Can Comedy Fight Religious Bigotry?

Most contemporary observers recognize the role of satire and political comedy in influencing politics and public debate, particularly through shows like. But, it also serves a much deeper social function.
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I did not expect The Muslims Are Coming! to bring tears to my eyes. It was supposed to be a (film about) comedy after all, a film about the absurdity of Islamophobia in the United States, and about the role of comedy in combating stereotypes and generalizations about a community. But, hearing comedians Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah, the directors of the film, discuss how their parents moved to the United States, the love they had for the country even before arriving, and the struggles of leaving everything you know and love behind for the sake of your children was truly poignant. Indeed, both scenes end with Farsad and Obeidallah choking up as well.

Several scenes in the film are quite moving not only because it reminded me of my family's own arrival in Canada from Sri Lanka, and all the struggles involved, but also because the film, while highlighting many warm and touching interactions, constantly juxtaposes them with scenes filled with bigotry, ignorance, and exclusion. White Americans, it appears, will truly say the darndest things on camera. Combating such bigotry is not a simple task, particularly in a country where the "Ground Zero Mosque" debate and fears of Sharia Law replacing the American Constitution, are actual conversations being had, with a straight face, in the public domain. Indeed, the only people who may be qualified to address this absurdity are those who are proficient at wielding it themselves.

Most contemporary observers recognize the role of satire and political comedy in influencing politics and public debate, particularly through shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. But, it also serves a much deeper social function. In the days after 9/11, for instance, there was in the United States what Andrew Stott called a "voluntary moratorium on humor" during which joking and laughter of any kind was deemed inappropriate. The Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno stayed off the air for weeks following the tragedy. When they did return, they did so without their opening monologues. Political humor, above all, retreated out of sheer respect for the tragedy that had been inflicted on the American people. Jokes about President George W. Bush's intelligence and his twisting of the English language came to an abrupt end. Instead of mocking him, the American people rallied behind him and looked to him for guidance and comfort.

After 9/11, the ability to laugh, at themselves as well as their elected leaders, became for Americans a symbol of their freedom and the value of their democracy. Similarly, Muslim comedians are inserting themselves into the dialogue, helping the Muslim community cope with the backlash brought on by 9/11, and attempting to repaint the public perception of Arab and Muslim Americans as unpatriotic and hostile to the United States -- even after a full decade has passed since that tragic September morning.

The "comedian," it seems, is particularly well positioned to challenge the common stereotypes that exist around issues of race, gender, religion, etc. Comedians like Chris Rock, Paul Mooney, Russell Peters, Margaret Cho, and Dave Chappelle are a few examples. The use of comedy to highlight injustices experienced by the Muslim community is common among all of the recent Arab and Muslim American comics. As Obeidallah states, "For all the comics I know that are of Middle Eastern heritage, the idea of using their craft as a way of activism is a thread that unites all of us."

Comedians like Obeidallah can be activists particularly because they reside in a separate cultural sphere in which certain kinds of expression are expected and permitted. This does not mean, however, that these "jokes" lack social consequence. In fact, it is precisely because comedians communicate through what Lawrence Mintz calls a "publicly protected" mode of expression that they have the potential to say what the politician cannot. The comedian can use humor "to expose chauvinism, to expose ineptitude, to expose oppression, and to expose pretentiousness." Majken Sorensen has even gone so far as to argue that comedy could be a "powerful strategy of nonviolent resistance to a different way than traditional resistance." The comedy club itself has always been a haven of risk-free discourse, and Muslim comedians all speak of the comedy club as an ideal place to challenge assumptions. Comedians, in a sense, have the audience right where they want them. As Obeidallah told me, during an interview I did with him in 2008, comedians have "a great opportunity to talk to people when they are there to have fun, and their guard is down, and their laughing and their having a nice time."

Muslim comedians believe that such distrust and fear can be combated through comedy. Obeidallah, for example, speaks of 9/11 as a turning point that altered the way he was viewed and changed his comedic performance: "Before 9/11, I'm just a white guy living a typical white guy life. All my friends had names like Monica, and Chandler, and Joey, and Ross. I go to bed September 10th white, wake up September 11th, I'm an Arab!"

A light-skinned, Palestinian-Italian American, Obeidallah is very honest that he can be a spectator in these discussions if he so chooses. He does not "look Muslim." Other comedians, like Ahmed Ahmed or Azhar Usman, do not have this "luxury." However, he takes his role very seriously and argues that he cannot sit on the sidelines. The United States has "a great tradition of using comedy to deal with social, religious and racial issues, and that's the goal with my comedy," he tells me. "It's not a class, I'm not teaching Arab 101 or Islam 101, but when you come away I hope that people see a different side to who we are and it makes them think a little bit."

The Muslims are Coming! is now available for purchase on iTunes.

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