Friday, October 10, 2008

Muslims need a good laugh

Long curly black hair. A very bushy beard. And let’s not forget about those big piercing brown eyes. Meet Azhar Usman, the massive co-founder of the Allah Made Me Funny tour.

Sharida Mohamedjoesoef
As published in the
Amsterdam Weekly
photo credits: America Abroad Media

The Ayatollah of Comedy. Bin Laughin’. Those are but a few of the qualifications former lawyer Azhar Usman has earned himself as a stand-up comedian. The co-founder and star of the Alla Made me Funny comedy tour has performed in over a dozen countries on five continents, including the US, the UK and a handful of Arab countries. The Chicago-based comedian was recently in the Netherlands to jazz up the Ramadan Festival 2008. Don’t worry. The man will be back in April 2009 to do some more gigs.

Once a lawyer, now a stand-up comedian? Why this career switch?
‘I was practising law for a brief time. Badly. And I was doing stand-up comedy for fun. Also badly. But I got better and I began to fall in love with stand-up comedy, because of its raw and organic fashion. Eventually, it reached a point where there was enough interest, enough demand for my artistic work to sustain a livelihood. Who doesn’t want to pursue their dreams and tell jokes for a living. I decided to shut down my legal practice. Around that same time, I would say by the design of God, I met with Preacher Moss, who is the founder of the Allah Made Me Funny Tour. We hit it off immediately. After that we never looked back.’

You began your stand-up career after 9/11. Coincidence?
‘Not really given the fact that stand-up comedy is an art of protest that was born out of the angst of the forties, fifties and sixties. In the US in particular it has always been used by disenfranchised groups such as African Americans, Jewish Americans and gay Americans. These groups have taken up the mantle of stand-up as an art form, because it is such a raw and unadulterated speaking of the truth. After 9/11 the American Muslim community felt like they were being pulled in two directions insofar as their loyalties were concerned. Can I be a Muslim and be American? My act is an exploration of those anxieties. I talk to them in a way that is hopefully constructive, and I shine a light on not only what’s wrong with America and some of its policies and attitudes, but also on what is wrong with us as Muslims. We are not saints or angels. We have our own faults, our own flaws.’

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Muslims can respond highly sensitive when jokes are made at their expense. What is your take on this?
‘Muslims need a good laugh, like anybody else. The rest of the world needs to hear Muslims laughing, and Muslims being able to joke about the tensions of the world, but also about themselves. What I notice is that Muslims like to express themselves at protests and rallies, which in my view often achieves nothing more than increasing Muslim blood pressure.’

Are jokes about Muslims solely the prerogative of Muslims?

‘There is an underlying power dynamic at play here. You see, the problem with doing comedy that is self-deprecating, is that you are part of the in crowd. You are in on the joke. If others – non Muslims - are making fun of you, laughing at you rather than with you, it can be easily considered demeaning in nature. The fact of the matter is that Muslims today are at the shorter end of the stick when it comes to the power balance, whether on a political, social or cultural level. I would challenge non-Muslim comedians to come up with material that people can laugh at together.’

Are Islam and humour compatible?
‘Islam is a religion that teaches you how to raise your moral character. But that doesn’t mean you stop being a human being. Humor is a part of being a human being. In fact, prophet Muhammad was known to be a humorous man who loved a good laugh. But if your underlying question is whether I can do blasphemous jokes or engage in dirty language at the expense of my religion. The answer is ‘no’.

So do you censor your own work then?
‘It is the mark of a free society that it should have free exercise of speech. If you don’t like a book somebody has written, the more intelligent and effective answer is to respond by writing your own book rather than resort to book burnings in the streets or try to prevent publication and all this nonsense. That said, I am not a shock comic. I am not interested in offending people. And of course being a Muslim who takes his religion seriously, there are some moral parameters that I observe. I don’t do heretical of blasphemous jokes, nor do I use foul language, which in my opinion is not only unbecoming anyway of somebody who ought to be expressing himself more intelligently, but also a copout. So yes, I do filter my own material.’

Foul language a copout?
‘Stand-up comedy has become littered with the use of foul language, thus losing some of its artistic value. Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up comedian whom I respect tremendously, doesn’t really curse on stage, he calls cursing and blue jokes the great shortcuts of stand-up comedy. If you resort to these types of humour, than maybe you are not as good a comedian as you thought you were.’

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Photo credits: the Nasheed shop