NYT’s piece on a Muslim comedian evades some important issues

Yesterday’s New York Times had an article written by a Muslim comedian, Zahra Noorbakhsh (you can see part of her act here). Her piece, “It’s not this Muslim comedian’s job to open your mind,” recounts the dilemma of a woman expected to have a comedic mission: to show Americans that Muslims are just like everyone else. This is a task that she doesn’t like, and doesn’t think she should have to take on. (This task, by the way, is also something that many atheists are urged to do by humanizing heathenism, and I think it’s a good strategy for nonbelievers. There’s no better way to dispel bigotry than by seeing and associating with those you were taught to dislike—one theme of the wonderful South Pacific song “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”)

Noorbakhsh chafes under this burden, and thinks it’s useless to try:

This ambivalence has followed me as I’ve fielded similar requests during a time when the Trump administration has attempted to defend its “Muslim ban” campaign promise in the courts, Islamophobic attacks have been reported throughout the country, and fears of a “Muslim registry” still swirl throughout my community.

The idea that jokes will stop the tide of fear, hate and misunderstanding about people who practice Islam is seductive. As a comedian, though, I’m not convinced. We have tried this before.

After Sept. 11, Muslim comics went on what I call “We’re not that scary, we’re funny and just like you!” tours, in desperate attempts to push back against bigotry. In 2005, the “Axis of Evil” tour fought stereotypes with jokes by Muslim comedians in shows throughout the country. In 2013, the docu-comedy “The Muslims Are Coming” aimed to introduce Middle America to normal, huggable, everyday Muslims.

I played this game, too. I tried to humanize Muslim families, with my one-woman show, “All Atheists Are Muslim,” sharing the story of moving in with my white atheist college boyfriend, and telling my parents about it. It’s a typical boy meets girl story, up against thousands of years of cultural tradition and religious doctrine. The message the audience was meant to be left with was that if total nonbelievers and Muslims can find common ground, then everyone in between should be able to.

Unsurprisingly, none of this worked. I saw firsthand that the fairy tale, mind-opening reaction that producers imagined was nowhere to be found. While mixed-race and interfaith couples often thanked me after my shows, many others let me know that I was one of the “good Muslims” whom they didn’t have a problem with. I hadn’t made them more empathetic to Muslims as a whole.

Her solution is just to expose tensions; the underlying theme (see below) is that the tensions, and worry about Muslims, is simply a manifestation of bigotry against Muslims, “Islamophobia” (I prefer to call that bigotry “Muslimophobia”):

. . . Television producers, publishers and those booking events for college campuses all seem to want something similar: a representative of an “everyday” Muslim (I still don’t really know what that means) with an outlook relatable enough to get audiences to forget their bigotry. These pleas don’t make me as sad as the ones that come from Muslim activists, who seem to be begging: Use your jokes to make us human; make us likable; let us prove to people that we’re just like them.

I do understand that comedy has some potential to open people’s minds. But I’ve become convinced that the primary role of political humor today shouldn’t be to alleviate tensions or smooth out differences. It should be to heighten them and illuminate for everyone what is a moment of crisis.

I sympathize with Noorbakhsh: why should the burden of solving the “Muslim problem” rest on her shoulders. She’s a comedian, for crying out loud! But still, she attributes all the tension she’s supposed to relieve as “bigotry” (she uses the word). And there’s the rub, because for many the Muslim problem does not simply come down to “othering”.  (It does, of course, for Trump and his Ban, as well as attacks on Muslims.) Rather, it also reflects a suspicion toward and fear of Islam’s religious dictates, and the attendant fear that they’ll cause harm not just to America, but to the world as a whole. Islam is the most misogynistic, the most violent, and the most intolerant of the world’s great faiths, and its pefidy hasn’t yet been tamed by Enlightenment values. All religions are useless and sometimes harmful reflections of human delusion and irrationality, but Islam is, at present, the most harmful.

Should a comedian deal with those issues in her act? I don’t think so. But at least Noorbakhsh and the Times might recognize that there’s more to the issue than bigotry. As the correspondent who sent me this article commented,

The author of the Times piece elides all the reasons why Muslims are “not just like the rest of us,” ignoring the ideology of Islam, and casting negative reactions to Islam as racism and ignorance.  No editor at the Times thought to point out any of this to her.  There’s an undercurrent of hostility to the piece: it’s not her fault (or Islam’s) if we have negative reactions to the religion; it’s our fault.
You’ll see that as soon as you read it.  We just cannot advance the conversation if major news outlets like the time won’t publish pieces asking the questions that need to be asked…”
Judge for yourself.


