To Change People's Minds, First Make Them Laugh

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is For the Record. The White House welcomed foreign dignitaries, national security experts and community leaders to Washington this past week for what was billed as a summit to counter violent extremism. The administration took great pains to avoid the phrase Islamic extremism in connection with this event; an effort to take the focus off Muslim communities that have felt unfairly targeted for years. In his remarks at the summit, President Obama said there are still public misperceptions about Islam that to do damage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Many people in our countries don't always know personally somebody who is Muslim. So the image they get of Muslims or Islam is in the news. And given the existing news cycle, that can give a very distorted impression.

MARTIN: After the recent terrorist attacks in Europe, the news cycle has included controversial statements like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS REPORT)

STEVEN EMERSON: There are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don't go in.

MARTIN: This is Steven Emerson, a terrorism analyst on Fox News talking about Muslim communities in the UK.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS REPORT)

EMERSON: You basically have zones where sharia courts are set up, where Muslim density is very intense, where the police don't go in and where it's basically a separate country almost.

MARTIN: Fox News later apologized and corrected his remarks. Muslim community leaders in the U.S. and Europe have been working for years to draw a sharp distinction between Islam and the terrorists who distort the religion for their own purposes. But if you really want to alter public perceptions, it helps to make people laugh first. For the Record today, telling jokes to change minds.

We're going to introduce you to three comedians - one British, two American, all Muslim and all fairly irreverent. Here's Adil Ray of Birmingham, England.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CITIZEN KHAN")

ADIL RAY: (As Mr. Khan) Look, I got the new call to prayer app on my phone.

RAY: (As Mr. Khan) Good, huh? And it lets you pause Angry Birds while you pray.

MARTIN: And Ahmed Ahmed of Riverside, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAND-UP COMEDY ACT)

AHMED AHMED: Whenever I get on a plane, I always know who the air marshal is. Yeah, it's always the guy sitting there, holding People magazine upside down looking right at me.

MARTIN: Lastly, Negin Farsad of New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAND-UP COMEDY ACT)

NEGIN FARSAD: I actually had to go to Iran not too long ago because my cousin was getting married. And even though we were the same age, it was so weird for me to go hang out with her because I didn't know if I should, like, censor myself around her, you know what I mean? If I should hide all the freedoms I enjoy like boys and alcohol and peaceable assembly, you know.

MARTIN: Each of them caught the comedy bug fairly early in life. Again, Adil Ray.

RAY: I would do, like, impressions of the royal family, or I would do, you know, magic tricks or do impressions of my aunts and uncles as a little sort of routine after dinner. Oh, there's our nephew. Let's humor him, you know. But it was certainly sort of - there was lots of encouragement from my mom. Oh, isn't our son very funny. Yes, he's hilarious.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

RAY: And I have to say, my mom doesn't even talk like that. I don't know why I do that. I don't know why, whenever I do my mom's voice, I have to do that. And she talks nothing like it.

MARTIN: Here's Ahmed Ahmed.

AHMED: In the detention room in high school, that's when they laughed, when I got kicked out of class for cracking jokes. And then all the kids would sit around and snicker, you know, at each other, but, you know, I grew up in a very strict Muslim household so that was considered forbidden. You know, you're supposed to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, owning your own gas station. And to be in the entertainment industry, you know, you're kind of looked at as a dark horse.

MARTIN: And Negin Farsad.

FARSAD: Like a switch turned on when I was cast as Kitchen Wench Number 3 in a high school musical. And the power of just getting the laugh was intoxicating, you know, at, like, the tender age of 15 or something.

MARTIN: They came into comedy in their own way - moonlighting and standup clubs or working in radio. But eventually, they all had to decide if Islam was going to be part of their comedy and to what extent. For Ahmed, it happened when he went on a religious pilgrimage.

AHMED: I performed Hajj in 1997, and that kind of changed my whole perspective on Islam.

MARTIN: What happened?

AHMED: After traveling to Mecca and seeing 4.5 million people walking side-by-side from all different walks of life, that's what sort of opened my eyes to the religion as a peaceful religion and as a religion of unity.

MARTIN: Before you went to Mecca, had you - I mean, were you incorporating Islam into your comedy?

AHMED: I always talked about it because I wanted to point out the elephant in the room. My name's Ahmed Ahmed. So there's always this little hesitance when I go up on stage where people are like, well, what's he going to talk about? So often times, I'll say hey, everybody, I was raised Muslim. And then there's like his awkward silence, and then I go boo. You know, I just do it to kind of lighten the mood. And it always gets a big laugh because people don't see that coming. It's like I'm playing on the stereotype, but I'm doing it on purpose because I think that people need to let their guard down.

