Laughing Through Tears: The Tragicomedy of American Muslim Life by Elisabeth Becker

July 23, 2018

Over the past two decades, American Muslims have been profiled, surveilled and even detained without cause. With the “Muslim Ban” recently upheld by the Supreme Court and significantly heightened levels of discrimination against Muslims following the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, life as an American Muslim is no laughing matter.

Except when it is. The profiles of comedians who are Muslims are on the rise, showcasing a group which is growing not just in number but also in popularity. Many of these comedians share a common thread in their acts — an intertwining of tragedy and comedy in their narratives about religion, identity, and belonging.

Tragicomedy is a literary term typically used to reference plays and novels that contain elements of both tragedy and comedy. But it is also an apt concept to describe comedy that undermines powerful stereotypes of Islam which equate Muslims with violence and portray Islam as inherently anti-democratic.

Shows and films such as Big Brown Comedy Hour, The Axis of Evil, and The Muslims Are Coming! evoke captivating, if disturbing, racial and religious stereotypes. And they break open uncomfortable, but badly needed, conversations about the everyday struggles of Muslim coming of age in today’s America.

In 2014, the Daily Show hired Hasan Minaj, the son of Indian Muslim immigrants who gained celebrity following his Netflix-aired show Homecoming King. In Homecoming King, Minaj recounts how the parents of his math-partner-cum-prom-date refused to let him take her to the dance on account of his race.

In a recent study I led at Muslims for American Progress, the MAP-NYC study, we found that Muslim comedians from New York City utilize comedy as an opportunity to publicly represent themselves, while connecting to broad audiences across America.

Following the 2016 presidential election, for instance, comedian Aman Ali traveled the United States for his Ask Me Anything: I Am Muslim tour, in which he encouraged audiences to literally ask him anything.

Ali described the tour, “It was just amazing…it ended up being this very rewarding, beautiful experience, just talking about faith.”  He added that most people with unfavorable views of Muslims had never met one, “I can’t change how people think. All I know is, I can represent myself to the best of my ability. And if they change, great. But now they can’t say, ‘Oh I met a Muslim, and they’re all bad.’ They can’t say that, they just can’t.”

Dean Obeidallah, co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival has appeared on Comedy Central’s The Axis of Evil and produces Big Brown Comedy Hour. Recently, he co-directed the documentary, The Muslims Are Coming!  “The change is dramatic,” says Obeidallah, “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour had a big impact …I think stand-up comedy has been proven to be a great way to break through and tell your story in the way you want it told.”

Muslim actress Aizzah Fatima reflected on her role in HBO comedy-drama High Maintenance, and the broader influence that American Muslims are having on popular culture. “[They] had some scenes that just didn’t portray Muslims in a good light,” she says. But then the writers approached her and asked about her life so that they could tell a more nuanced story. “I feel like that was a true collaboration, and it was the first time on HBO that I heard people speaking in another language, and it was not terroristy.”

There were scenes mixing Urdu and English, reflecting real family life.

There is true tragedy in the fact that Muslims in popular culture have to normalize Islam for mainstream America. No minority group should have to prove its value in this way. And yet responding head-on to human exclusions and othering, as ethnic nationalism spreads like wildfire across the United States and Europe, is a powerful strategy–and one used by minority groups throughout history.

Author Mustafa Bayoumi, in his book How Does it Feel to be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America writes, “Muslim Americans are the new ‘problem’ of American society, but of course there are others.” From Black Americans to Mexican immigrants, Catholics to Jews, diverse groups have faced discrimination throughout American history, and comedy is a proven creative means for critiquing tragedy. As Rabbi Leo M. Abrami  reflects, “In Jewish humor, comedy and tragedy are intertwined and it is often what you might call “laughter through tears,” or as we say in Yiddish, “a bitterer gelekhter!”

Elisabeth Becker was the principal investigator of the Muslims for American Progress (MAP)-NYC project and is a postdoctoral fellow with Religion & Its Publics.

Photo Source: Muslims for American Progress/Courtesy of Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Religion and Populism: A Blind Spot for Social Sciences by Slavica Jakelić

July 9, 2018

The Trump phenomenon has scholars feverishly adding to the already burgeoning literature on populism. Yet, the relationship between populism and religion has not yet garnered the attention it deserves. If only for that reason, the new volume Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion, contributes significantly to populism studies and is likely to become an indispensable item on any reading list about this topic.

