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Countering Islamophobia, One Joke At A Time

Muslim Advocates Legal Director Glenn Katon, left, and Muslim comedians Negin Farsad, center, and Dean Obeidallah, right, hold a press conference about a lawsuit challenging the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's refusal to run comedic ads about American Muslims like those displayed, Thursday, June 25, 2015, in New York.

CREDIT: AP/Bebeto Matthews.

Living as a Muslim in post-9/11 America is unsettling. You learn to dodge hate from people who don’t understand you, uncomfortably laugh at insensitive bomb and airplane jokes, and feel attacked by the media and politicians every day.

Thirty-eight anti-Muslim attacks took place in the U.S just over a month after the Paris attacks in November 2015, while Google searches for the phrase “kill Muslims” spiked. The hashtag #StopIslam was trending on Twitter following the Brussel bombings in March 2016. And according to one of the FBI’s recent hate crime reports, all hate crimes in every category have now decreased—except for those against Muslims. Violence against Muslims only increases when public figures and politicians normalize Islamophobia, which has become a startling trend in 2016.

Historically, Muslim-Americans have defended their faith through political debates, theological discussions, and activism-based efforts. But a relatively new means of fighting discrimination is growing among the younger generation of Muslim-Americans: comedy.

The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), America’s largest Muslim advocacy organization, recently released a satirical video commercial titled “Islamophobin,” advertising a fake new gum that supposedly makes people more tolerant towards Muslims. According to CAIR’s Spokesperson and National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, over 15 million people have viewed the commercial. And at a recent convention Hooper participated in, throngs of young people approached CAIR’s booth to express their appreciation for the video. But what made a short, simple video so captivating for Millennials?

“Humor is one of the most important things we have,” Hooper said to Generation Progress. “It breaks stereotypes, and allows people to put their guard down and be open.” He also noted some obvious drawbacks to comedy, like its inability to reach sensitive issues in-depth.

Muslim-American actor and comedian Rizwan Manji shared similar limitations of comedy. Manji’s comedic work has mostly taken the form of movies and television, but he worked with the Obama re-election campaign in 2012 to create a funny Get Out The Vote video targeted towards Muslim-Americans. “Humor can raise awareness but it has to lead to discussions, policy changes, and attitude changes. It’s a great starting point, but there are a lot of great organizations who are doing the heavy lifting and actually making change…Lately social media has helped Muslims such as myself use humor to comment on current events.”

Muslim-American comedians Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah also created a comedy-documentary film, “The Muslims Are Coming! featuring well-known stars like Jon Stewart and Aasif Mandvi, and other popular Muslim comedians like Maysoon Zayid, Omar Elba, and Maz Jobrani. The film follows a band of Muslim-American comedians traveling across the country to perform free shows, while simultaneously reaching out to Middle America and countering Islamophobia. The film chronicles funny events and mishaps along the way. On his own career, Jobrani told Generation Progress that he started out strictly trying to make people laugh before discovering humor as a vehicle for change. “Once I started doing standup I also realized I could get across a political and social message. I started watching more of Richard Pryor’s stuff and George Carlin’s stuff. So now I try to be funny, but whenever I can make a social or political point in my comedy I do that as well.”

Jobrani had similar views about humor as CAIR’s Hooper did, citing it as a good way to get messages across without seeming like a preacher. “[People] tend to listen more when you do it with jokes. I’ve heard comedian D.L. Hughley say that comedy is like giving people their medicine but putting it in orange juice so they don’t taste it.”

Farsad and Obeidallah also won a lawsuit against the New York City subway system for the right to post cheeky, satirical ads promoting their film in train stations. Some include goofy messages that read: “The Ugly Truth About Muslims: They have great frittata recipes.” Others read: “Muslims Hate Terrorism! And people who tell you they went to an Ivy League within 10 seconds of meeting them.” These ads provide a counter narrative to the Muslim stereotypes found in media.

This past July, Muslim-American comedians joined forces in New York City to arrange The Muslim Funny Fest—the only Muslim comedy festival in the US. Just in its second year, the festival lasted for three nights and brought together people from across the country. Co-creators of the festival Maysoon Zayid and Dean Obeidallah performed alongside other big names in comedy. The festival was created with the intention of bringing public awareness about the danger of rising Islamophobia, as well as reducing discrimination in a unique, humorous way.

“There’s a lot of times when I meet people and I say my name, and I feel like they only hear what they’re already expecting,” comedian Gibran Saleem says in a clip of last year’s show. “Cause I’ll meet someone, and I’m like, ‘Hi, my name is Gibran.’ And they’re like, ‘Nice to meet you, Mohammad.’ And I’m like, that’s amazing. How did they get my middle name?”

On the lack of Muslims or diversity in entertainment industries, Jobrani said, “If you want your narrative to be told the way you want it to be told, you have to get into the game and express yourself.” This is why the systematic barriers most religious and racial minorities face are especially damaging, and further prevent marginalized groups’ stories from being shared. Manji agreed and said, “We need Muslims in comedy. We need all voices.”

Looking towards the future, Hooper shared CAIR’s intention to create more satirical projects that allow viewers to reexamine the world—and Muslims in particular. “We’re always trying to think of new, creative ways to get messages across. Humor just happens to be one of them!”

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