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