Standup comedians are some of America’s biggest defenders of freedom of the First Amendment. Many comics use their platform to talk about subjects that nobody else either has the courage to discuss or the freedom due to fear of retribution.
If you think about it, when’s the last time you heard an athlete, politician, musician, movie star or fashion model touch on white privilege, sexism, political corruption or jingoism? Yet for comics such as Chris Rock, Louis C.K. or the late Bill Hicks, to name just a few, those topics are often a big part of their acts.
Some comedians, such as Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah, have made a career out of using that freedom to help change negative perceptions about their people. Farsad, Obeidallah and others have traveled across the world to battle back against one of the worst prejudices to develop in modern times—negative stereotypes against Muslims.
After Sept. 11, Muslims have faced heightened scrutiny, some might say unfairly, due to the fact that the terrorists who hijacked the planes that crashed into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers, were Muslims. Or that ISIS, another recent terrorist group, are all Muslims, along with other recent events such as the attacks at Charlie Hedbo in France. It doesn’t help that Hollywood seems to still have a fetish for showing Muslims as the antagonists. While it’s cooled off a bit, the worst offenders can still be viewed on cable, films such as Iron Eagle, Rules of Engagement and True Lies.
Muslims often get lambasted on cable news channels such as Fox News, as well.
Last month Fox reported that there were several “no-go zones” in England and France where non-Muslims could not enter. These multiple reports turned up to be untrue and despite apologizing on-air for the misreporting, it was announced that the Paris government plans to sue Fox News for these erroneous reports.
With these types of misconceptions still hanging in the backdrop, Obeidallah and Farsad, both award-winning comics in their own right, in 2013 released a documentary titled The Muslims Are Coming. In the documentary they and fellow Muslim comics Aron Kader, Preacher Moss, Maysoon Zayid and Omar Elba perform free shows in various venues across America, primarily in the South. Their goal was simple—to make people laugh, be open about who they are and answer any questions about their heritage. They traveled to places such as Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Utah, Idaho and Oklahoma and answered questions such as “Why didn’t more Muslims denounce the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?” or “Why do Muslims kill people in the name of religion?”
Both Obeidallah and Farsaid say they feel the film’s message is still just as relevant as it was two years ago.
“I think our film is needed now more than ever,” Obeidallah says. “Simply because it came out before ISIS, before Boko Haram, before Charlie Hedbo. As a result, there are even more anti-Muslim ideas out there than ever before.”
Aside from filming The Muslims Are Coming both Obeidallah and Farsad have made a career using comedy as a way to bridge gaps between races. Obeidallah is half Muslim, half Sicilian, and was raised in an Italian neighborhood in New Jersey. An ex-lawyer, he’s the co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, has appeared on the critically acclaimed Axis of Evil Comedy Central special, is the co-creator of Stand-up For Peace and recently had his own radio program picked up on Sirius XM Radio titled The Dean Obeidallah Show. He’s also a monthly contributor for The Daily Beast and editor of his own blog, The Dean Report.
Farsad also is a filmmaker and comedy writer. In addition to directing The Muslims Are Coming she directed and produced Nerd-Core Rising along with several short documentaries. She’s a self-proclaimed “social justice” comic and said while it’s not political in nature, she does at times cover politics in her act.
“People would tell me early on … ‘you’re like a political comic,’ but I never felt like I was because I’m not writing jokes about Obama or Congress, and I wasn’t doing material that traditional political comics do,” she says. Instead, Farsad says she uses her stand-up as a way to show folks that Muslims can be open, friendly, and funny.
Obeidallah concurs, saying that the biggest thing Muslim people can do, he feels, is to reach out to non-Muslims and answer their questions and be someone that you might consider a friend. He points to his new radio show as a way to start “chipping away the iceberg of misconception.”
“I have to credit Sirius XM because no one’s done this before but they wanted a different voice and I open each show with people on the show saying who I want to be their Muslim friend,” he says. “I joke with them that I’m not going to help you move, but I want to be there to answer questions about Muslims … The phone lines are always off the hook with people asking questions about things like, what it does say in the Koran or what doesn’t it say?”
