Not long after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a group of Muslim comedians toured the remote towns of the US, putting on comedy shows, setting up “Ask a Muslim” booths, going bowling with locals and inviting passersby to match religious quotes with their holy texts. A documentary about the experience is produced and directed by its two stars, Dean Obeidallah (who was raised in New Jersey by a Palestinian father and an Italian mother) and Negin Farsad (an Iranian-American from California). They tell us why they wanted to spread the message that Muslims are “just a bunch of hilarious people”.
Were you aware of any prejudice growing up as Muslims in the US?
Negin Farsad: My parents immigrated during the Iran Hostage Crisis, which is a really fun time to come to the US if you’re Iranian. Being Iranian, American, Muslim and female – it adds to the stew of teenage angst that you feel in high school, like “Why can’t I just be a blond cheerleader?”
In grad school I got a degree in African-American studies because I was like: “All minorities need to get a leg up.” And that’s how I viewed the problem; but after 9/11, it changed for me. I was like: “Oh, Muslims are really considered apart from blacks, considered apart from Mexicans.” It became its own identity issue.
Dean Obeidallah: After 9/11, things were different. People would ask questions that were more like accusations. We’d see elected officials and religious leaders saying horrible things about Muslims on television. I became aware that I’m not a white guy. White guys don’t get demonised for the sins of a few bad examples from their community.
Islamophobia is a weighty subject: how do you make it funny?
NF: It’s kind of the ethic of comedy: take the things that make you (angriest) and mine them for humour. For some comics, the audience is their therapist. For me, it’s about social justice. I take these things that I see as unjust and mine them for jokes, so people can talk about them.
Was there a message you wanted to get across on the tour?
DO: Our goal was to challenge people’s preconceptions but I was pleasantly surprised. Everywhere we went, people were open-minded. It made me feel that most Americans are tolerant; they are not sitting around contemplating the takeover of this nation by Muslims, although there’s some on the far right doing that. I see them tweeting and posting online and I thought they represented more of America and thankfully they don’t, no more than the Klan or neo-Nazis or other fringe groups that spew hate.
Did you ever worry about offending fellow Muslims?
NF: I always worry about that. It’s painful when people walk out. I’m not going to pretend that all Muslims are great on women’s issues, but I’m also not going to pretend that conservative Jews are great on women’s issues, or fundamentalist Christians or fundamentalist Mormons. I think I’m an equal opportunity offender, in that a lot of these groups wouldn’t like me.
DO: Negin’s comedy isn’t dirty at all, she’s just pushing up against some internal restrictions that some people think a Muslim woman should have, and I think in time they’ll understand that there is a range, and that one person doesn’t represent Islam. None of us represent Islam. We represent ourselves.
• Visit www.themuslimsarecoming.com to watch a trailer. The film is out in the US and is also available on DVD and Blu-ray
The Muslims are Coming!: a review
A montage of bigoted declarations about Muslims culled from news clips kicks off this high-octane, Michael Moore-style mash-up of comedy and activism, in which seven Muslim comedians tour across American red states to combat scaremongering and “give America a big Muslim hug”.
“In the absence of any actual skills,” says Negin Farsad, “we felt that stand-up was the only real activist option.”
Footage from the resulting comedy shows – including an imagined sexual health announcement by the former president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – is spliced with scenes of the comedians meeting locals and gently correcting their misconceptions, and there’s input from familiar faces including Jon Stewart, Janeane Garofalo and David Cross. The film ends with Farsad wielding a “Hug A Muslim” placard in Salt Lake City and queues forming in front of her.
Alongside the message of peace and understanding, a more complicated picture emerges. It turns out that these multicultural NYC filmmakers may have prejudged their audience in the same way they’re discouraging Americans from prejudging Muslims. All Muslims aren’t terrorists, and people from remote towns aren’t all bigots: it’s the mainstream media that has the greatest interest in presenting America as more divided than it might actually be.
New York Arab-American Comedy Festival
Dean Obeidallah is a busy man. As he prepares to debut The Muslims are Coming!, he’s also finalising the line-up for the 10th annual New York Arab-American Film Festival, which he runs each year with the co-founder Maysoon Zayid, an actress and comedian who also appears in his documentary and who runs a scholarship fund for disabled Palestinian children.
“It was about trying to get some positive press for our community when there was very, very little,” Obeidallah says. Now, he’s seeing more Arab-American comedians on the circuit than ever: “I’m not saying we inspired them, but I’m glad that the festival is there as a platform for them to be in.”
Aron Kader, another comedian featured in the documentary, will perform alongside a long list of others that will be announced on www.arabcomedy.com.