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Is Sacha Baron-Cohen Obsessed by Islam? And Why?

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Admiral General Aladeen is the dictator of the fictitious North African nation of Wadiya. Is he a Muslim too? Many Muslims are inclined to say so in a debate that continues to rage online, weeks after the film's release. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Sacha Baron Cohen's work reeks of the "regurgitation of a century old anti-Muslim depictions" or, as one Muslim blogger puts it, "Arab-faced minstrelsy". Kabobfest even accuses him of "Muslim-bashing".

They might have a point. All of Cohen's most successful comic creations are steeped in Islamic insinuations. While his faith is never explicitly stated, Aladeen - a parody of an Islamic name - hails from the Islamic world, just like his Kazakh forerunner, Borat Sagdiyev. Real-life Muslims spawned both characters, the one by ex-Libyan despot Colonel Gaddafi and the other by the Turkish journalist Mahir Çağrı, who even sued Cohen for exploiting his identity. Although Ali G is British, he bears an Islamic name and is a send-up of a hiphop culture visibly embraced by Britain's Muslim youth. Harry Thompson, the producer responsible for Ali G's early outings on The 11 O' Clock Show, has confessed the character was designed to "have a whiff of Islam about him". When even Cohen's sole obviously non-Muslim character, Bruno, infamously delves into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's difficult to deny Cohen's habit of returning to Arabo-Islamic themes.

A comic's choice of a particular community as his or her subject is a classic beat, from Woody Allen's Jews to Goodness Gracious Me's Asians. But they all have in common membership of the communities they poke fun at. Such comedy is supposedly the insider's prerogative and preserve. Sacha Baron Cohen, as an outsider to Islam, is upsetting Muslims. As a Muslim comedian, Dean Obeidallah, put it on CNN: "this is essentially the same as white performers in blackface portraying black people in buffoonish negative stereotypes for the enjoyment of white America."

But is this really an outsider's sneer-and-smear? Baron Cohen's work differs from the racist fare Obeidallah cites in that it is not obviously served up for the delectation of diehard Islamophobes in the way a minstrel show deliberately angled for the racist guffaw. True, The Dictator is a direct mockery of an Arab in that Aladeen is modelled on a pretty infamous one (Colonel Gaddafi), with a storyline supposedly based on a novel, Zabibah and the King, by another pretty infamous Arab, Saddam Hussein.

But Cohen is merely doing what his fellow comedian - Charles Dickens - did: magnifying the grotesque, wherever he finds it. There is no suggestion of an essential grotesqueness about Arabs and Muslims. Aladeen even insists he isn't an Arab. Ironically, it is the critics of Sacha Baron Cohen who are blackening the reputations of those they seek to defend; when the overwhelming majority of Arab and Muslim countries banned Borat and The Dictator, they were playing to the racist notion that these grotesques were representative.

Moreover, Baron Cohen's racial humour is a more complex affair. For example, when talking with a compatriot on a flight, Aladeen speaks aloud in his native tongue, evoking suspicion in his fellow passengers who fear a terrorist hijacking. But the language is actually in large part Hebrew and Yiddish; Baron Cohen manages both to mock Arabophobia as well as the conspiracy theories, rife in the Arab world, that 9/11 was perpetrated by Jews. He pulled off a similar feat in Borat, where he plays an anti-semite, who, as film critic J. Hoberman astutely observes, is simultaneously "a crypto-Jewish outsider". Baron Cohen's comedy "is designed to offend Arab and Jew alike".

The yoking together of Jew and Arab is a clue to what might really be at work here: not Islamophobia, rather a more interesting phenomenon, a long tradition of Arab-Jewish cultural symbiosis, in particular the Arab world providing the pallet for Jewish artists' and intellectuals' preoccupations. It's a Jewish tradition that includes the poet Heinrich Heine as well as the historian Ignaz Goldziher.

Scholars like Goldziher were steeped in Muslim history and were pioneers in popularising it in the West. From the Crusades to the Convivencia, when Muslims and Jews were on the same side, Muslim history and culture became, as Martin Kramer says, "allegories for the predicaments of Jewry": the Muslims were crypto-Jews, just like - in Hoberman's contention - Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat.

In Heine's work, too, Muslims are marshalled in a proxy polemic against Christian Europe. Cohen studied history at Cambridge and constantly returns to the theme of anti-semitism, so he will - like any student of the Holocaust - know the Heine quote perennially cited with reference to Nazi book burnings, that "where they burn books, they will in the end burn humans". He is also likely to know, as few do, that the quote is from a play called Almansor and laments the burning of the Qur'an by the Islamophobic inquisitors of medieval Spain.

So it was that Muslims became an integral part of what the renowned critic Geoffrey Hartman called "the Jewish imagination". This identification with Islam looms most visibly on in the form of those few surviving synagogues built in the Muslim manner, like the Budapest Synagogue or this one on Cincinnati's Plum Street. Sacha Baron Cohen retains a little of this flavour: Islam is a part of his native imagination just like Judaism. Perhaps he isn't an outsider after all?

This is an old tradition that antecedes the Middle East conflict that has tarnished the tradition's legacy. Muslims and Jews both should be glad the tradition might live on in Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy, for it alone provides the greatest hope for any rapprochement in the rift between the two communities. And not, as Bruno believed, hummus.

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