Funny Business: Muslims in Comedy

by Racialicious special correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie

Unfortunately, the first image that comes to mind when anyone mentions Islam isn’t a room full of people laughing. But if Maz Jobrani, Shazia Mirza, and Preacher Moss have their way, that will change.

Jobrani, Mirza, and Moss are Muslim comedians; Jobrani and Moss are part of the Axis of Evil and Allah Made Me Funny comedy tours, respectively. Mirza is a British Muslim comedian who has toured in the U.S. and across Europe.

Muslim comedy tours like the Axis of Evil (pictured here) and Allah Made Me Funny comedy tours are gaining momentum, both in the Muslim world and out. The Axis of Evil comedy tour has a special on Comedy Central, a DVD, has already finished a U.S. tour and is currently gearing up for a tour of the Middle East. Allah Made Me Funny has also finished a U.S. tour and is currently on a European tour, and has a DVD available on their website.

In interviews with altmuslim.com, both the members of Axis of Evil and Allah Made Me Funny stress that their comedy is a way to break down stereotypes and problems within their communities. Aron Kader, a member of the Axis of Evil tour, says, “We want to represent our culture in a positive way. Through comedy, we can be accepted and be seen for who we really are – regular Americans.” Dean Obeidallah, another member of the Axis, agrees: “So often we sit and complain how we are demonized and portrayed horribly, [but] the only ones who will ever clear our name is us. The burden is on us. No one is going to do us a favor.”

Tissa Hami, a female Muslim comedian, agrees with this aim. Hami (pictured here) describes her comedy as her way of helping combat stereotypes against Muslims. “‘Why aren’t we speaking out for ourselves?’ she said she would ask herself. ‘Why aren’t we doing something? To me this is something I could do. I know it’s comedy. I know it’s this much. But, if we all do this much, it’s something.’”

Female Muslim comedians are few and far between, but slowly, they’re becoming more visible. Tissa Hami, an Iranian-American, is gaining in popularity in the U.S with her comedy appearances. Hami’s comedy is meant to encourage viewers to look beyond appearances. She dresses in all black, from her shoes to her hejab, and then comes out with lines like: “I’ll be honest with you. I should have worn a long coat, but I was feeling kind of slutty tonight.”

Hami’s comedy reminds me of Shazia Mirza, a Pakistani-British Muslim woman who has gained a fair amount of popularity ever since she appeared at a comedy club dressed in hejab and said, “My name is Shazia Mirza. At least, that’s what it says on my pilot’s license.” Since then, Mirza has been on tours in both Britain and the U.S., and won several awards for her comedy.

Neither Mirza nor Hami wear a headscarf outside of their performances; in fact, Mirza has stopped using hejab in her performances because she felt it unnecessary. Many people disagree with the use of hejab in a comedy show, viewing it as a prop. But the point is to break stereotypes: how can you disrupt the image of a covered woman as oppressed and submissive when there are no veiled sisters doing comedy?

Unfortunately, there are a fair amount of people who disagree with this comedy, many of them Muslims. Preacher Moss, in the altmuslim.com interview, admits, “Yeah, the fiercest critics of our product have been Muslims.” Many Muslims who have not seen the comedy tours view them as haraam (or forbidden) because they assume the comedy’s purpose is to make fun of Islam.

However, in my view, laughter is a good way to break boundaries. Obviously, it can’t be the only thing; we run the risk of becoming the stereotypes we poke fun at. But laughter is a great place to start. If you haven’t seen them, both comedy tours should both be available on your NetFlix: queue ‘em up already!