Islamophobia v. Islamo-comedy

The caption at the beginning of Obsession: Radical Islam’s War against the West reads: “It’s important to remember most Muslims are peaceful and do not support terror. This is not a film about them.” Good, I’m thinking. They have the disclaimer right in the beginning. This film can’t be that bad. I was wrong.

The images are familiar—hundreds of thousands of Muslims swarming the streets in Lebanon, Iran, and Pakistan burning American flags; clip after clip of angry bearded men calling for the destruction of America and Israel. If I didn’t know any better, I would think that every day was like the Iranian Revolution across the Muslim world.

The so-called experts are also familiar—Daniel Pipes, Nonie Darwish, and Walid Shoebat, notorious Islamophobes, grace the screen repeatedly. Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and founder of Campus Watch, an organization that tracks any academic whose teachings about the Middle East or Islam are deemed critical of American or Israeli policy. Really, if academia ceased to criticize, where would we be? He opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, and once stated that “The increased stature, and affluence, and enfranchisement of American Muslims…will present true dangers to American Jews.” In the film, Pipes maintains that 10-15% of Muslims worldwide support militant Islam. Where he gets these figures, we are not told. When the narrator asks what percentage of the world’s Muslims support jihad, an image of millions of Muslims at Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, flashes the screen. Here, the intent of the filmmakers is evident: to blur the line between mainstream Islam and extremism. Perhaps Pipes personally spoke to all of them for statistical accuracy.

The other “experts,” all proponents of the inevitable “clash of civilizations,” declare that radical Islam has waged war on Western culture. They compare Nazi Germany to Islamism, which is primarily depicted by Iranian and Lebanese militia raising their arms in a traditional military salute—similar to that of the Nazis. The commentators mention that Arab dictators are at fault, as they seek to distract their populations from their own inadequacies by blaming the West for all their problems. I agree with them on this issue. But what they fail to mention is that the Western governments, including the United States, support these dictators—oftentimes with military and economic aid.

Muslims in Western societies, including America, are also targeted in the film. Apparently, some of them are trying to overthrow Western governments and establish an Islamic state. Last I checked, they were still trying to get through airport security.

There is barely any engagement, in the film, with the root causes of extremism; grievances against Western policies or poverty in the Muslim world are dismissed as sympathy for terrorists. Extremism is a matter of ideology and ideology alone: they hate our freedoms; they hate our liberties; they hate our culture. Oversimplifying the tensions between the West and Islam in this manner is not new. It is preceded by eight years of misguided policies towards the Muslim world by the Bush administration. The message of fear without any sort of redress lowers our rationality and brings us to a point where we believe simple slogans like “us versus them” and “you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” In this sharply black and white world, violations like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharaib suddenly become rationalized. As we begin to let the fear control us, we become wary of our neighbors and anxious about that brown-skinned person standing in the subway.

Perhaps it might be better to let these “radical” Muslims speak for themselves: in a recent survey by Gallup, “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” an overwhelming majority of Muslims across the world stated that their negative feelings towards the West were not due to culture or clash over values, but what they perceived as unfair policies by Western governments in the Muslim world.

Unsurprisingly, there are few solutions offered in the film. The commentators continue repeating that the world must be made aware of the dangers of Islamic extremism, which to me, seems like old news. The filmmakers do not seek to truly engage the issue of extremism, but rather offer shallow and undocumented one-liners that deter actual exploration.

They simply wish to instill fear. Unfortunately, they have a lot of money to do so. In the past month, the Clarion Fund, the organization behind the making of the film, distributed 28 million free copies of Obsession as an advertisement in over 70 newspapers nation-wide. In a remarkably political move, weeks before the election, the group is specifically targeting swing-states—and it is no surprise that the film’s enthusiasts are vocal John McCain supporters.

Obsession represents a worldview that threatens to tear apart the social, civic, and religious fabric of American society. Under the guise of national security, this film is nothing more than a prime example of religious bigotry. This bigotry fuels the narrative of the inevitable clash of civilizations—the West and Islam are inherently incompatible and wherever the two encounter each other, there will be bloodshed.

America needs an alternative narrative, one that actually frames the discourse surrounding Islam and the West in a manner that is more representative of reality. Thankfully, this past weekend, another movie opened in select cities nation-wide. I went to see Allah Made me Funny—a concert film that follows three acclaimed American Muslim comedians on and off the stage. Mo Amer, Azhar Usman and Preacher Moss make fun of themselves, their communities, the government, and life as an American Muslim in a post-9/11 context.

The film is simply made. Each comedian has twenty minutes to hold forth. The audience mainly consists of American Muslims of diverse ethnic backgrounds—they laugh hysterically at the jokes and the camera repeatedly zooms in on their reactions. None of the jokes are raunchy—a remarkable feat of its own.

The comedians themselves are diverse. Amer is Palestinian American, Usman is Indian American, and Preacher Moss is Black American. The experiences they share symbolize the diversity in the American Muslim community—Preacher Moss jokes about the shocked reaction of the members of his black church when they heard he had converted to Islam. (Black Americans constitute nearly one-third of the Muslims in America.)

Usman addresses the negative images of Muslims being promoted in Western media—some of the same images shown in Obsession. The hundreds of thousands of Muslim protestors out on the streets—someone in the Muslim world is making a lot of money selling American flags, Usman says. By the way, Usman’s appearance is striking—with his long hair and beard, he fits the stereotype of the Muslim extremist—and he knows it. Imagine me in an airport, he says, you can make your own joke there.

Allah Made me Funny was produced by Unity Productions Foundation (UPF), which is, “a non-profit educational foundation that works through the media to produce films and documentaries that serve the causes of peace and understanding.” UPF explicitly states that they want their vision to be a catalyst for ending the “clash of civilizations.” They have pioneered a number of other films that help audiences understand Islam and Muslims in a wider historical and social context.

What is extraordinary about this film is that it is quintessentially American, in the style of comedians like Bill Cosby or Jerry Seinfeld. By sharing their experiences, these comedians are able to shed light on the American Muslim experience, one that most Americans may not have exposure to. In this breakthrough way, the film extends the space for American Muslims—a demographic that numbers around five to seven million people—to be included into the American cultural and social fabric.

These two films couldn’t be more different, and the differences are important. Are we striving for a nation and a world that is crippled by fear and bigotry or are we willing to live with one another?

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Related story: Allah Made Me Funny: Borscht Belt Goes Halal

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