The volume editors (Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell, Olivier Roy) and their collaborators analyze the place of religion in the construction of populist platforms with a set of important questions:  How do populists express the conception of religious identities? How do they define their politics against religiously-defined others? And, how to understand the changing nature of the relationship between populists and representatives of religious communities?

Moreover, the volume contributors ask those questions in a range of cases—Austria, Northern Italy, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Poland, Britain, Hungary, USA, and Israel. This ensures attention to variations. With its primary focus on Europe, the book also identifies two important features of contemporary European populisms: The paradoxical ways in which populists bring together the forms of political secularism and Christianity; and the manner in which they define themselves not simply against “Islam” but against “Islamisation.”

Notwithstanding such important insights, this is a book that shows religion is still a blind spot for social sciences, and it will not satisfy those interested in a reflexive understanding of “the religious” component of populist politics. The volume entails a theory of religion that is never explicitly articulated or reflected on, but has profound implications for how the authors approach religion-populism connections. This implicit theory of religion, just as is the case with so much of the social scientific studies of nationalism and religion, is modernist in character and skewed against religious identitarianism. It emerges in the binary distinctions between “believing & belonging”,” theology & culture”,” universal & particular forms of religiosity.

The above mentioned binaries are posited a priori and as if merely descriptive in character, while they are, in fact, profoundly theological in origins and normative in implications. Consider the following sections in Olivier Roy’s concluding chapter: It “seems to be the case,” he writes, “that the more the individual insists on ‘faith’ versus ‘identity,’ the less likely he or she is to vote for populists.” In political life, he continues, “religion…has …been transformed into a purely nominal marker of identity, without any positive content, and certainly not concomitant with traditional values based on theology and spirituality.”  

No religion, Christianity including, is ever only about identity. But if Christianity is approached as not only a matter of theological ideas but also a lived, historically embedded and culturally embodied tradition, then Christianity, just like any other religion, is also about identity and it is certainly also about particular group identities. The populist take on identitarian Christianity, in other words, is only the last iteration in a long history of narratives about Christianity as a civilizational or identity marker (something that sociologist Rogers Brubaker notes in his recent work on European populism and ‘civilizational Christianism’).

With this in mind, the notion that identitarian Christianity associated with European populisms signifies secularization because of some purported new shift from ‘faith’ to ‘identity’ ought not to be assumed. Instead it should be framed as a question to be empirically examined, and placed in a longer historical perspective of multiple European Christianities rather than only in relation to the (short) populist moment.

The interpretation of identitarian Christianity also requires reflexivity with regard to the bigger question about how those who write about religion theorize “religion.” As religious studies scholars have long shown, the “scientific” study of religion is a field that had Christian origins and distinctly theological stakes. Here, the task of defining the “substantive” or “essential” aspect of religion has been intertwined with the ultimate question of what “true” religion is.  (It mirrors, among other things, differences between Protestant and Catholic perspectives as they encountered each other and in how they encountered non-Christian traditions).

Thus, when a social scientist writes of the “substantive” and “positive” content of Christianity and gives “beliefs” and “faith” priority over “belonging” and “culture,” he or she is making a theological move. The latter is not a problem in itself but it is a problem if presented as an objective sociological or historical observation.

Aside from the theoretical, there is another, political problem arising from attempts to understand the links between religion and populism within the binaries adopted in this volume. In stating that it is the believing, theological, and universal parts of religion that counter the populist anti-pluralism or its xenophobic nationalism, one is not only assessing the cultural, particular, and identity elements of religious experience as not being essential to religion, one is also suggesting that they are irredeemable when it comes to pluralism and toleration.

The question here is not whether religions shaping particular group attachments exclude—they certainly do. But so do the universal claims of religious traditions, with their ideas and in their practices. Which is why, if one wants to understand the links between religion and populism, or if one is concerned with sustaining pluralism against the populist forms of intolerance and the hegemony of “the people,” religiously shaped particular attachments should not be dismissed a priori as intolerant by virtue of their particularity. They sometimes are and sometimes are not.

Identitarian religions can, in fact, subvert exclusivist nationalisms to provide different and localized ways of thinking about the practices of pluralism. As is the case with most human experience, the perils and promises of such religions do not reveal themselves in binaries but in the details.

Slavica Jakelić is Associate Professor of Humanities and Social Thought at Christ College, The Honors College of Valparaiso University. She is the author of Collectivistic Religions: Religion, Choice, and Identity in Late Modernity.

