"I'm an Iranian-American Muslim female," says comedian Negin Farsad in her stand-up act. "Where my Muzzies at? Come on guys, where my Muzzies at?," she asks the crowd.
Farsad looks like a cartoon character and has the voice to match. Picture an Iranian-American Betty Boop with granny glasses. She rocks cleavage-baring short dresses in bright colors, curses like a sailor on stage and still considers herself a proud, card-carrying Muslim.
"I view it very much as a cultural background," says Farsad. She explains that American society doesn't seem to have an issue calling Jews and Christians who don't practice their faith, well, Jews and Christians.
"We're really used to in the United States saying, 'That guy's a Jew but he's a Woody Allen Jew!' He probably has a BLT every once in a while and it's no big deal," says Farsad. That there are plenty of Christians who celebrate Christmas but never go to church, she says. "We don't have that same understanding of Islam, so for me it's really important to say, 'No, no, no, I'm like that, I'm as Muslim as you are Christian! Which is to say — not that much.'"
Farsad co-directed a new documentary called The Muslims Are Coming! It follows a crew of Muslim-American comedians on a tour through Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Utah and Arizona lead by Farsad and co-director and comedian Dean Obeidallah. Their mission: dispel negative stereotypes about Muslims and Islam with humor.
I interviewed the duo on the steps of a long-shuttered Burlington Coat Factory blocks away from ground zero in New York City. You might know it as the site of a proposed mosque and community center critics nicknamed the 'Ground Zero Mosque' in 2010. "And there were protests right here in this area where we're standing denouncing Muslims and at the same time linking 9-11 and terrorism as if it's a part of the faith," says Obeidallah. "That was really a wake up call and one of the reasons we made this film."
So Farsad, Obeidallah and a handful of Muslim-American comedians from diverse backgrounds (Obeidallah is half-Palestian and half-Italian) hit the road to win local hearts and minds, performing stand-up for free in places they considered Muslim-unfriendly.
"Something we could learn from the gay community's leaps and bounds in civil rights in the last twenty years was just don't hide it, tell people," says Farsad. They outed themselves in places like Gainesville, Fla., home of the Koran-burning pastor, Terry Jones. Murfreesboro, Tenn., the site of another mosque protest going on at the same time as the ground zero mosque protests; and Arizona, which has been in the news for controversial immigration laws and enforcement.
Along with stand-up shows, Farsad and Obeidallah set up an "Ask a Muslim," booth where people could ask questions about Islam. They also organized events like "Come Bowl with a Muslim," where they invited members of the community to hang out.
The comics paint a diverse picture of what it means to be Muslim in the USA and how people view their faith. Much of the filming took place over Ramadan, the month of fasting from sun up to sundown. Some comics fasted, others didn't but wouldn't curse on stage, and co-director Negin Farsad — well, she let it all hang out, discussing her sex life and cursing liberally. Her act offended certain Muslims who came to see the shows. In one scene in the film, a group of women wearing headscarves left in the middle of her act, and her faith was questioned by another comic on the tour.
The Muslims Are Coming! leaves its audience with a pretty simple take-away: Muslim Americans are not that different from other Americans. Except maybe ... funnier.
"You're gonna laugh," says Obeidallah. "Even if you hate Muslims, you're gonna laugh."