The Muslims Are Coming! may sounds like a Fox News segment, but it's actually the catchy title of a documentary directed by comedians Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah that opens nationwide this week. The film follows Muslim comedians on a tour through middle America as they use the only weapon they have — comedy — to combat Islamophobia.
Muslims have been tarnished by the mainstream media ever since the events of September 11, 2001. Over a decade later, the fearmongering has not dissipated. People are still quick to judge Muslims, and to call Islam a dangerous religion. Farsad and Obeidallah are hoping to change the current discourse through both their comedy and their documentary, reaching out to Americans through the power of punch lines. The documentary is also sprinkled with commentary from Jon Stewart, David Cross, Rachel Maddow, Russell Simmons, and other favorites from the entertainment and media industries.
The "Muzzie comics" (as Farsad describes herself and other Muslim comedians) of The Muslims Are Coming! held free comedy shows about being Muslim in America, and hosted interventions in unsuspecting town squares that involved “Ask A Muslim” or “Name that Religion” booths. In both their stage acts and their community outreach, the comedians interacted with locals, and showed them that Muslims are just like everyone else.
Farsad and Obeidallah are not newcomers when it comes to showbiz. Farsad was born in Southern California, where she was raised by her Iranian parents. She has been recognized for her feature film, Nerdcore Rising, which premiered at the prestigious South by Southwest Film Festival. Obeidallah, the son of a Muslim Palestinian father and a Catholic Sicilian mother, has appeared in a number of televised comedy specials, and is the cocreator of ComedyCentral.com’s internet series The Watch List.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Farsad and Obeidallah to discuss their documentary project. Here's what they had to say about the film, and about what it means to be Muslim in America.
Anaam Butt (AB): What inspired you to make The Muslims Are Coming!?
Negin Farsad (NF): Dean and I have done a lot of projects together over the years that have explored the realm of identity I felt there was a need to address this topic, because growing up, I always had this feeling of otherness. My parents came from Iran during the hostage crisis, and growing up in America at that time, I was always the other because of my cultural identity.
AB: What made you decide that enough is enough, and that Islamophobia needs to be addressed head-on?
NF: September 11 caused the Islamophobia we are witnessing today. After September 11, being Muslim almost became an accusation. This idea spiked even more around the election of Obama, when the media became obsessed with the idea of whether or not Obama was Muslim. It was almost like, "How dare you be Muslim!" This kept growing, and people started to ask questions like, "Why are you Muslim?" We saw this come out even more with the way people were responding to Ground Zero mosque. The idea of "being Muslim" was used to galvanize another group of people.
Dean Obeidallah (DO): It didn’t go away. For a long time, I was delusional, and thought people were cool with Muslims. I realized something was up when I saw peoples’ reaction and the protests in response to the Ground Zero mosque. Living in America, it was hard to see people in the bluest state, and the bluest city, protesting the mosque. I couldn’t believe it happened in the United States. it was very apparent that people were not at ease with Muslims. Frankly, I never expected to see people afraid that Sharia law could even be considered a possibility in the United States. I mean, seriously! It was shocking to see states like North Carolina debating about passing anti-Sharia laws.
NF: I mean, those protests were happening at Ground Zero, where, just a few blocks away, you can get halal falafels. They were happening in an area where Muslims have been chilling in New York alongside everyone else forever. You would think, "What’s the problem with opening a mosque?" It was clear that we are not going to be logical about this.
AB: In the documentary, the initial response to your comedy act was very discouraging. What motivated you to keep going? How did you deal with criticism?
DO: Negin wanted to leave immediately. Just kidding! We are comedians, so we're used to it. I get horrific comments all the time. You have to have thick skin when you aggravate haters, and to challenge their misconceptions so they have to expose themselves. Eventually, they realize when they are wrong and they don’t have anything left to say.
NF: Being a comedian prepares you for certain things. I would not be a good torture victim. I could withstand that. That’s the beauty of comedy: you are going to be in ridiculous situations. You can expect anything. We kept going, and I was blown away by the second show we did. It was so well supported — and not just by the Muslim community, but everyone — and we were all truly stunned by the awesome response. There were plenty of rough moments throughout the tour, but we received a lot of support from all the communities we went to along the way.
AB: Which city had the toughest audience? How did you overcome that hurdle?
DO: Columbus, Ohio, was challenging because of the venue. The place was small, there was no air conditioning, and there was not a huge crowd. Overall, though, we had great crowds, and were well received everywhere we went. People seemed supportive. Taking a comedic point of view on this topic made it fun for everyone. The hard work wasn’t on stage, it was actually getting on stage. All the work that went into setting up a show, creating buzz, and having people come out to support the show was a lot harder than the routine we had to do on stage.
NF: I had a somewhat different experience from Dean. I’m a lady, and I'm not always received in the same way. We did a show in Tucson, Arizona, which had a crowd of about 450 to 500 people, and the audience was about 15% to 20% Muslim. It was one of the shows with a larger Muslim turnout. At this show, when I did material about my personal life — and, lets be honest, I also talked about boning — some Muslims were offended. They got up and left. I saw about 10 to 15 Muslim women get up and leave. It was actually hard to see that there is a double standard even within the Muslim population. I’m an equal-opportunity offender. It is difficult for me, as a comedian, to handle when people walk out, but you need to have thick skin. It is to be expected that not everyone will like your work.
AB: In your opinion, what factors fuel the negative perception of Muslims and Islam?
DO: Acts of terrorism. The media only covers the negativity. Its just the nature of the media, as that’s the only way the media will get attention. The media lacks a balanced approach that could help combat Islamophobia. You need to have a counter narrative. The media does not show the Muslims who are making a difference in their communities. Instead, when an act of terrorism happens, the thing that people take away from the coverage is that the people behind the attacks are Muslims. Muslims need to step up and show the other side of the situation: that Muslims are just like everyone else, and they condemn acts of terrorism.
NF: I definitely agree that there needs to be better coverage. Dean and I want to show that being Muslim does not make us different people. We want and do the same things as everyone else. The media does a great job of reinforcing the same image, over and over again. We want to show the other side, and reinforce that not all Muslims are bad.
DO: I would blame Fox News too [laughs].
AB: What advice would you give millennials like myself when it comes to combatting negative stereotypes?
DO: The first step toward stopping negative stereotyping is looking at stereotypes. The next step is to see how you can get rid of them. Get involved in entertainment and news media. Show the other side. If one group is being attacked in the media, be the voice that defines being part of that group. We need to make sure we counterbalance the negative voices out there.
NF: It's funny, because my parents were like, “Why are you telling people that you are even Muslim?” They had a very immigrant mentality about things, because they had to go through so much when they first came here, and being from Iran did not help. The source of the problem is pretending like we are not Muslim or Middle Eastern. We will not get anywhere if we hide our identity. My advice to millennials would be that you should never sugarcoat things or change your name to Nancy just to fit in. What will help is if you are super open and honest, and ask others if they have questions. No one wants to be in a combative situation. People might ask stupid or silly questions that offend you, but that is because of the image Muslims are given by the news media. Instead, be real, and you will be surprised by the support and the response you get.