Hopefully this is the first of many blog posts about comedians tackling Islamophobia through their stand-up comedy. First up we have Hasan Minhaj and Maz Jobrani…
I am a firm believer in the power of comedy to change the common narrative for the better. Here’s a quote to further my point:
If you laugh, you change. If you change, the whole world changes around you. – from the documentary Laughology (2009)
And that is one reason why I keep a nerds-eye-view on the Venn diagram intersection between stand-up comedy and Islam. Crossing my line of sight recently was an article about Hasan Minhaj, arguably the most famous Muslim comedian in the world (no, Omid Djalili is not a Muslim, he is a member of the Bahai faith, and the likes of Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani, Wajahat Ali, Azhar Usman, and others, aren’t quite getting the spotlight as much as Hasan currently is).
The article is called Hasan Minhaj Tackles Islamophobia With Comedy and is about a recent comedy gig he did on December 6th 2017 in the Turner Auditorium at the Johns Hopkins University East Baltimore campus in Baltimore, Maryland. The talk was the final event of the 50th anniversary Milton S Eisenhower Symposium’s 2017 speaker series, which also saw speeches from the likes of American Muslim activist Linda Sarsour, TV news host Joy Ann Reid, and Ohio governor John Kasich.
As well as being a regular throughout 2017 on the Daily Show With Trevor Noah, earlier this year Hasan hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and on December 4th 2017 he was named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Global Re-Thinkers. FP claimed that “at a difficult time for Muslims and immigrants in America, Minhaj has found an effective way to describe a side of the United States that its current president ignores and rejects.” In the FP article Hasan describes himself as “an angry optimist” whilst FP describes him as “the 32-year-old pompadoured Daily Show correspondent,” “an avatar of the bizarre political moment,” “a protagonist of the American narrative,” and more importantly “the right comedian for the wrong time.”
All of this reminded me of similar articles where Muslim comedians use their comedy to point out the growing Islamophobia that exists all around us today. One such article that came to mind is called Fighting Islamophobia With Comedy. Written way back in March 2015, this particular article is about the comedian Maz Jobrani, another American comedian who is rather effectively using his humour to tackle anti-Islamic bigotry.
As well as an acclaimed comedian, Maz is also an actor and author (his book I’m Not A Terrorist, But I’ve Played One On TV: Memoirs Of A Middle Eastern Funny Man was released in 2015). More recently he hilariously hosted the 45th International Emmy Awards Gala in November 2017 in New York:
Anyways, as always the two main articles mentioned above are well worth reading in full, and a selection of my favourite quotes from these articles are presented below. Enjoy!
Fighting Islamophobia With Comedy
Robin Wright, 08 Mar 2015, Atlantic Monthly
Maz Jobrani is challenging extremist ideology and Muslim stereotypes, one punchline at a time. – Robin Wright
Jobrani’s journey reflects both the problems and the potential in using comedy to bridge the cultural chasm produced by Islamic extremism. In growing numbers, America’s Muslim comedians are using a sassy brand of humor to reach across the abyss. In the United States, their shticks both ridicule extremism within their own faith and challenge American stereotypes of Muslims. – Robin Wright
Comedy turns out to be a sly way of challenging autocratic rule and a potent antidote to the sophisticated social media campaigns of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. – Robin Wright
He lambasted the 2009 Christmas Day bomber who tried to blow up a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, noting that the bomb carried in his underwear was proof that the guy was an idiot. Jobrani imagined the final conversation between the hijacker and his terror-masters. “Ah, excuse me. I have one, ah, one last question for you,” the terrorist says. “You say my reward in heaven will be seventy-two virgins. So do you think, maybe, we could put the bomb somewhere else? I mean, I really think I’m going to need my penis.” The crowd roared. – Robin Wright
Jobrani and other Muslim comedians take their mission as seriously as their craft. “For us,” Jobrani once told me, “the goal is not simply to make people laugh. It’s also to have people, when they leave the show, go, ‘Wow, that guy was funny, and he was Middle Eastern, and he didn’t try to kidnap or hijack us.” – Robin Wright
Comedy comes from tragedy, and being Iranian in America from 1979 on had been quite tragic. In stand-up comedy, I was able to take the reality and exaggerate it. – Maz Jobrani
Comedy was therapy for both Muslim performers and non-Muslim audiences. “As the weeks went on, I realized there was an important role comedy would play in healing the tragedies of September 11. Comedy can help people cope,” he wrote, “and many people were coming to the clubs to laugh out the stress.” Comedy brought back “a voice of reason to an irrational time.” – Robin Wright
Hasan Minhaj Tackles Islamophobia With Comedy
Emily McDonald, 07 Dec 2017, John Hopkins News Letter
NB All the quotes below are from Hasan Minhaj.
