No point in making jokes about religion in the UK, as very few would understand them

SO says Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC’s Head of Religion and Ethics – a post that, in in itself, is a monumental joke.

Ahmed was wittering on about the deplorable levels of “religious illiteracy” among Brits, and claimed that a modern audience would be baffled by the Monty Python film The Life of Brian – because it would not understand the Biblical references.

Aaqil Ahmed

Aaqil Ahmed

Ahmed also astonishingly claimed that a key reason that Islam is not the subject of more humorous discussion is that the life of the “prophet” Muhammad is poorly understood by large sections of the British public.

How can anybody tell a joke about Muhammad when they don’t even know how to spell his name, let alone anything about his life? The day we have people standing up and telling detailed jokes about Muhammad and have the audience understanding that humour, then we will have come a long way in society and we will have a lot more religious literacy about a major world figure.

Will this do, Ahmed?

Mo got wind of the fact that one of his wives was leaving him, so he rushed home where he found her in some distress in front of his tent. He sat down beside her and said:

Why are you leaving me, wife?

She wailed:

I heard one of the other wives say that you are a paedophile.

Mohammed thinks for a minute and responds:

My, that’s a mighty big word for a six-year old!

Anyway, back to the main point of the interview, which was that this lamentable “religious illiteracy” situation has arisen because of

Failings in religious education over two generations.

Ahmed was speaking at the launch of an ambitious three-part BBC2 series which will address the subject of pilgrimage from a broad perspective and is intended to attract the interest of atheists as much as religious believers.

He said:

If you tried to make The Life of Brian today it would fall flat on its face because the vast majority of the audience would not get most of the jokes. They don’t have the knowledge. He questioned whether modern audiences would appreciate that the “great joke about the Sermon on the Mount” in the 1979 Python film, where a woman asks ‘What’s so special about the cheesemakers?’, was a reference to Jesus’s words ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ from the Bible.

Ahmed claimed that a basic understanding of the major faiths was important so the public have a grasp of contemporary issues. He noted that Christianity in Britain had been transformed by recent immigration from countries including Poland, Portugal and Brazil.

One of the things we have had to learn over the last ten or 15 years is that religion is back in the public sphere. To understand a lot of what is happening around us, whether you are looking at what is happening in Syria or women wanting to cover their face in Bradford or Birmingham, or the demographic shifts in London with regard to party politics, you have got to have a conversation that looks at this through the prism of religion.

I think that anybody who thinks that religion is no longer an important thing has to ask themselves [why] it is all around us.

Ahmed stressed that he was not trying to force religious faith on audiences.

I’m not saying for one second that everybody has to understand religion and therefore become religious.

Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve, which will be screened in December, will examine the history and challenges of “spiritually-inspired” journeys to shrines from Canterbury and Santiago de Compostela to Jerusalem, meeting modern pilgrims as well as exploring the experience of medieval British travellers. Reeve traces the paths of pilgrims down London’s Old Kent Road and onwards across the Alps and desert regions to the Holy Land.

Said the presenter:

I’m not a religious person but I finished filming the series with a new respect for people who made and make these epic trips. I learnt that pilgrimage isn’t always a painful and onerous task. It’s often a journey of celebration, of adventure, of wonder.

Note: When the BBC attempted to give British viewing audiences a better understanding of the “prophet” in a three-part series –  The Life of Muhammad, presented by Rageh Omaar, Iran’s minister of Cultural and Islamic guidance attacked the BBC2 documentary ahead of its screening saying the “enemy” was attempting to “ruin Muslims’ sanctity”.

Culture and Islam? I feel another quip coming on.

Q. What’s the difference between Mecca and a bowl of yogurt?

A. The yogurt has a living culture.

Hat tip: Angela K