MARTIN: For Negin and Adil, 9/11 forced their hand. After that, they said Muslim comics didn't really have a choice.

FARSAD: With the Islamophobia that was sparking after 9/11, you know, and the subsequent wars, you know, I felt like more and more of, like, a responsibility to address my own identity.

RAY: Suddenly, we, you know, we were all in the limelight. And whether you were - had extreme views or not, as a Muslim, you were expected to have some kind of opinion on what was going on around the world. But I quickly realized then that at first, there will be discussion, there will be debate, there will be discourse and that will continue. But then at some point, the creative discussion will start happening. And that's really important because it just kind of shows that there is more and there's a broadness and there's a depth to the Muslim community.

MARTIN: Feeding that creative discussion about Islam means pushing audiences into places that are uncomfortable, says Adil. He's done that with the TV show he created called "Citizen Khan." It airs in prime time on the BBC in the UK.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CITIZEN KHAN")

RAY: (As Mr. Khan) Welcome to Sparkhill, Birmingham, the capital of British Pakistan.

MARTIN: The show plays up some Muslim stereotypes for comedic effect. And Adil has gotten hundreds of complaints. But he says the intention was not to offend.

RAY: If people are going to be offended, unfortunately that's not my problem. I always say to people, you know, just don't allow yourself to be offended. The intention is certainly not to mock the faith. Intention is to humanize, and you can't can't write sitcoms without flawed characters. And of course, Mr. Khan has to be flawed.

FARSAD: I don't censor myself.

MARTIN: Here's Negin Farsad.

FARSAD: And that sometimes means I don't censor my dating or sexual life. And that is very difficult, I think, for some conservative members of the Muslim community, conservative members of the Iranian-American community, people who are just, like, what are you doing? We're supposed to be model minorities. Like, stop talking about that. (Laughter).

MARTIN: Ahmed Ahmed says there are things he won't joke about. He doesn't talk about the Prophet Muhammad in his comedy, for example.

AHMED: Yeah, like, I'm trying to stay alive for a while.

MARTIN: But other than that, he says anything is pretty much fair game, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

AHMED: How does this organization defeat so many communities and countries and, you know, be able to dominate when they're driving 1970 Toyota pickup trucks. Like, seriously. And then, you know, this ISIS group was talking about how they're using social media to get their word out. And so the guy was - they subtitled what he was saying. And he was like, we Muslims around the world are getting the word out to other Muslims to wage war against America. Social media has been a great help to our cause in getting the word out about ISIS so please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Instagram @superscaryjihad.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

AHMED: If you post a picture burning the American flag, we will retweet you. And we prefer to Valencia filter.

MARTIN: He has performed all over the U.S. and in the Middle East as well, where he got mixed reviews.

AHMED: I started seeing all these comments, you know, saying stuff like, this is not funny, you're not a real Muslim Allah will have his wrath. And then some other guy writes, how do we book you in Boston? And so like, I can't win either way. But I'm going to talk about it. And if, you know, Muslims can't catch up and get a sense of humor sometime soon, we are going to remain in the dark ages forever.

MARTIN: But when I asked Ahmed if he felt some kind of responsibility to create a different public narrative about what it means to be a Muslim today, he said no way.

AHMED: Am I responsible? Is it my duty? No, because I'm a comedian first. I'm Muslim and Arabic second when it comes to entertainment. So I'm not trying to wave the flag and carry the torch. My thing is, hey, if they laugh with me, then that's one other person in the world that has seen a different side of me, which would reflect in what they would perceive maybe Islam would be, if that makes any sense.

MARTIN: Adil Ray says he does have a role, but so do his critics.

RAY: I think it's essential that we have a counter-narrative to what's going on at the moment. A lot of people actually are getting, you know, into sort of spats with me on Twitter, and they'll - Muslims aren't like what you're portraying in "Citizen Khan." And I'll say, well, you know what? Go and write your own. You really must. We must hear what you want to put out there.

MARTIN: So how do each of these comics measure the kind of difference they're making? How do they know if a counter-narrative is taking hold? Here's Ahmed Ahmed.

AHMED: Often times after shows, just regular audience members will walk up to me and say hey man, I just see what I see on the news. And I got to be honest man, you're one funny Muslim. I'm like, oh, cool, can you go tell 10 friends?

MARTIN: And Adil Ray.

RAY: We'll know when things have absolutely worked when we hear things like, you know, middle-aged, white, English woman sort of nudges her husband as they're watching the show with afish and chips on their plate and says that Mr. Khan is just like you. And that's starting to happen now, which is just fantastic.

MARTIN: That was Adil Ray. Earlier, you heard from Ahmed Ahmed and Negin Farsad.

 

 

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