  1. GBJames
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 9:28 am | Permalink


  2. Sastra
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    I suppose that the same point could be made about politics. If I went to see a pro-Trump conservative comedian who was likable, relatable, and funny it might help dispel any idea I might have had about Republicans all being inhuman monsters. But the real divide isn’t being addressed. Ideas matter. Nice Guys can do some horrible stuff. An hour or two spent finding common ground and avoiding the topic is only going to promote tolerance on a shallow basis.

    “I tried to humanize Muslim families, with my one woman show ‘All Atheists are Muslim’ …”

    Excuse me, but WTF??? Perhaps the intentions were good and the theme of the piece perfectly acceptable, but the title alone makes me cringe. I’ve seen that bizarre talking point coming from too many wingnuts on the Right, my eyes did not just glide over it. I’m not automatically willing to trust a religious person on this topic. Plus, that title on a poster? Egads.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      “If I went to see a pro-Trump conservative comedian who was likable, relatable, and funny … “

      You’re more likely to spot the snipe in the preceding post. Snipes are rare; pro-Trump comedians, mythological. 🙂

    • Zach
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      “I’ve seen that bizarre talking point coming from too many wingnuts on the Right…”

      Really? This is the first time I’ve seen it, and I was thoroughly baffled.

      Guess it makes sense though, in a linguistically warped way. If you include both “atheist” and “Muslim” in the set “anti-Christian degenerate,” then “atheist” and “Muslim” can be used equivalently as code for “anti-Christian degenerate.” Still crazy-obstuse though.

      Speaking about obtuse, can Noorbakhsh really not understand why an account of her dating an atheist wouldn’t necessarily change the way people think about “Muslims as a whole”? If we’re going to worry about “Muslims as a whole” I have to ask, how would “Muslims as a whole” feel about one of their daughters dating an atheist?

      • Sastra
        Posted May 7, 2017 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        There’s been talk among various wingnut conservative conspiracy theorists about a supposed atheist-Muslim alliance. There’s also been a lot of amusement over such from the atheist side. I’m not sure what the Muslims think of this one. It’s also been referred to as an Atheist-Gay-Muslim alliance. The mind boggles.

        Since I don’t know exactly where the heartwarming tale goes, I can’t comment on whether the comedian misjudged its effect on the audience. I was just reacting to the title.

        • nicky
          Posted May 7, 2017 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

          Well, there actually is a kind of smooching up by the regressive left (atheist) with political Islam.
          Mindboggling indeed.

          • Sastra
            Posted May 8, 2017 at 7:26 am | Permalink

            Political Islam? Do you have any examples?

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I must concur that comedians are not the poster boys and girls to educate the audience on religion or much of anything. One that comes to mind who took on all the issues was George Carlin, but he was an exception. He was more like a comedian who becomes something else and you expect it when you watch him. Most comedians would not touch some of the issues covered by Carlin and rightly so. I doubt that George made atheists out of many believers but he may have given them something to think about.

  4. Michael Fisher
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I had a few university friends who fled Iran [with their parents] after the ’79 revolution – a sort of middle class Persian diaspora to Paris, London & LA. The ones I met [uni kids my age] were all [yes all] very witty, charming & broadly highly literate – great cooks, dancers & story tellers, males & females both. None of them referred to Islam nor followed the prohibitions re food, clothing etc. They have all seamlessly integrated into the West. I don’t know much about the parents of the above uni kids as I only met two sets at graduation, but those two sets were liberal Persians with business minds who had done reasonably well under the Shah…

    I also noticed a different type of Persian in the background at uni – all male, bearded & wearing camo jackets – all doing science or engineering courses, very narrow in their interests & disapproving of the world outside their little bubble. I assume they were sent abroad with the bill picked up by the Iranian Islamic regime or the Iranian armed forces & I expect many returned home & got gobbled up in the absolutely insane butchery of the Iran-Iraq war [1980 to 1988 with maybe 1,000,000 total dead counting both sides].

    This Zahra Noorbakhsh was born in 1980 in California – I expect within weeks/months of her folks landing there & her heritage is clearly paragraph 1 above, not para 2.

    I think she is wrong – Muslims doing comedy about Muslims/Islam & the West do make a difference. If she doesn’t want to engage on the subject, then she could change her direction somewhat.

