x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

American Muslims hit back at intolerance with humour

Comedians tackle Islamophobia in US with laughter and people power in their film, The Muslims are Coming.

The Muslims are Coming.
The Muslims are Coming.

If you're going to try to conquer Islamophobia in the United States with laughter, the very first problem you might run into is finding American-Muslim comedians. There just aren't that many out there.

The second, third and fourth problems may well be surviving the right-wing blog vitriol, a suspicious cyber attack and a minor detention at the Mexico-Arizona border. When it's all over, you'll still need to find the funding to complete your documentary and share the laughs with the world.

The Iranian-American comedian Negin Farsad has experienced all this and more since dreaming up The Muslims are Coming, a socially conscious film that makes its point by making jokes.

"That's the crazy thing about documentaries," Farsad says. "Anything can happen when you're filming. There's no script."

She and co-director Dean Obeidallah, a Palestinian-American comedian known for being part of the Axis of Evil comedy group, assembled seven Muslim humorists, representing a range of devoutness, and planned a tour across the southern and western US. Farsad says she was prompted into action by persistent anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, such as the 'Birther' conspiracy that claims Barack Obama is a foreign-born Muslim and ineligible to hold the presidency.

So from Gainesville, Florida, where a pastor infamously burnt a Quran, to Tucson, Arizona, where immigration is a hot-button political issue, the comedians staged free shows and introduced themselves to locals in the streets. They waved 'Hug a Muslim' signs and fielded questions about what Muslims think about September 11.

Obeidallah says they chose the southern and western regions because very few Muslims live there.

"Fortunately, the shows were in general very crowded and the audiences were truly very diverse. We found that free comedy shows during a recession is a good combo to attract big crowds."

In total, the team spent two weeks on the road last summer, and two more in the fall. In the end, they had 300 hours of footage, which they are now trying to tighten into an 80-minute movie.

Obeidallah says it's been the most demanding project of his career. But also powerful on a personal level.

"I had my own misconceptions about the people there - especially in the South. But I learnt first hand that exposure to other cultures does help breakdown stereotypes."

In addition to the road trip, the 300 hours of footage also include interviews with American celebrities such as Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow. Originally, the team thought the star power might help them raise the funds to put the film together.

"But it's not really the celebrities that are getting the momentum. It's people," says Farsad. "A lot of people would come up to us after the shows and be like, 'this is so brave'.

"It's overwhelming for us that people thought what we were doing mattered, because so much of the time you feel like when you're in the entertainment industry what you're doing is about ego, and it doesn't matter," says Farsad.

Their supporters aren't just other American Muslims. At the shows, they met a number of Mexican-Americans, another group that faces discrimination in the US, and that prompted the ill-fated trip to the Mexican border in Arizona, where the crew - and cameras - were temporarily detained.

The comedians also experienced a cyber attack when they started their online fund-raising campaign. "Even when we did the tour, we were on right-wing blogs. We get our share of hate tweets and hate mail and whatever," says Farsad.

But she believes comedy is the right way to address what are otherwise sombre, serious issues.

"If you're going to be given a lesson, it's so much more fun to get that lesson through jokes, so much more poignant to hear it through a punchline than a dry brochure on loving thy neighbour."

Farsad and Obeidallah hope to release the documentary this autumn. They successfully raised the US$40,000 (Dh146,928) needed to finish it using the online crowd-funding tool Kickstarter and are using their own website to continue raising funds to offset the costly process of distributing and marketing the finished product. The idea is that those who are financially invested in the project will encourage others to watch it once it comes out, strengthening the fight against Islamophobia.

"It's the wrong word when you're talking about a movie about Muslims, but we're building an army," says Farsad, laughing.

To donate to The Muslims Are Coming, go to themuslimsarecoming.com/donate