The heritage and lifestyle of Negin Farsad, daughter to an Iranian immigrant, has put her on the receiving end of hateful remarks and half-witted jokes while growing up.
From being shouted at on the streets of New York City, or even told “to go back to your country” while traveling across the United States, the jokes and insults, whether malicious or not, kept coming her way.
But instead of sulking, she decided to use her heritage to fuel her stand up comedy career.
"I talk about my life," she said about her comedy routine. “And (my heritage) ends up being reflected in the material.”
Earlier this year, Farsad and seven other comedians traveled across the country performing at comedy clubs. Their experiences are chronicled in the movie, "The Muslims Are Coming!" which was released this month. The film, Farsad says, seeks to understand and explore misconceptions and prejudice around Islam in the United States.
But it also shows how comedy can increase understanding about people of faith, and break down prejudices.
Comebacks and response
University of Richmond professor Terryl Givens said when “The Book Mormon” musical opened on Broadway in 2011 and became a smash hit, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints set up a billboard and advertisements in the play’s program that read, “You’ve seen the play ... now read the book.”
The church, he said, was fighting humor with humor and “responded by focusing instead on the generally humorous context of the musical.” Givens said this was a safe strategy for the church when confronting jokes and insults.
“Regardless of the motive, the safest response is to let it roll off one's shoulders,” he said of religious insults. It’s best to play it safe with light and responsive humor, he said.
During the comedy group's cross-country tour, they often heard negative comments about the Mulsim faith, especially in places like Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. No matter how many positive reactions they got from people, there were “hateful” remarks thrown their way, Farsad said.
And so the members knew they’d have to figure out a new way to approach people and break down barriers. So they hit the lanes and went bowling with those curious about Muslims. And while in Georgia, Farsad also set up a “Ask a Muslim” booth, where people could approach and ask questions about Islam.
Drawing the line
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a professor at Loyola University’s law school, said intent is a crucial part of defining the line between an insult directed at a believer and a genuine joke, especially for those of the Jewish faith.
When someone outside of the Jewish community tells a joke about Judaism, there’s a different reaction and it raises suspicions among Jews, Adlerstein said. For example, Adlerstein said if a Christian told a joke about Jewish people, there’d be suspicion the joke-teller might be an anti-Semite.
“When Jews tell something similar — the sinister intent isn’t there,” he said.
And a satire's intent helps draw the line, too. Givens said satire has been one of the main ways people poke fun of Mormonism, with with “The Book of Mormon” musical being the prime example.
“The divide between our secular culture and Mormons' unyielding commitment to (their) forms of morality and social practice is increasingly bound to be a target of commentary and satire,” Givens said.
But if jokers look to unravel the stereotypes, the jokes “can be very powerful and helping,” Farsad said.
Farsad tells one joke about herself and a Jewish ex-boyfriend: She sees a man across the dance floor and tells her friend that the man is Jewish. Confused, her friend asks her how she knows this.
“Because he’s spinning a dreidel,” Farsad answers.
It’s a joke she feels comfortable telling in front of all audiences “because I’m putting myself in a scenario and I’m talking about our relationship,” she said.
Farsad said jokes against one religious group could hurt all believers.
“A slight toward a Muslim is a slight towards so many racial groups,” she said.
It’s similar for Jewish and Mormon cultures. Adlerstein said Jewish people understand they need to unite when facing these kinds of issues.
“We’ve known to watch each other’s backs,” he said.
Adlerstein also said insults and jokes based on religious stereotypes shouldn't overly affect believers.
“When you were a kid in the playground and some kid made a joke about your mother, it didn’t shake your confidence in your mother,” he said.
Adlerstein said finding a way to make it through insults makes the believer stronger.
“Every time a believer in anything is challenged and has to do more than draw back and open up to the challenge and face it and respond to it, then they do become stronger,” he said.
Givens said Mormons are unique from many other faith groups because their community is quickly growing. With different cultures of Mormons — from those in New York, California and Utah — it helps LDS believers form a united front against any insults that come their way.
“It’s one thing to be an object of ridicule if you’re alone in a crowd,” Givens said.
Farsad said her movie and comedy tour was but a small step to combat negative stereotypes of Muslims. She doesn't expect jokes at the expense of Muslims to go away anytime soon.
But she sees a solution.
“What we should do as Americans? We should say, 'Is this material actually bigotry or is it satire?'” Farsad said. “It does feel like if more people did this, just on a small scale of knowing their neighbors, we would all be in better shape.”
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