American Muslim comedians want to use humor to break down negative stereotypes

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SHAFAQNA – Islam and hilarity are not two words often found in the same sentence.

But a group of Muslim comedians is out to change that.

“Most people don’t see Muslims as funny or think of Muslims laughing at themselves,” says comic Dean Obeidallah, “But if you can’t imagine that then you don’t know Muslims.”

Obeidallah and fellow Muslim-American comic Maysoon Zayid are planning to fight stereotypes and racism with the most powerful weapon they know: humor. Later this month, the pair will host the first “Muslim Funny Fest” in New York, which will feature 10 professionals, who all happen to be Muslim, performing over three nights to make fun of themselves, the audience, and all the ways Islam has become vilified in American culture.

Obeidallah was in the news last month when he filed a federal lawsuit against the MTA, after the transit agency allegedly reneged on a contact to place posters around the subway system advertising Obeidallah’s new documentary, “Beware: The Muslims Are Coming.”

The MTA seemed to think the ads were political. Obeidallah insisted they were just humorous. At least in the upcoming “Muslim Funny Fest,” there will be no confusion.

“You don’t have to be Muslim to laugh, but you will be converted by the time you leave,” jokes Zayid about the festival. Zayid’s TED talk about growing up in New Jersey as a Palestinian American with cerebral palsy was the most viewed TED session last year.

“‘Muslim Funny Fest’ is actually an undercover recruitment drive for Islam,” adds Obeidallah. He, too, is joking.

Islam seems too delicate subject to joke about, but these comics do not agree. The organizers say no subject is off limits, so brace yourself for wisecracks about ISIS, Islamophobia and probably a burqa zinger or two.

Maysoon and Obeidallah are no strangers to using jokes to change attitudes. In 2003 they co-founded the “Arab-American Comedy Festival.” But “Arab” is a broad ethnic groups that can include many different religions. According to Maysoon and Obeidallah, their new “Muslim Funny Fest” is the first comedy festival ever to feature only Muslim comics.

Which is easier said than done, considering that stand-up comedy is not a popular career choice in the Islamic world. In fact, Maysoon and Obeidallah only know about a dozen professional comics who are Muslim. Dave Chappelle is perhaps the most famous, as he converted to Islam decades ago. Hasan Minhaj has been making a name for himself as a correspondent on “The Daily Show” hosting segments like “Minhaj’s Muslim Makeover.”

Otherwise though it’s slim pickings out there. Obeidallah jokes that he got a list from the FBI of all the comics they were running surveillance on, and then asked those comics to be in the festival.

Performers include Ali Al Sayed, known as one of the first professional comedians from Dubai. There’s also Preacher Moss, founder of the “Allah Made Me Funny” comedy tour.

“Non-Muslim audiences are at first a little wary of what will come out of these comedians’ mouths,” acknowledges Eric Hanson, the manager of the Broadway Comedy Club. “But once the audience sees the warmth and humor and sincerity of these comedians… It breaks down all the stereotypes. It becomes a comedy show, rather than a Muslim comedy show.”

“Muslim Funny Fest” runs July 21-23. For venues, show times and tickets see muslimfunnyfest.com.

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