- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

TINLEY PARK, Ill.

Azhar Usman says when he walks down the street, he gets dirty looks. “People are looking like I was responsible for 9/11,” the comedian tells the crowd during a recent performance in this Chicago suburb. “Me 9/11? Seven-Eleven, maybe.”

The 30-year-old Mr. Usman, who calls himself “a very patriotic American Muslim” in his act, is one of several emerging Muslim comics who are touring in an attempt to break down stereotypes, encourage critical thinking, create an identity and, most important, get people to laugh.

“The stand-up is quintessentially an American art form and is a form of political protest,” says Mr. Usman, who grew up in suburban Skokie, Ill. “There’s a history of the underdog using stand-up comedy to speak truth to power. People take notice and are transformed by the experience.”

Few subjects are off-limits for Mr. Usman, a former lawyer who became a full-time comic about two years ago. He jokes about terrorism, the war in Iraq, President Bush, airport security and the Patriot Act. His own religion and even fellow Muslims are not exempt.

“Just about anything is fair game, just as long as it’s done tastefully and artfully,” he says. “I have some boundaries, based on religion. I won’t do any sacrilegious material, make fun of God or the prophet.”

Mr. Usman also seeks the advice of Muslim scholars when he has doubts over material.

Most of the response is positive, but he knows some Muslims disapprove of his mixture of comedy and religion. He tackles not just how Americans see Muslims, but how Muslims in America see themselves.

“It’s equally my obligation as a comedian to point out what is wrong with us and get us talking about our problems as it is pointing out what’s wrong [with] the way, for example, the government is treating us,” Mr. Usman says.

Though he performs solo, Mr. Usman also travels as part of the Allah Made Me Funny tour with two fellow Muslim comedians.

They began touring in 2004, thinking they would be a success if they played 30 cities in three years. Instead, they toured 50 cities in one year, performing not just at Muslim community centers, but at comedy clubs across America and internationally as well.

Tour creator Preacher Moss, a longtime comic who has written for popular comedians, including George Lopez and Damon Wayans, says the tour has a twofold message.

“On the outside, our goal is trying to build bridges with non-Muslims, but on the inside, it’s to build bridges between ourselves,” says Mr. Moss, 39. “When you get people to smile about what they’re fearful about, it’s powerful. And when you finish laughing, you think about what you’re laughing about.”

(With seemingly similar goals in mind, Albert Brooks’ new film, “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” is showing in limited release.)

Using laughter to tackle discrimination and fear is not new. Minorities in America often have used stand-up to open people’s eyes.

“Humor is a good way, as it always has been, of drawing people in, exploiting the stereotype and finding a common ground,” says John Lowe, a Louisiana State University English professor who’s working on a book about humor in American ethnic communities.

Maysoon Zayid, a New York-based stand-up, helped create the Arab American Comedy Festival, hoping to break down stereotypes and showcase Arab talent.

The show has played the past three years in New York and debuted yesterday in Los Angeles for a three-day run.

“This is an effort to really change the image of Arabs in America, which are often considered religious zealot-terrorists,” says Mr. Zayid, 30.

Along with appearing at comedy clubs and Muslim community events, these comics also are using technology as a platform to bring their messages to a bigger audience.

Mr. Usman is developing a podcast about a fictional character named Tinku Patel — an Indian Muslim who comes to America to make a movie. Patel interviews celebrities and average Americans alike, asking them their thoughts on race and politics.

Matt Suneulli, the podcast’s co-creator, who also works as a producer for MTV, says he hopes the podcast becomes popular enough to parlay into a television show.

For Mr. Usman and his colleagues, however, being a comic isn’t just a way to make money or gain fame. They have become role models for other U.S. Muslims who are looking for ways to merge their Muslim and American identities.

“To me, this is not just about standing onstage telling jokes,” Mr. Usman says. “There’s a lot riding on this.”

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