Senior Fellow Dr. Liz Bucar for Our Podcast Series The Square

In this edition of The Square, our senior fellow Liz Bucar talks with Jane Little about the sometimes fractious relationship between journalists and scholars, the #MeToo movement inside the academy, and how she’s learning from younger women academics on how to engage in scholarship that shifts the conversation.

For more episodes of The Square, featuring E.J. Dionne, Luke Bretherton, R. Marie Griffith, and more, head to our Podcast Page.

In Defense of Economic Knowledge: A Review of Jean Tirole’s Economics for the Common Good by Christina McRorie

June 28, 2018

Like many of us today, Nobel Prize winning economist Jean Tirole is worried about the increasingly ‘post-factual’ nature of public discourse. He’s especially concerned by the way that nationalistic and populist rhetoric that pits “us” versus “them” threatens to displace the more measured analysis of particulars that is necessary for the good governance of global markets.

These fears significantly inform the pages of Tirole’s recent book, Economics for the Common Good (Princeton, 2017). In it, he introduces the state of economic thinking on a rather wide range of topics, from how environmental regulations work to the causes of the global financial crisis of 2008. Tirole also devotes a few chapters to explaining what academic economists do all day, and how their discipline develops new knowledge.

Unlike other recent works by economists-turned-public intellectuals such as Thomas Piketty and Richard Thaler, Economics for the Common Good is not an attempt to popularize Tirole’s own scholarship. Instead, it defends the idea that economics can contribute to the common good; Tirole often seems to be pleading with his readers to remember that economic facts do, in fact, exist. This is the single, and simple, message linking the book’s many chapters: economics may not be a perfect science, but it is a science and we ignore its wisdom at our own peril.

It is strange to think that only a decade ago, such a message would have been more or less unnecessary. As recently as the early 2000s, economics and economists still enjoyed considerable cultural and political cachet. Progressive and conservative global leaders alike generally presumed a roughly neoliberal worldview in which economic knowledge reigned supreme, or at least appeared to. Policies promoting global economic integration were allegedly based upon an ever growing body of knowledge about the way markets work, and how to control them. Public deliberations regularly began with the premise that economic laws were unchanging, and real, and deserved our deference.

Of course, some of this confidence in technical expertise was misplaced. Scholars in the humanities (including some religionists and theologians, alongside non-mainstream economists, for that matter) have long felt a need to point out that economics is a fundamentally social science, and as such reflects and in turn shapes the values and practices of the societies it purports to objectively study—and, of course, that many of the policies sold using economic authority proved harmful to the socially vulnerable across the globe, as well.

But suddenly, neoliberal economic sensibilities are no longer quite so dominant; they are being replaced by new and revived nationalisms and populisms. From an economic point of view, the wave of protectionist trade policies we are now seeing is a throwback to a time before even Adam Smith. Far from inappropriately appealing to economic expertise, leaders enacting these policies have apparently rejected the idea of expertise altogether. (Consider, for example, the Trump Administration’s willful insistence that tariffs upon imported goods will drive growth and protect American jobs, when it’s abundantly clear that they do neither.) In light of such disastrously magical thinking by those in power, Tirole’s rather sane defense of some basic economic insights—the audacious idea that all policies have opportunity costs, for example—suddenly does seem urgently warranted.

One wonders, though, whether this is the message needed most by those already willing to pick up a 500 page tome on economics—and for those not already convinced, whether Tirole’s patient exposition of his science would be of any use. Can further appeals to economic knowledge—even appropriate ones— be the way forward, if those were part of the problem in the first place? To what extent have economists contributed to the anti-intellectual backlash against expertise we’re currently witnessing? Is this rising mood of disenchantment with globalization partly the result of frustrated expectations (however unrealistic they were) that the science of markets would save us from politics?

It is a shame that Tirole does not ask such questions. Certainly economists are not uniquely responsible for our breakdown in public discourse; this is at least as much about culture, politics, and religion as it is about markets, or any single academic discipline. But we are unlikely to resolve what’s been called our “crisis of facts” by simply repeating what we do know to be true (such as the fact that tariffs hurt the poorest the most, or that immigration economically benefits receiving countries).

Politicians, economists, and scholars of religion alike must ask: Have we contributed to our currently fractious state of affairs? If so, how can we undo that contribution? And how can we use our disciplinary strengths to foster public conversations in which facts can not only be announced, but also heard?