    I agree that the journalist should have pressed her a lot more. I somehow think that Zahra herself hasn’t delved deeply into the important questions because I get no sense of who she is: What does being a Muslim mean to her? Is she some sort of cultural Muslim? I can’t figure her out. Perhaps she doesn’t know.

    Islam/Muslim is a major subject in her humour. For example her website landing page has only these words, “Zahra Noorbakhsh ON BEHALF OF ALL MUSLIMS” – which frankly makes no sense to me, given that in most of the Islamic world she would not live long.

    Her YouTube channel leans towards skits on Muslim stereotypes:

    I think she is funniest when making observations about ordinary life. She is a rather charming woman although political correctness is a big burden for a comedian to carry. Perhaps she could aim more at her bi-sexuality & the tensions between her family, herself & her atheist boyfriend?

    Meanwhile over here in the UK we have the comedian Shappi Khorsandi – she is president of the British Humanist Association & she does the cultural gap thing very well – the Farsi language, English food/customs, Iran-Iraq war etc. She has a book called “A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English” which I give an 8 /10

    We also have the hilarious Omid Djalili, an Iranian Bahá’í** who had a marvellous sketch at Edinburgh called “Short, Fat Kebab Shop Owner’s Son” – here is a recent video of him

    ** Recent religion [1860s], grew out of Shia Islam – would be a boon if it could swallow up the Islam faith entirely!

    This post is all over the shop 🙂

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      … “Zahra Noorbakhsh ON BEHALF OF ALL MUSLIMS” – which frankly makes no sense to me …

      I think that’s irony, meant to signify she ain’t representin’.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        @Ken Thank you. That makes sense now

    • somer
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      Plainly Zahra Noorbakhsh is a highly atypical Muslim but still Im sure she occasionally cops hostile stereotyping and pidgeonholing from some westerners. However the bad behaviour of *some* in the west does not mean we should forget the problem with Islam and our expectation that it does not spread its cultural influence in the west. We need to be sensitive to the difficulties for most Muslim people in the west and understand that the majority of Muslims in most/many western countries just want to get on in the broader economy and educate and raise their children to do well and be healthy rather than primarily fixating on their religious community. People from Muslim countries are of course diverse individuals too.

      I just think there are plenty of comedians on this tack and it can come across as preaching – though I suppose it reminds us that there are genuine difficulties and unwarranted assumptions/hostility/indifference for some Muslims in the west as well. The problem is where the comedy message gets mixed in with demands for SJW treatment of Islam itself because the West is presented as uniquely unjust and needful of constant moral scourging. Pace Walid Aly and Scott Stephens “the Moral Minefield” on the ABC, and some atheist comedians here in Oz who blame muslim ills wholesale on “western colonialism”. As long as we can freely point this out and as long as there is a genuine diversity of voices in the arts, entertainment and elsewhere all well and good.

      The British Humanist society does much good work but several times Mariam Namazie has criticised it for working with religions over issues like Sharia law rather than pushing for freedom of expression etc and preserving the secular sphere even if religion protests this is offensive
      http://maryamnamazie.com/why-remove-one-law-for-alls-name/ also on one of her Bread and Roses programs.

  5. Posted May 7, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post!

  6. somer
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    While I appreciate Zahra Noorbakhsh no doubt gets some hostility and/or stereotyping from ignorant westerners occasionally on account of being from Iranian and Muslim background – she can hardly paint herself as a typical Muslim. Back in Iran she would be killed for a number of reasons – and she would be persecuted or maybe even killed in most Muslim countries. Fair enough she wants to make known her distinct identity issues – that she is an individual but still wants to be Muslim and accepted, but she then should acknowledge she has more freedom to be herself in the West. At any rate media outlets – when they give voice to problems with attitudes towards/treatment of Muslims in part of the western society need to also give a voice (in articles and in comments if they have comments) to those who have legitimate concerns about Islam. Too often the liberal media wholesale take the side of everything Muslim and Islamic (usually conflating the two) because the conservative media is reliably critical of or even hostile to muslims. However on the topic of Islam and Muslims the liberal media normally screens out opposing views and comments that are based on reasonable concerns, or that seeki to address dishonest or untrue statements and arguments – too often tarring such views as “racist”. I believe this sort of behaviour by the liberal media contributes to the rise of a phenomenon like Trump.

  7. Filippo
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    The hard copy Sun 5/7/17 NY Times pg. 1 shows a picture of an Indonesian being whipped for pre-marital sex, with an audience of observers, some of whom videoing with their various digital devices.

    “Strikes” me that this is Islamofascism going out of its way to instigate Islamophobia.

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