Monday, November 5, 2007

Representations of Islam in Comedy

Group 1 will be presenting our project on how Islam is represented within a medium that is often not thought of to correlate with religion, but relates more often that you'd think: comedy, particularly stand-up, political cartoons and even sitcoms.

Non-Muslims, especially Westerners, tend to have a misunderstanding of people who are Muslim, as is expressed in this New York Times article written by Nicholas D. Kristof. Essentially, as we are all aware, because of the events of 9/11, Americans tend to have negative stereotypes about all Muslims just because of a few extremists. Even though many of us know it's irrational and wrong, we still tend to think poorly of Muslims however unfounded our prejudices. It's essential to learn more about the culture and the people that take the brunt of our unfounded discrimination, and to be conscious of the views we have about people just because of their heritage or religion.

Recall the incident of the offensive Denmark cartoons published in the newspapers that made jabs at Muhammad and Muslims. The most infamous depiction of Muhammad was one in which he had a bomb in his turban. Not only is it offensive to pictorally depict the prophet Muhammad at all, but couple that with a negative stereotype and it's no wonder that many Muslims were angry. The incident fueled protests from members of the Islamic community, and in some cases even violent actions. However, there is a community of people, including one specific blogger who say that the negative reactions to these cartoons were too rash and violent to be considered Islamic. People like this urged those opposing the cartoons to be calm, and embody the non-violence that Islam upholds so as to show that Muslims are not all violent religious extremists.

We didn't really expect to see many stand-up comics pursue the subject of Islam in their acts, but there were a few, and of course the reactions to these comics range vastly. One of these comics, a man named Jeff Dunham is a ventriloquist who has a puppet named Achmed, who happens to be a suicide bomber who has died. The puppet looks like a Halloween decoration, and the act is rather humorous in its secular portions, but the fact remains that this character who is a terrorist just happens to have the characteristics that apply to a Muslim. And while some viewers appreciate this supposed attempt at making light of a tense subject, others claim that this comic is blatantly racist and ethnocentric. You can watch the video on YouTube and decide for yourself. Another comic is a Muslim woman named Shazia Mirza who, despite the disapproval of her parents and other members of the Islamic culture, is a stand-up comedian even though her religion presumably states that as a woman she should not be on a stage. However, Shazia says that there is textual support from the Qu'ran that advocates her choice of career. Reactions to her act also vary, with many people claiming to be uncomfortable with her style, not sure whether to laugh because of the sensitivity of the subject of Islam in America. She also says that comedy bridges the gap between oppression and empowerment, and that she hopes that her actions will have leverage against all the negativities we may hear about Muslims and Islam itself.

Additionally, there is a Canadian sitcom called Little Mosque on the Prairie that also uses the technique of comedy to communicate the true values and ways of life of Muslims that many people may overlook or misunderstand. People who have viewed the show have said that it is very accurate and funny as well. In the same way as stand-up comedians hope to do, this show hopes to utilize comedy as a light-hearted form of communication that can get through to everyone, so that everyone can begin to understand things about this religion and lifestyle that they never have before.

Although it's perhaps an unorthodox way to view and study Islam in the media, comedy is a unique but loveable medium through which many ideas can be communicated, even serious ones, without seeming too overt or harshly calling for social change. With comedy, people will see it or hear it, laugh and internalize the issue in a way that is comfortable and maybe surface-level at first. But it still helps to teach people about concepts they were not aware of before or were reluctant to learn about. Although there has not been many studies done on this particular form of expression in regards to Islam that we could find, it is still emerging, for this concept of talking about a tense religious subject through televised and published comedy is still tricky and prone to failure. Hopefully in the future we will find that it is an effective way to teach and to make light of a subject that is normally taken so seriously to the point of offense.

If you want to learn more about Islam in general, there is a Mosque Open House Saturday November 10th, from 10 am to 4 pm at the Islamic Community of Bryan at 417 Stasney St. It's in College Station, by University right off of Cherry St. If you Mapquest it, you'll find it; it should be really fun!

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