Christina McRorie is Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University.

Jeff Sessions, Methodist on Trial by Rev. Isaac Collins

June 20, 2018

The United Methodist Church doesn’t often hit the headlines but it has after more than 600 of my fellow members filed charges against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a professing member, for breaking church law with his implementation of the new “zero tolerance” policy on immigration.

The formal complaint claims that Sessions has repeatedly violated the Book of Discipline, the text that governs our life together as United Methodists. It’s strong stuff. He is accused of child abuse, for his separation of children from their parents at the US border, immorality, racial discrimination, and dissemination of doctrines contrary to the those of the UMC.

So what happens next? Well, Sessions’ pastor, either of the church he attends in Virginia or of his home church in Alabama, must address the charges with him. It is up to the pastor to lead the Attorney General to a ‘just resolution’ of the situation. The Book of Discipline defines that as, “one that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all parties.”

However, to reach such a resolution, Sessions would have to agree with the charges filed against him. And that’s not going to happen. If he refuses to cooperate with the complaint process, his case could be taken to church trial. Many would delight at the prospect of the Attorney General in the dock, forced to account for his “misuse of Romans 13” (part of the formal complaint). But there is no reason to believe that will happen either.  The truth is that racist political policies are not what the UMC has church trials over.

In the last thirty years, the church trial has mostly been used to punish and expel clergy who perform same-sex weddings or ordinations. That too is in violation of the Book of Discipline. In those cases, which are legion, charges are brought that inevitably lead to anything but a just resolution for the clergyperson involved, who is forced to surrender their ministerial credentials and find a new vocation.

It is deemed a far more serious offence in the church to marry two LGBTQIA people who love one another than it is to destroy the lives of children as part of a white supremacist administration that sows hatred and division.

The complaint brought against Attorney General Sessions, if taken seriously, could at the least start an important discussion about the denomination’s relationship to American political power. Jeff Sessions is just one of several politicians who are Methodists. They include Hillary Clinton, President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, who has condemned the child separation policy as immoral and cruel, (but perhaps not fully-reckoned with her husband’s role in the creation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE in the first place), and sacked FBI director, James Comey.

Some readers might worry that if the church pursues charges against Sessions, then what would keep other Methodists from bringing a formal complaint against any of these political figures that they disagree with? The whole enterprise might just become another battleground in our fractured political terrain.

But how about we Methodists have an honest conversation about our church’s influence on the last thirty years of domestic and foreign policy? What would it look like to find a “just resolution” between our denomination and the people of Ferguson, Charlottesville, Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Honduras?

Perhaps we would find that while we may claim that Sessions’ actions are antithetical to our theological commitments, nothing about our church’s practice has prevented members of our denomination from invading other countries, authorizing the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, or creating systems of mass surveillance.

The Book of Discipline’s language on accountability calls all United Methodists to “be a witness for Christ in the world, a light and leaven in society, and a reconciler in a culture of conflict.” We are to “exemplify the Christ of hope.”

Such a call to honest discussion wouldn’t turn our process into a political tool, designed to expel those with whom we disagree. It would make our church look more like the Kingdom of God. It would help us to work toward the grandest of Wesleyan spiritual goals, being made perfect in love. It might bring a just resolution to all our needless conflict.

Rev. Isaac Collins is the Lead Pastor of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, a reconciling congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia. He can be reached at

Pluralizing Nationalism, Or Why ‘New Patriotism’ Might Not Be an Answer by Slavica Jakelić

June 20, 2018

In his conversation with Religion & Its Publics Senior Fellows, E. J. Dionne argues that America needs a new patriotism. This is a patriotism grounded in ideals: it begins with the “pride in our ability to absorb newcomers…the pride in their intense desire to become Americans” and, together with empathy, it can rejuvenate American democratic culture so that the ideal of political freedom is not enacted only through conflict but also through consensus.

We also hear from Dionne that patriotism supplies an answer to politics of divisions that triumphed in Trump’s election. As he writes in his book “One Nation After Trump”, co-authored with Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, that victory successfully linked “populism, nationalism, nativism, and protectionism,” thus threatening the institutions of American democracy, especially its commitment to pluralism. (In that they agree with EJ’s colleague at the Brookings Institution, William Galston).

