Sunday, March 26, 2006
Muslim comics use laughter to tackle discrimination, fear
Azhar Usman says when he walks down the street, he gets dirty looks.
"People are looking like I was responsible for 9/11," the comedian told the crowd recently in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park, Ill. "Me 9/11? 7-Eleven, maybe.
The 30-year-old Usman, who calls himself "a very patriotic American Muslim" in his act, is one of several emerging Muslim comics who are touring in an attempt to break down stereotypes, encourage critical thinking, create an identity and, most importantly, get people to laugh.
"The standup is quintessentially an American art form and is a form of political protest," said Usman, who grew up in suburban Skokie, Ill. "There's a history of the underdog using standup comedy to speak truth to power. People take notice and are transformed by the experience."
Humor is a good way to deal with issues, said Daniel Capper, associate professor of religion at the University of Southern Mississippi.
"I think it's a very healthy approach for Muslims to take," Capper said. "It's not easy to be a Muslim in America today. Religions everywhere teach the value of being joyful and laughter is a way of being joyful."
Mikal Uqdah of Hattiesburg said the Prophet Mohammed had a humorous side.
"I don't see any problem with it," Uqdah said, adding that it should not be sacriligious. "I am sensitive to the feelings of other people."
Not many subjects are off limits for Usman - a former lawyer who became a full-time comic about two years ago. He jokes about terrorism, the war in Iraq, President Bush, airport security and the Patriot Act. His own religion and fellow Muslims are not exempt.
"Just about anything is fair game, just as long as it's done tastefully and artfully," he said. "I have some boundaries, based on religion. I won't do any sacrilegious material, make fun of God or the prophet."
Usman seeks the advice of Muslim scholars when he has doubts over material.
Though most of the response is positive, Usman knows some Muslims disapprove of his mixture of comedy and religion. He tackles not just how Americans see Muslims but how Muslims in America see themselves.
"It's equally my obligation as a comedian to point out what is wrong with us and get us talking about our problems as it is pointing out what's wrong (with) the way, for example, the government is treating us," Usman said.
Although he performs solo, Usman also travels as part of the Allah Made Me Funny tour with two fellow Muslim comedians.
They began touring in 2004, thinking they'd be a success if they played 30 cities in three years. Instead, they toured 50 cities in one year, performing not just at Muslim community centers but comedy clubs across the United States and internationally.
Tour creator Preacher Moss, a longtime comic who has written for popular comedians including George Lopez and Damon Wayans, says the tour has a twofold message.
"On the outside our goal is trying to build bridges with non-Muslims, but on the inside it's to build bridges between ourselves," said Moss, 39. "When you get people to smile about what they're fearful about, it's powerful. And when you finish laughing, you think about what you're laughing about."
Using laughter to tackle discrimination and fear is not new. Minorities in America have often used standup to open people's eyes.
"Humor is a good way, as it always has been, of drawing people in, exploiting the stereotype and finding a common ground," said John Lowe, a Louisiana State University English professor who's working on a book about humor in American ethnic communities.
Maysoon Zayid, a New York-based standup, helped create the Arab American Comedy Festival hoping to break down stereotypes and showcase Arab talent.
The show has played the last three years in New York.
"This is an effort to really change the image of Arabs in America, which are often considered religious zealot-terrorists," said Zayid, 30.
Along with comedy clubs and Muslim community events, these comics also are using technology as a platform to bring their messages to a bigger audience.
Usman is developing a podcast about a fictional character named Tinku Patel - an Indian Muslim who comes to America to make a movie. Patel interviews celebrities and average Americans, asking them their thoughts on race and politics.
Matt Suneulli, the podcast's co-creator who also works as a producer for MTV, said he's hoping the podcast becomes popular enough to parlay into a television show.
But for Usman and his colleagues, being a comic isn't just a way to make money or gain fame. They've become role models for other U.S. Muslims who are looking for ways to merge their Muslim and American identities.
"To me this is not just about standing on stage telling jokes," Usman said. "There's a lot riding on this."
Originally published March 25, 2006
Posted by Editor at 7:49 AM