Employing comedy in their fight against racism, a troupe of Muslim comedians toured the American heartland in order to engage American citizens in serious conversation about Islam and Islamophobia. What they found is that the real heart of racism lies not in the lives of everyday folk but in the vitriol of right-wing media. Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah filmed their tour across the South and the West, as well as interviews with Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, and others, to give us The Muslims Are Coming! •Availability: Click here for local theater listings; also available on xbox, Amazon, and iTunes. In New York City, see them live at the 10th annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which kicks off October 24th. •Thanks to Russ Posternak, Murphy PR, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Your goal was to meet regular Americans of all faiths and answer their questions about Muslims. Do you think it worked?
NF: The proof is still in the pudding and the pudding is still being served, so we’ll just have to see if it’s going to work. My job is social justice comedy, and I’m one of those who think that if I don’t show up for my job for even one day, it might have been the one day I would have changed the needle on all these issues. So for me, it has to work, because otherwise what’s the point of my waking up every day and doing this stuff? So we’re pushing the film hard, and we’re trying to do it in places where people might not get independent films like this. We’re really trying to move the needle.
DT: You include interviews with Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, and Russell Simmons. You also asked Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Pat Robertson to be on the show, but they refused. What do you make of that?
DO: They thought we were going to make fun of them. We tried to dissuade them of that by explaining that our purpose was not to mock them but to have a conversation, but some people don’t want to be challenged. They just want to spew their misinformation on their television show and let that be the end of it. The challenge is really to engage these people and try to reach them one on one. That’s our sincere goal with the film and with people in the media.
DT: Dean, you’ve been given a new job title: “comedy jihadist.” How did that come about?
DO: With a lot of work, a lot of training. Actually, that term appeared in an article by Pam Geller. She said the film was a “cultural jihad,” which is on some level correct because jihad doesn’t just mean “holy war”; it can mean a crusade for a principle you believe in. So in some ways it’s actually accurate, though she didn’t mean it that way. She meant it in the sense of “Be afraid of these Muslim comedians.” Look, there are some people who hate Muslims. But there are also people who are anti-Semites. Who are racists and hate blacks and Latinos. In a country this big, you’re always going to have some of those people. That’s life in America. We just have to make sure their voices are marginalized, just like the voices of those anti-Semites and homophobes. They can all hang out together and have a party while the rest of us are living our lives.
NF: I find it funny that all the attack articles are based on the trailer. If they saw the movie, they might actually feel different. The other thing I think is really funny about these attack articles is that in the Washington Times I was referred to throughout the article as “Mr.” Farsad. I guess they’re not really good at fact-checking. It also revealed the asssumption that I was a man, because a woman wouldn’t ever have the wherewithal to make a movie worth attacking. So it’s Islamophobia wrapped in a misogyny sandwich.
DT: Actually, Negin, one of the most moving moments in the movie is when you were in tears over a group of religious Muslim women walking out on your show.
NF: Eliciting that reaction from religious members of the Muslim community was a really tough moment for me. I also think, although I don’t have that much experience, that I would elicit that reaction from conservative members of the Jewish community, conservative members of the Christian community, conservative aetheists. I like to think that I’m an equal opportunity offender when it comes to slightly racy material with conservative groups. Look, this is not a love letter here; we’re not trying to say that the way Islam is practiced is perfect across the board. There might be a cultural bias against women that gets more reinforced by some Muslims, but by and large in the United States there are so many more secular Muslims who are super progressive and super supportive of women, and they don’t have a voice at all in the mainstream media. I think it’s important to say that Islam, just like every other religion, has a problem with women. I think women don’t have a good time. They don’t have a good time in Texas. And there are hard-line Muslims who don’t support them in a way that I hope they will one day.
DT: I really liked that the group of comedians who went on tour weren’t a monolithic block of “Muslims” who agreed about what it means to be a Muslim.
DO: There was quite a degree of self-introspection in our group about people in the Muslim community watching the film and saying, “Hey, you guys aren’t Muslim enough” and “Do you represent us?” We’re not trying to represent all the Muslims in the world—or in America—in our film, but we do try to have a spectrum, from one of the comedians who prays five times a day, who’s much more openly pious, to much more secular Muslims, like myself and Negin, and further. I think that really reflects the American Muslim community. A lot of Americans have never seen this diversity in our community. They’ve only seen the more pious American Muslims or immigrants, and they don’t realize that there are a lot of us who are culturally Muslim, just like there are people who are culturally Jewish or culturally Christian.
DT: That was fascinating to me. I’m Jewish, and in the Jewish community there’s always been the question, If you don’t believe in God, can you still be a Jew? But I’ve never heard that in relation to Islam: Can you be Muslim if you don’t believe in God?
