Is Monty Python’s John Cleese a ‘Very Naughty Boy?’

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John Cleese (center) with Monty Phython co-stars Eric Idle (L) and Terry Gilliam (R) at a special screening event for "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" in New York City (Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival)
John Cleese (center) with Monty Phython co-stars Eric Idle (L) and Terry Gilliam (R) at a special screening event for “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in New York City (Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival)

British comedian John Cleese (co-founder of the iconic Monty Python) is in the news big time for saying London is not really an English city anymore. There has been a major backlash against him from those who assume his comments are racist.

As a Canadian Muslim woman, I find it interesting that I’ve been saying the same thing about the UK (and Canada) for the past two decades, but I guess because I’m brown, I didn’t get the same backlash as Cleese, who is a minority white man.

Those who are outraged at John Cleese’s comment (which he also made in 2011) are asking: Are non-whites born in the UK somehow less British?

I would say, no, they are not, and I don’t think that is what Cleese meant.

(Actually, Cleese explained his statement as follows: : “I suspect I should apologise for my affection for the Englishness of my upbringing, but in some ways I found it calmer, more polite, more humorous, less tabloid, and less money-oriented than the one that is replacing it.”

He also objected to a detractor who said Cleese’s use of the word “English” was really a code word for “white.” To this he said, “Why do you try to discredit me for criticising things I have not said. Keep your projections to yourself.”)

To say that London has lost its “Englishness” is understandable if people don’t try to put a bigoted and racist color to John Cleese’s remarks.

What he saw as “Englishness” while growing up in UK is no longer there – at least visibly.

However, it is true that 40 years ago, you saw more white people than brown. That dynamic has changed. Gone are the fish and chips; they have been replaced by Balti chicken, shawarma and samosas.

There is nothing wrong with this, but the change is there to see.

If you look at immigrant communities, especially recent immigrants, it is also true that they are different. Many carry double loyalties and are trying to change the face of UK.

Forty years ago, I never saw religious demonstrations at Trafalgar Square, or even niqab-wearing women on the streets of London (Muslim women who wear face veils).

As a native Pakistani who immigrated to Canada some 30 years ago, I have often said that Canada has changed, and that it’s not the same Canada we came to three decades ago.

What does that mean? It means that there are people here who want to change Canada and its values to fit their own agendas. In fact, there are more niqab-wearing women in areas of Greater Toronto than I have ever een in Pakistan.

Isn’t that a visible change?

There are various reasons for these changes: Mass immigration, Arab merry-making and the rise in religiosity in the public sphere.

This is apparent both in UK and Canada. At one time, religion was a personal preference not to be paraded in public. But now, I see that both in Canada and UK, religiosity is proudly paraded in the public sphere. That is one tangible change.

Mr. Cleese also spoke about the fact that all cultures are not the same. He is correct, and this is something I have always said. A culture that accepts female genital mutilation and underage marriage is not the same as one that respects women.

A culture that imposes restrictions on its followers is not the same as one that respects freedom of voice, freedom of choice and freedom of religion.

It’s hard to accept change. Yet, however philosophically one looks at this, and whether we go back to colonialism or the Crusades, the fact is that the UK has changed. John Cleese expressing this fact does not make him a bigot.

Let’s not forget the importance of free speech.



Putting a Gag on Free Speech and Rule of Law 

Politicians, Free Speech & Bigotry: Where to Draw the Line

Boris, Burqas and Freedom of Speech


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Raheel Raza

Raheel Raza is ​an adviser to Clarion Project. ​She is an award-winning author, journalist and filmmaker on the topics of jihad and sharia. She is president of The Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, and an activist for human rights, gender equality, and diversity.