Obeidallah especially noticed after doing The Muslims Are Coming that many people still don’t understand why more Muslims didn’t denounce the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He’s gone so far as to change his own stance on it.
“The number one comment we’d get from everybody, even very nice people who were very supportive of us, is ‘why don’t we see Muslims saying that the terrorists don’t represent us?’ Obeidallah says. “After hearing it the 20th time or so, I started realizing it was a real issue and it changed my mind … A lot of people seem to think that because they don’t hear our condemnations, they don’t think we denounce it and that we somehow implicitly agree with these extremists.”
Obeidallah adds he understands why other Muslims disagree, pointing to a bit he does in his stand-up about how people don’t expect white people to condemn things such as mortgage fraud, school shootings or crystal meth.
“For whatever reason, minorities in America keep being defined by the worst of the worst,” he says. “Blacks and Latinos have been fighting this for generations and they have gone through a lot of the same things we’ve gone through.”
Farsad says she gets even more flak for being a Muslim and a woman.
“After The Muslims Are Coming came out, a lot of people just fixated on me and they’d either write me nasty letters in the mail, or comment about my looks or the way I dress or something like that,” she says. “It’s very easy to marshal cruelty against women. I don’t know why it’s so easy and … I don’t know why people feel the need to do that especially because that movie is all about love, and for me to have the amount of hate mail is completely in-congruent for people who made a movie that ends with hugging.”
Farsad is referring to the final scene in which they’re in Utah standing on a street with a sign that invites people to “hug a Muslim,” followed by people who are more than willing to share that love.
Farsad says throughout her career she’s extended her stand-up to include bits about other social justice issues, as well. “Don’t get me wrong, I write plenty of dick and fart jokes and Tweet about the Oscars and have ridiculous moments like everyone else, but I’m also involved in projects like The Muslims Are Coming and a lot of various organizations like Move On, Work Nation and various clients who work on things like Healthcare,” she says. “For instance, I actually flew out to the Cayman Islands with Lee Camp where we did an entire video on off-shore banking. We try to open an off-shore banking account with $8.34.”
Farsad says her stand-up is centered around things she doesn’t believe should be partisan issues, but rather ones that help people of all genders, sexual orientations, races and religions. “I see the cross section and I see where it should be more solution oriented,” she says.
Another key tenant to both Farsad and Obeidallah is protecting freedom of expression. Last month Obeidallah was one of 12 performers to participate in the “Standup for Charlie Hedbo” event in New York City. Obeidallah points out that they not only performed in front of a sold-out audience, but also raised a good chunk of money which was all donated to the families of those who were killed in the terrorist attack in France.
By doing these events, talking to a lot of people about who they are, what their actual beliefs are, and showing how the killers who committed these unspeakable deeds are a tiny minority that don’t represent the majority of Muslims, both Obeidallah and Farsad are hopeful that relationships will start to get better, even as the propaganda machine continues to make things more difficult on them. Farsad said much of that onus falls on the mainstream media, who she fears might not ever change their opinions on Muslims.
“My mind keeps going back to Charlie Hedbo and the ‘kill all Muslims’ hashtag that became popular that day,” she said. “A lot of this is perpetuated by the mainstream media, who really should have a larger responsibility to talk about these things in a more honest light.”
In that regard, Obeidallah has taken it upon himself to become more actively engaged in the media, pointing to his radio show, his spots on CNN and his column with The Daily Beast. He says while it’s still a major challenge, he’s constantly encouraged by the people who have come to change their minds about Muslims, and those who continue to support the work he, and other Muslim comedians, are doing.
“I see little glimmers of progress and hope,” he says. “Which come in the form of people emailing their support, or commenting on the columns I do. People will say in these emails things like ‘I’m glad you did that,’ or ‘I didn’t see it that way before’ and that’s entirely heartening, but at the same time, it’s very hard to compete with the major beliefs in media that all of these horrible, spectacular events were caused by Muslims. We’ll never get the kind of media coverage as that, so we have to just keep being as forthcoming about who we are as we can possibly be.”