I’m not sure what I expected from a movie documenting a group of six Muslim-Americans travelling around the southeastern and central United States trying to dispel commonly-held notions Americans have about Muslims by telling jokes, but this wasn’t it. Self-deprecation? Sarcasm? Guns? Who would have thought all of these could be found in a movie about Muslims in America? That’s just the the problem, though, being Muslim in America isn’t all that the movie is about. And, really, to classify the movie only as a “comedy” would surely be to sell it low and cut it short.
The movie is meant for “mature” audiences in two senses of the word —- age and ability to handle exposure to “R” rated content being only one indication of maturity. In the movie it is said that religion is seen as one of those topics that it’s better not to talk about. The Muslim-Americans on this tour don’t hold so tightly to that dogma. In fact, they use religion, race, sexual orientation, and all of those topics the United States citizens (via the Bill of Rights) have an inalienable right to speechify about, as the key topics for discussion.
Where have we before seen behavior similar to this? Comedy Central. Negin Farsad, Dean Obeidallah, and the rest of the crew are doing for the Islamic-Americans what Katt Williams and Dave Chapelle did for African-Americans. These comedians’ positions within their culture allow them a space both to challenge mainstream perceptions of them and to make criticisms that those on the outside of a culture’s mainstream are often reluctant to speak aloud.
The Muslims are Coming! offers a few pointed barbs, such as in a scene where onlookers are challenged (and usually fail) to correctly identify whether or not a quote comes from the Bible, the Koran, or Kaballah. More frequently, however, the standup was accompanied by opportunities for others to ask the comedians questions. The question they are asked most frequently? Why don’t they denounce terrorism? When one film participant asks Farsad what she thought about 9/11, the comedienne says that it was horrible. She then asks, only half joking, whether the questioner has ever gotten a different response to that question. “What other answer is there?” she wonders.
Ken Morefield and I sat down with Negin and Dean, the movie’s directors, for an interview. The question was posed as to whether or not the two felt their goal accomplished. “Did you eradicate this thing that you called ‘Islamaphobia’?” asked Morefield.
“Absolutely” Dean replied. “Islamaphobia has been completely eradicated.” He follows this response with a laugh, a “Not quite” and then reiterates a point heard in the documentary: that the purpose of the movie is not to eradicate Islamaphobia—something that will take numerous movers, shakers, and advocates—but to educate. It’s the key to combating bigotry. Bigotry they say stems from misguided conceptions—but it can be combated.
Obeidallah continued that he is “not so delusional to believe that [the movie] will eradicate [Islam-a-phobia],” but that they know their efforts will help to “chip away” at the tension between the two religions. He is aware that there are some people who do have a true hatred for Muslims, or the Islamic Religion, and there’s little he can do to change the minds of those people who truly in their hearts hate Muslims and the Islamic Religion, and that that’s not their intended audience. They want to reach out to those who “sort of like [them]” in an effort to get those people to “like [them] a little bit more.”
When asked if their project assumes that Americans (or Christians) are more intolerant or Islamophbic than anyone else, Obeidallah demurred saying they were not so naive as to believe that “any one religion or group could hold a monopoly on prejudice.” The directors stated they went to the American south mostly because there were fewer Muslims there, and that people tend to be more suspicious of that which they have never seen. Farsad added that where there was already strife between Muslims and the rest of the community (such as in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where protests erupted over a plan to build a mosque) that comedy might help defuse tensions by illustrating the underlying commonalities that Americans of different religions share.
“We’ll get through this,” Obeidallah added. By “we” he meant America, not just Muslim-Americans, and by “this” he means the painful integration of a minority group into a nation that has proven time and time again that it is able to accept and incorporate all walks of life. He cited Catholics, Jews, and Africans as groups whose integration into America hasn’t always been easy. If there is bitterness or resentment in his voice, it’s undetectable.
The interview, not unlike the movie, ended in an upbeat, heartfelt, hug-a-Muslim fashion. Farsad made it clear that despite her current standing and rank in society, she feels confident that the American people will come to embrace Muslims, as they have come, over time, to embrace people of all races, religions, and ethnicities which have come here seeking hope, comfort, and a hug.
Kenneth R. Morefield also contributed to this report.