Image credit: TheMuslimsAreComing.com
“On September 10th, 2001, I went to sleep an American,” comedian Dean Obeidallah told a packed room at Georgetown University’s Mortara Center for International Affairs. “On September 11th, I woke up an Arab,” he said with a smile. This summer Dean and a group of American Muslim comedians have been making audiences laugh across the south of the U.S. with their tour, “The Muslims are Coming!”
After the events of 9/11, the American Muslim community was thrust into the spot light like never before. From a household of mixed Christian and Muslim faith with Palestinian and Italian heritage to boot, Dean told the audience in his thick New Jersey accent about how some Arab Americans had chosen to distance themselves from their heritage and faith in the years that followed 9/11, while others – including himself – “embraced our latent Arab identity.”
A former comedy writer for Saturday Night Live, Dean recognized that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 would negatively impact the American Muslim community so he resolved to put his comedic skills to good use to counter this effect. Now he uses laughter to try to improve dialogue and understanding between the American Muslim community and wider American society. Following in the footsteps of African American comedians like Richard Prior and Chris Rock (favorites of Dean’s) who have countered racism against their communities, he hopes that his comedy can have a similar impact upon the relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims in the U.S.
Dean’s post-9/11 identity transformation ultimately led to his involvement in the highly publicized comedy tour “The Muslims are coming!” in August 2011. Dean and fellow comedians Negin Farsad, Masoon Zayid and Omar Elba took to the stage in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee. They played on fears of a Muslim takeover in the U.S. with a satire that helped to show how such fears are misplaced and, in fact, laughable. The entire project, soon to be made into a documentary, was funded solely by the comedians, their friends and their families. All of the shows were free to attend to ensure maximum outreach.
Obeidallah told the audience at Georgetown that he was aware that most Americans say they haven’t ever actually met a Muslim, and he firmly believes that this can only help to feed misconceptions, suspicion and fear. He described how each show ended with a “town hall style Q&A meeting” and was greeted with laughter when he told the audience of how the comedians set up “Ask a Muslim” booths on the streets and a “Bowling with Muslims” event.
Throughout his tour of the South, Obeidallah said, “I learned that overwhelmingly Americans are not just tolerant but supportive of equal rights for all Americans when it comes to freedom of religion.” And he hopes that after his tour, his audiences agree.