted act, masking (or trying to mask) his truly evil intentions behind the persona of the Jolly Jihadist. And perhaps he so much enjoys the thought of all the fornicators and drinkers and Jews getting their come-uppance that he just can't help smiling.

In conversation with Ronson, Bakri was open about his plans to "place London on the map as a world centre for Islamic militancy". And according to French anti-terrorism expert Roland Jacquard, quoted in Time, "every al-Qaeda operative recently arrested or identified in Europe had come into contact with Bakri at some time or other." He preached inside and outside mosques, he rattled tins for Hamas, he spoke in certain terms of the coming world Islamic caliphate. When he was barred from Britain, then Home Secretary Charles Clarke said that his presence was "no longer conducive to the public good" (which implies, strangely, that it ever had been). Perhaps Bakri's worst crime in the eyes of the tabloids, though, was that for much of his nearly twenty years in Britain he subsisted on state benefits. An immigrant, a hate preacher, and a dole cheat to boot: how the Sun must have longed to bring him down.

So it was with evident glee (and who am I to begrudge them their delight?) that on Friday the paper was able to announce that Bakri's daughter had swapped her chador for sequins and was pursuing an unlikely career as an exotic dancer:


Busty Yasmin Fostok, 27, leads a secret life after rebelling against her fanatical Muslim dad — who rants against Western “depravity”.

She has performed in London pole dancing bars and gyrated half-naked in cages at club nights.

And she admitted: “I’m willing to go topless if the venue is right.”


The reporter tracked her down to Catford, where she was living (on benefits, oh joy!) with her three year old son in "a dingy ground-floor flat" and "currently dating a 26-year-old satellite TV installer". Door-stepped by the hack, Yasmin was defensive about her background. "I don't get on with him [Bakri]" she said. "His views are nothing to do with me".

The whole story is a tabloid hack's wet dream. It's difficult to imagine a concatenation of events more perfectly fitted to the Sun's unique brand of paranoia and prurience, or one more deliciously ironic. "Busty Yasmin has turned her BACK on her father’s fundamentalist teachings to flash her FRONT in men’s clubs," the paper chortled (just in case anyone hadn't got the point). Although she appears at least to be a fairly high-class performer - she has worked with a touring troupe by the name of Ibiza Untouched and incorporates fire-eating into her act.

(The Sun missed an obvious opening here, so I'll supply it: While dad Omar inflames his followers with his fire-breathing sermons denouncing Infidels, Yasmin swallows fire as part of her HOT dance routine.)

The source of the story would appear to be the usual mercenary "friend" (unless it was the woman herself, of course) who told The Sun that Yasmin "has been leading a wild double life thrashing about on stage in pole dancing clubs and drinking and partying like there’s no tomorrow". Her mother is said to be in denial. The paper (also? or is it the same person?) spoke to an ex-lover who described her as "very adventurous in bed" and spoke of her enthusiasm for dressing up as a policewoman or in "various office clothes". How disappointingly tame: I was hoping for a belly-dancing costume at least.

So is Yasmin's downfall (if such it is) yet more evidence of the corrosive influence of western decadence? If even the daughter of someone as devout as Bakri can be led astray, perhaps his fears aren't so misplaced after all. Or perhaps it was because, rather than despite, her background, that Yasmin ended up dancing on tables. The tale certainly isn't a great testament to the moral superiority of Islamic cultural traditions. Yasmin, (born Youssra) was, we learn, taken out of school at sixteen and married off to some Turkish man chosen for her: a submissive future of babies and burkhas beckoned. It didn't last. A second marriage didn't last very long either.

Ultra-religious families, in fact, are far from uncommon in the backgrounds of strippers and porn-stars. Being stifled by conformity and rigid traditional values often produces rebellion, which can take the extreme form of involvement in the sex industry. The reverse is also true, of course; it's not unheard of for young people to rebel against liberal backgrounds by embracing hardline religion. But then again she could be just another single mother trying to make a living. Without much in the way of qualifications (see above) pole-dancing may have been the only reasonably lucrative career open to her.

The story got even better on Saturday, when it was revealed that Bakri had paid for his daughter to have a boob-job. Indeed, he had even accompanied her to the surgery. It was, claimed the Sun, "a revelation that will spark further public outrage against the fanatical Muslim cleric". (Huh?) Allegedly Yasmin convinced him that the operation would help her while breast feeding. "The rest of the family were set against it, but he insisted she should have her way if it would make her a better mother." (Huh? again.)

It's hard to know what's more hilarious: Bakri's astonishing naiveté or the thought that money raised by rattling tins in the name of global Jihad actually went towards paying for this woman's silicone tits.

But there may be more to it than that. For if the Sun's source is to be trusted Yasmin's boob job was the turning point:

It backfired disastrously because her new figure encouraged her to go out and flaunt her body. She was flattered by the attention of men and her new confidence led directly to her work dancing half naked in clubs full of leering men. She’d never have done it if it wasn’t for those boobs — which were paid for by her father. It’s all his fault.


Once you've quit savouring the irony, a picture emerges of a girl growing up amid the repressive atmosphere of a strict Islamic home, drilled into submission, taught that her body was a source of temptation that must be concealed, walking around with her eyes cast down. Yet at the same time, her relatively small breasts became a source of shame. Perhaps they were insufficiently pleasing to her husband, or she felt unable to live up to a model of ideal womanhood, chaste but buxom. Something of an Islamic theme, this. In The Erotic Review's anthology Sex, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has this to say:

In East Africa where I grew up, Zanzibari Muslim women were thought of as sophisticated lovers who could weave invisible bonds around a man and keep him intoxicated mostly by never giving him the whole of themselves. But you never saw them. They were always completely covered up in black robes, yet their eyes were animated in ways which cannot be described.


No pressure, then.

By the Sun's account, it was a dramatic transformation: from A cup all the way up to double-D. Which suggests to me that an image of immaculate motherhood was not the only thing on Yasmin Fostok's mind when she decided to have the implants. Quite what Bakri was thinking of when he agreed to stump up the money is rather more of a mystery. But, given his record of clownish behaviour, the revelation is not, perhaps, quite as incongruous as it might at first appear. If nothing else it shows how much it is to be regretted that Chris Morris's television project will not now be realised. Given the right interpreter (Alexei Sayle, perhaps) Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed's alter ego might well have joined Basil Fawlty, Alf Garnett and Edina Monsoon as one of the great comedic archetypes.