I can’t speak to my mom in Urdu on a plane, because people are afraid of terrorism. Fear of terrorism is the reason why we don’t let refugees into the country. We’re currently on our third travel ban because of that fear.
There is a double standard in the way terrorist attacks are portrayed in the media today. White terrorists are usually called “lone wolves,” while Muslim terrorists are branded as part of a terrorist organization. How is every crazy white dude just part wolf? How are all these guys just coincidentally Team Jacob? I don’t get the double standard. A brown dude goes crazy, we get teamed up. A white dude goes crazy: 12 individual wolves have gone cuckoo — if only there was a pattern.
The term “terrorism” is used disproportionately to describe acts of violence by people of color. There are over 100 definitions of the word terrorist, but in 2017 it’s been racialized to basically mean brown people, right? People who look like me, with beards. Coded language to describe things we’re afraid of is used a lot. You turn the news on, you hear words like ‘thug,’ ‘gangster,’ ‘illegal,’ ‘president.’
After the recent mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert, CNN was quick to question whether the attack was the work of ISIS or another terrorist organization, with little evidence to support the claim. I don’t expect anything more from CNN, they write headlines the way my dad writes emails. 1000-point font, incomplete sentences, random conspiracy theories. Vegas Shooter ISIS? Hasan Call Home, Mom Misses You.
Statistically, people in the United States are very unlikely to die of foreign terrorism. This statistic plays a key role in the refugee debate. How likely are you to die of foreign terrorism? Because that’s the crux of the debate. You are more likely to die from choking, lightning, crossing the street, furniture. You’re literally more likely to be killed by furniture than a terrorist organization. Despite these statistics, many Americans still oppose allowing refugees to immigrate into the country. People are still scared of terrorism, because I’m giving you a rational argument to an irrational fear, and we know that never works. We all argue with family members on Facebook. We love irrational fear in America, we’ve got other ones besides brown people: zika, Tsars, swine flu, anthrax, shark attacks, pirates.
A common argument made against the immigration of refugees is the idea that they do not share typical “American values.” If Muslims really don’t adopt American values, why do 92 percent of them say they’re proud to be American? Why do 72 percent of them say you get ahead with hard work? Why do 82 percent say they’re concerned about extremism? And why do U.S. Muslims accept gay marriage more than Republicans?
Immigration and diversity are fundamentally American values. The real question isn’t whether refugees can accept American values. It’s whether Americans can accept American values. Immigration is a fundamental American right, and yet it doesn’t get the same applause or attention as, say, freedom of speech or guns. We’re a nation of refugees, immigrants and free thinkers.
The current screening process for Syrian refugees includes an intensive background check and a two-year waiting period. If these people are willing to wait in line for over two years to enter this country, we owe it to them to at least look at their application.
The beauty of letting everybody in, no matter where we come from, as long as they go through proper procedures, is that people can practice their religion how they choose, not how someone else chooses. And when it comes to American Islam, that’s where it’s taken shape in really dope and innovative ways.
If after all that, you still want to ban refugees or Muslims, the reality of the situation is that we’re already here. We already control every aspect of your life. Think about it: food, transportation, medicine. We’ve got it on lock. We could’ve gotten you on every corner, but we didn’t. So you’re welcome, America.
Comedians are playing a more significant role in reporting and commenting on current events. The big thing that a lot of comedians are forced to do is, we’re forced to do things like primary reporting. Like CNN and Fox News, that’s where you go to get your sketch comedy on…It’s like bizarro-world, CNN is Comedy Central and comedians are like, ‘Why aren’t you reporting the truth?’ It’s forced all of us to elevate our game.
I like the recent increase in diversity in comedy. I think it’s awesome to get every single different perspective, because a lot of times you’ve got your blinders on, and there are blind spots we all have to different communities. I will say I think we need more female voices of color in comedy.