An Interview with Jesus and MoThe London School of Economics Student Union
excelled itself once again this month when it harassed and intimidated two students who were wearing Jesus and Mo t-shirts during Fresher’s week.
In 2012, the same Student Union bravely defended its principles by refusing an ex-Muslim society to be affiliated with its Atheist, Secular and Humanist society, citing security concerns. Sundas Hoorain
, of the ASH society, called the decision “offensive and oppressive,” saying that young Muslims who renounce their faith need support for the problems they face in “coming out”.
She said: “It is deeply upsetting when, even in LSE, the students’ union, instead of saying we will support and accept you, say your existence is not convenient for us.”
In a spirit of solidarity, the ex-Muslim forum would like to praise Jesus and Mo and state our admiration for his empowering, important and deeply progressive, not to mention hilarious cartoon. Some comments from our forum members about his work:
“It's probably one of the best examples out there of how satire should be done. It's ingenious. Short and pithy, always witty and always making some brilliant observational point about its target. And it's never personally derogatory, unless by proxy to those who stake so much of their ego and pride in the religious institutions, dogma and figureheads that are the target”
“Jesus and Mo exemplifies the effectiveness of comedic satire as a tool for drawing attention towards uncomfortable truths. We should be as distrustful of religious organizations who seek to silence criticism through satire as we would be of political organizations who would seek to silence criticism through satire”
One of the reasons why ex-Muslims find Jesus and Mo so liberating and inspiring is that it depicts Muhammad alongside Jesus in a comical way. It breaks a taboo with Islam in this sense that doesn’t apply to depictions of Jesus.
The refusal to submit to this taboo is empowering.
There is an elephant in the room. A person can make cartoons of Jesus without risking their safety. But the man behind Jesus and Mo has to stay anonymous. It is why this comic strip is important and defiant and liberating.
The spirit in this work is the spirit of the playful human wit refusing to be scared by the taboos of prophetic religious power and intimidation.
When you can laugh at something that is bullying and oppressive it no longer has moral authority or power over you. Laughter is a great emancipator and conqueror. It giggles ‘truth to holy power’.
We are honoured that the talented man who writes and draws Jesus and Mo kindly allowed us to interview him. Could you tell us a little about your influences as a cartoonist and stylist, and in a wider sense, who influenced you in terms of your sense of playfulness towards the conceits of religion, and your satirical sensibility?
I'm still a bit reluctant to call myself a 'cartoonist' even after 8 years of making Jesus & Mo. I think cartoonists need to be able to draw, and that is not a skill I would claim for myself.
That said, as a child I read a lot of Peanuts - had a load of Charlie Brown paperbacks which I'd read and reread. I still do. I love the gentle tone of Peanuts, the mixture of innocence and worldliness, the lightly worn wisdom. Schulz was a great artist - much too good for me to declare him an "influence" in any way other than the fact that he instilled in me a love of the 4-panel form.How long does it take between an idea for a cartoon coming to you and its completion on the page? Does the actual drawing take long?
Most of the drawing is already done. I'm a lazy copy-paster. Most of the time is taken up with writing a script, then chiseling it down. I usually devote Wednesday morning to it. Your cartoons often are very topical. Do your ideas mostly come to you spontaneously? Are you always switched on and looking for an angle on these issues in the news and elsewhere?
I carry a notebook around, and keep online notes, too. When something happens in the news, often the irony jumps out at you. I get a lot of mileage out of religious people saying funny things - sometimes all I need to do is transcribe them (credit is always given to these unknowing guest scriptwriters). Other times I just sit down and tap away until something funny-ish comes out. Or not, as the case may be.Why do you think it is so important for religion to be satirised and taboos to be challenged? Why is irreverence and a comical attitude such an effective satirical position against religion?
I think laughter is very powerful. Religion takes itself very seriously indeed, which is one of the things makes it so funny, and so easy to make fun of.
Most religion is based on one very bad idea. Not that there exists a creator god - that in itself is a pretty harmless concept - but that this creator god wrote a book.