Calls for a new patriotism accurately identify two challenges: first, the need to respond to a moment in which it is the populists who most successfully articulate the notions of collective identity (defining the “we” as the hegemonic power of “the people” against, vertically, “the elite” and, horizontally, minorities) and second, the demand to put forward a constructive notion of what binds Americans to each other while they remain different from each other. The constructive aspect of the task is most challenging—to shape a collectivity, respect pluralism, and, in Jason Springs’s apt phrase, allow for a ‘healthy conflict.’ But to get there, is it a new patriotism or a new nationalism that is needed? I have suggested in another post why nationalism cannot be conflated with populism. Here I want to problematize another distinction, the one between patriotism and nationalism:

George Orwell, to whom Dionne refers, famously argued that patriotism is about a devotion to a place and a way of life, while nationalism is about power and blind loyalty to one’s country that places it beyond good and evil. Philosophers tell us that patriotism is about the love of country, and nationalism is about love of one group of people with whom one shares ethnic or historical bonds. They also instruct us that patriotism can be shaped in accord with virtue and morality. It can be, to use Igor Primoratz’s term, “ethical,” asking whether policies and institutions of one’s country are just, domestically and internationally. Nationalism, we are told, is always about special love for one’s people. Here, loyalty precedes morality and attachments precede moral concerns.

As with any neat list of conceptual distinctions, the problem with this one is that even those who elaborate it often blur the differences between patriotism and nationalism, sometimes conflating the two notions altogether. (Dionne, for example, moves without explanation from patriotism to the “national culture we share and shape.”)  The second problem with patriotism-nationalism distinctions is how they fuse conceptual thinking with the act of political moralizing: nationalism is emptied of any ethical force while patriotism is imbued with moral content in ways that all to easily get us to claims that we are patriots while they are nationalists. There is yet another difficulty with neat patriotism-nationalism differentiation, this one directly related to the patriotism advocates’s desire to shape a response to nativism, a response that allows both for plurality and bonds of identity. This problem emerges from the view of patriotism as individualistic, reasonable, and open to contestations, and of nationalism as collectivistic, visceral, and exclusivist.  

Despite the messiness or impossibility of patriotism-nationalism distinctions—as conceptually discussed or practically enacted—I want to suggest that patriotism is always posited as an ethical ideal in terms of a capacity to reconcile one’s responsibility to her community and the sovereignty of the individual. The concern with individualism, against all forms of collectivisms, is the background of Orwell’s understanding of nationalism; individualism is also at stake in the discussions of philosophers, political theorists, and public figures mentioned here. They know that something is needed to bind individuals into a meaningful democratic polity but reject nationalism seeing it as collectivistic and ultimately violent.

Such concerns about nationalism are justified: nothing taught me more about nationalism’s hegemonic and violent faces than the brutality of the 1990s war in my own country, Croatia. Yet, this does not change my doubts about the purported moral promise of patriotism and its superiority over nationalism, and my earlier invitation to pluralize our thinking about nationalism. Hence my questions:

Can one’s love of a place bind an individual to others, into a meaningful democratic political community that has long been divided? Can one’s pride about one’s country’s ideals heal divisions that result also from the historical practices her country wants to forget? Can the individualistic locus of patriotism take on the collective force of populist narratives of belonging and exclusion?

Or, could critical and historically conscious narratives of national belonging provide a framework of identity that more powerfully confront nativisms of our time? I am thinking here of narratives that arise in the protests of kneeling NFL players. Their resistance to racial injustices is not their rejection but a way to claim and redefine the American identity. But I am also thinking here of a need for more pluralistic intellectual accounts of nationalism—the ones that recognize that a history of nationalisms in any given case is plural and a story of contestations among various narratives, and the accounts of nationalism that, in remembering and probing one nation’s history in all its facets, enable critique but also a reflexive formation of attachments.

In the 19th century, historian Ernest Renan argued that, to get a nation, you must get its history wrong. In the 21st century, we could claim, to get a nation, it is necessary to get its history right. Can a patriotism that is individualistic, empathetic, and selective in remembering accomplish this? Or, could a reflexive approach to nationalisms, past and present, shape an ethical nationalism that can forge another way forward and reject the populists’ attempts to claim the domain of collective identity only as their own?

Slavica Jakelić is Associate Professor of Humanities and Social Thought at Christ College, The Honors College of Valparaiso University. Her current book project is entitled Chastening Religious and Secular Humanisms: Identity, Solidarity, and the Practice of Pluralism.