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An American Muslim Fighting Bigotry With Laughter

by AFP
Robin Marchant—AFP

Robin Marchant—AFP

Dean Obeidallah says Donald Trump’s anti-Islam campaign rhetoric has made life tougher for Muslims in America.

The Muslim American comedian Dean Obeidallah has spent 15 years fighting hatred and bias against Islam, armed only with his sense of humor. Now, the bitter tones of the U.S. presidential campaign have added urgency to his mission.

Obeidallah’s life, like the lives of many Muslims, changed forever one September morning in 2001. “Pre-9/11, I identified as a white guy,” he told AFP. But after the terror attacks of that day, he said he “converted to become a minority.”

Obeidallah, the son of a Palestinian father and an Italian mother, could pass for any of a variety of ethnicities. No one had ever guessed from his appearance that he was Arab or Muslim, said the talkative New Jersey native, a former lawyer. Still, he decided to spotlight his Muslim identity.

“When you’re demonized, it brings it out of you. You’re either going to hide in the shadows or you’re going to step up in the light and you’re going to fight for your community.” Since making that decision, he has used every possible platform—not just the stand-up routines that are his bread-and-butter, but the 2013 documentary The Muslims are Coming! that he co-directed and now his eponymous radio show on SiriusXM—to spread his message. He also founded a New York festival for Muslim comedians, the Muslim Funny Fest.

But there was nothing funny about the emergence of the Islamic State group in 2013. It added urgency to his fight against the stereotypes burdening Muslims, a small and often misunderstood minority in the United States. “We’re not in the media much,” Obeidallah said. “If you don’t know us, you’ve never met us and all you see is I.S. and Al Qaeda, of course you don’t think we’re funny. You think we’re scary, we’re going to come kill you.”

Traversing this minefield, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, rather than gingerly tiptoeing, has been lobbing rhetorical hand grenades. In December, the New York business mogul proposed banning all Muslims from American territory “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” He then told CNN in an interview in March: “I think Islam hates us.”

Obeidallah says comments like those have fomented fear. “Muslim Americans right now feel a sense of being alone, we’re under siege,” Obeidallah said. “We feel like no one really cares about our community.”

To understand what Muslims in the U.S. are going through today, one need only read a few of the messages the 40something comic receives daily on social media. “When something bad happens and Muslims are involved, my Twitter fills up with haters who know who I am and go: ‘Look what your people did.’ It does get tiring.”

Many of the messages are in far more abusive language.

In 2012, Obeidallah traveled to several conservative states, including some in the Deep South, to film his documentary. At the time, he had a few people shout at him, sometimes through the windows of passing cars, “Go back to your country!”

There were no verbal or physical threats, but that was before the emergence of the Islamic State group. He thinks matters might be worse now and he is not sure he would repeat his Muslims are Coming! tour. But Obeidallah is hardly intimidated. On his radio program—the only national radio show hosted by a Muslim—and in his television appearances, he works tirelessly to open minds and jolt people’s consciences.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think I’m fighting for Muslims—I’m fighting for American values. I’m fighting for the idea that we all get treated equally. I refuse to allow the Donald Trumps of this world to change what this country is supposed to stand for.”

Like many Americans, Obeidallah is anxiously awaiting the voters’ verdict in the November 8 presidential contest pitting Trump against Democrat Hillary Clinton. He urges voters, particularly Democrats, to cast their ballots. “I don’t want to end up in an internment camp,” he said.

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