That's when all the bad ideas and attitudes of ancient, ignorant men become unchallengeable divine truths. When so many people take the uniquely bad idea of the existence of a holy book so seriously, that creates problems for everyone. Satire is a good way of puncturing this seriousness, and of weakening the hold of this bad idea over human minds. What made you believe that Jesus and Mo had to be written? Was it a gradual thing or was there a single moment that made you create your characters?
I'd had the idea in my head for quite a while, but I suppose the catalyst was the Danish cartoon affair. I began J&M in November 2005, after I'd heard of the kerfuffle over the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, and before the shit really hit the fan in January the following year. The idea that it was forbidden to anyone to draw a man and call him Muhammed seemed to make it essential that people do just that. So it was the perfect time for me to make a reality of the idea I'd been carrying around for so long. I must admit I never dreamed I would still be doing it 8 years later. We think that broadcasters like Channel 4 who consider themselves cutting edge should produce more religious satire and should give you a series. Do you think Jesus and Mo would lend itself to animation?
They'd have to be very short animations, but yes - I do think it would work. If not for Channel 4, then certainly for YouTube. If any animators out there would like to collaborate, get in touch!How important do you believe The Life of Brian has been in terms of British cultural life, and in influencing a certain attitude towards religious taboo and authority in wider society? Has it been an influence on you personally? I see the spirit of it in your work, and suspect that it has been much more influential than many people realise in subverting the aura of religion in our society.
I hadn't really thought about that, but I think you're right. TLoB really was ground-breaking and influential. I was still a school kid when it came out, and I remember finding it deliriously funny and subversive - so yes, it probably was an influence on me personally.How does it feel to have so many ex-Muslims who admire your work and find it empowering?
A weird mix of gratitude, humility and pride. I've never had to go through the psychological and social trauma of leaving a religion, so to have J&M appreciated by people who have shown more strength of mind and bravery than I have ever needed leaves me feeling those three emotions in roughly equal measure.Are there any other religious satirists or parodists working in any medium today that you particularly admire?
Who can fail to love the @KingofDawah, that tireless promoter of truth, diversity and haute cuisine?What are some things you have learned since you began the Jesus & Mo strip that were somewhat surprising?
I was surprised by general lack of anger directed at me. When I started off, I was careful to remain anonymous, largely through fear. I did get some unpleasant email at the height of the Danish cartoon furore, but almost nothing bad in the years since then. I've since learned that the outrage over those Danish cartoons was diligently stoked up over a period of months by a handful of imams, and that if a similar thing were to occur over J&M, it would be due to a similarly determined campaign. It seems unlikely that will happen. Have you found supporters from unexpected places?
In 2007 I was contacted by a nun in New York who informed me that J&M had inspired her to begin her own cartoon. She is very sweet, and she's still drawing the cartoon. It's called If God has a funny bone
. It's a bit esoteric for my taste, but she's a much better artist than me. I can also count a Benedictine prior among my regular readers. Your comic is one of the few that continues to feature a visual representation of Islam's founder Muhammad. Meanwhile, multiple newspapers and magazines and TV shows have faced censorship for depicting Muhammad. How do you deal with the pressure that others in the field have had to succumb to?
I deal with it by being anonymous, and having a very understanding and idealistic web host (nearlyfreespeech.net). But, as I said, I get very little flak. What advice would you give to up and coming artists who have ideas for broaching charged topics like the types you address in the Jesus and Mo comics? What advice would you give your own younger self about this work?
Advice to up and coming artists: go for it.
Advice to (much) younger self: learn to draw. In your cartoons the barmaid is the sceptic who teases Jesus and Mo, answers back, exposes them and presses them on their beliefs. She is the audience for their comical folly, pomposity and hypocrisy. She is always unseen. She seems like great fun. Can you talk a little about her, her role, and the importance of their questioner being a woman?
I feel oddly uncomfortable talking about the barmaid. Not sure why.
She's the voice of reason, obviously. It seems appropriate that the figureheads of patriarchal religion should be schooled by a woman. Her relationship with J&M is an affectionate one, though, if not exactly respectful.
I think that even when faced with the folly, pomposity and hypocrisy of the boys, the barmaid still recognises them as human beings, and so treats them humanely.
Religion is a human invention, after all.