NF: In the United States we don’t see Muslims on a spectrum. When you hear the world Muslimyou immediately just think super practicing, super pious, violence, terrorism, all this kind of thing. That kind of discussion happens all the time, but when you look at Iran, for example, many people call themselves Muslim but don’t necessarily go to Friday prayer…and that’s a country where the government, for better or worse, is an Islamic republic. People there are very secular, very educated, women hold more degrees than men, so I think that those questions come up a lot. We’re just not privy to them here in the United States because we have such a knee-jerk reaction about what a Muslim is. And in terms of whether or not a Muslim specifically believes in God, I think that’s part and parcel of how much you practice. I think there’s an undergirding agnosticism to the question for a lot of secular folk, but I think that the way the Jewish people have developed a culturally Jewish identity is very much a part of Muslim identity in the United States.
DT: If your film does nothing other than publicize that fact, then you’ve accomplished a lifetime’s worth of achievements. Let’s move on to the topic of comedy. Is the title of the film based on the comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming?
NF: And also “The British are coming, the British are coming.” It’s based on this notion that we’re always afraid of an outside group and then we’re fine with them. Hopefully tomorrow we’re going to be totally fine with the Muslims. We’re going to look back on it and say, “Wasn’t it funny we had this thing with Muslims? Wasn’t it funny when we had this thing with the British?” So the title is hearkening back to this historical thing that we do with outsiders.
DO: It’s a play on that title, obviously, but we didn’t parody the film. We didn’t go through its elements and copy the substance, but it’s a provocative title, it’s funny to a lot of people, it’s eye-catching, and that’s important in a film. People hated Russians for a time, so a title like The Russians Are Coming during the cold war was very provocative, and you hope that The Muslims Are Comingis equally provocative, because the goal—after all, this is a documentary, not a narrative film—is to start a conversation about the issues we raise. It’s an activist project. So I hope it gets some people’s attention who would not have paid attention to something else. Maybe they catch it on iTunes for $2.99, or Netflix in the future, and maybe it challenges their conceptions about Muslims.
DT: We’ve all heard about Jewish humor. Is there such a thing as Muslim humor?
DO: That depends how you define it. There’s Muslim humor in the sense that there are people who are Muslims doing comedy. In the film you don’t see many jokes about being Muslim or about our culture, but in the comedy shows there are. I perform for a few Muslim groups during the year, and I perform in the Middle East quite often, and there I’ll do a lot of jokes about our culture, about who we are, what we do, our own stereotypes internal in our community. But those jokes didn’t make the film because those audiences we were playing for were all non-Muslims and I didn’t want to do jokes that were too inside. But there is a growing field…it’s not the most lucrative, as it’s a small community, but it is a growing field.
NF: There might be Muslim humor, but that’s not necessarily what we’re doing. We’re doing something that’s very American. It’s Muslim-American humor. I can’t go around saying jokes that would make Iranians laugh because I didn’t grow up there. I can do stuff that would make my parents laugh, my family laugh, and I can speak Farsi, and I can cook all the dishes and all that, but I am a melange person, so I can do the double-consciousness comedy.
DT: My favorite jokes were when you were impersonating accents. How do you do that, and why is it so funny?
DO: Before I answer you, tell me why it made you laugh.
DT: I’ve no idea. All I can say is that when Negin was impersonating her mom talking about not liking blacks, I was on the floor.
NF: Everybody has this iconic mom or immigrant friend who says something that hits you at a point of familiarity. It’s funny because instead of saying “Fuck you” they might say “Fuck to you” because they don’t know any better. They try to use this lingo and then they mess it up, and it’s just funny. Part of it is, “Isn’t it funny when people don’t speak English that well.” But it’s endearing to me that they’re trying to embrace this American cultural norm. I love that my parents try to do this even though they get it wrong sometimes. That’s what’s funny to me. Also that they’re not self-aware; with the jokes about my mom not liking black people, the point of the joke is like, YOU don’t like black people? Nobody likes YOU. Get in line. People like black people more than they like you. And the way I hear her voice is inherently funny because she’s my mom. I think there’s something about it…white comedians imitate their moms all the time and I really enjoy it—how they hear their moms’ voices is so funny to me.
DT: What surprised you most on the tour?
DO: I was amazed at how open-minded people were across the South and in the West. I expected to be confronted by closed-minded people, actual bigotry, actual hate. We didn’t find them except in very isolated incidents. Most people, even the ones who seemed to be not so into Muslims—you can tell from their body language when talking one on one—weren’t thinking hateful things. They had very serious questions. Most people really didn’t care about Muslims. They had some questions, but they weren’t burning questions; people weren’t walking around saying, “I don’t want a mosque here, I don’t want Muslim neighbors, I don’t want a Muslim schoolteacher.” It wasn’t like that at all. When you see the right-wing media, you get a sense that Muslims are a clear and present danger and people are walking around saying, “We’ve got to do something about it.” It’s really only the right-wing politicians who are using that issue. That’s not the sense you get when you go down there.
DT: That’s fascinating. Would either of you like to add anything?
NF: See the movie and use it as a tool for your racist uncle. Send it around and share it, because it takes a village to get our message out.
Copyright © Director Talk 2013