Muslim Comedian Roundtable: Testing the Limits of Islam & Humor

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Maysoon Zayid and Dean Obeidallah.
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Click on the audio player above to hear the full interview.

Joking about religion is often controversial. But stand up comedians are jumping in at the Muslim Funny Fest in New York City this week. The festival features more than 15 Muslim comedians from across U.S. and two from the Middle East.

Comedians and festival organizers Maysoon Zayid and Dean Obeidallah say they believe that comedy can be a way to bridge the divide between Muslims and Americans who are fearful Islam.  And they both find plenty of material in their own lives.

“My dad, when we started out, he didn't know what I was doing—he just knew that I shook and was in a club,” says Zayid. “So he asked me, ‘Are you a stripper?’ When he found out I wasn’t stripping he was ecstatic. He was like, ‘OK, you’re just telling jokes and your pants are on?’”

A Palestinian-American that was born in New Jersey, Zayid says that her mother isn’t exactly against her career, but she isn’t exactly thrilled either.

“She’s very critical,” Zayid says. “I’ll go on ‘60 Minutes,’ and whereas other parents would be like, ‘You did a great job, I’m so proud of you,’ my mother will be like, ‘Your hair—it was not nice.”

Along with pop culture and politics, Zayid says her family has come to focus prominently in her comedy.

“When I was a younger comic I did a lot more sex and fart jokes because I relied on it,” she says. “But I’ll do a tampon joke here and there just to keep it lively.”

Obeidallah, who was also born in the Garden State and is an American of Palestinian and Italian descent, hosts his own Sirus XM radio show, and he co-directed and co-produced the award winning comedy documentary “The Muslims Are Coming!”

Unlike Zayid, Obeidallah won’t be making any feminine hygiene jokes at the Muslim Funny Fest. But he still hopes to push the limit.

“I will talk about relationships, and I’ll even make fun of certain parts of Islam, in at least the way that we practice it and over say things like ‘inshallah’ in America,” he says. "I think that's something that would shock most Americans—that you can actually do jokes about Muslims and about Islam a little, and Muslims are going to laugh. They're not going to protest and burn the place down."

Similarly, Zayid isn’t afraid to be controversial and offend Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

"I'm not making fun of Islam, I'm just making a joke," she says Zayid. "It's not mocking the religion; it's mocking the fact that of the millions of people running around, most of them are sinners."

Though the festival is giving a voice to Muslim comedians, both Zayid and Obeidallah say that the entertainment industry as a whole needs to be more inclusive of Muslims.

“As far as characters that are written as Muslims, we’re only seeing one dimension,” says Zayid. “It’s either the good Muslim who is helping the FBI, or the taxi driver-terrorist bundled in one.”

“And the good Muslim usually gets killed later by the bad Muslim,” Obeidallah adds. “To us, the issue is really not so much about casting, it’s about being able to tell our story or get our story out there. Mainstream media and cable news, I’m going to be honest, very rarely shows positive portraits of Muslims; Muslims denouncing terrorism. With American TV, you see Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Muslims under arrest. And that’s the struggle—we’re defined so much by the worst examples.”

The internet is empowering Muslim comedians and entertainers with the ability change the narrative, Zayid says. She points to one of the performers in the Muslim Funny Fest, Hisham Fageeh of Saudi Arabia, who made a video called “No Woman, No Drive” to push back against the prohibition on driving for women in the kingdom. To date, the video has been viewed more than 13 million times.

“That’s a poltiical comic pushing up against the rules that say women can’t drive,” says Obeidallah. “It’s funny, and it’s very daring because those guys risk going to jail.”

How did the government of Saudi Arabia react to the video? Zayid says they probably just didn’t get it because it’s a reggae song.

“I don’t think they understood it—if they ever ask you, just say that it’s praising the monarchy,” she says.