Americans' attitudes toward Islam and Arabs have been on a rocky road since the al-Qaida terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Those searing events fueled powerful resentments and fear, especially among people largely ignorant of the Muslim faith and the Arab world.
Many Muslim-Americans have felt a heightened prejudice against them since 9/11. To combat those prejudices and to help allay public fears about them, some American Muslims have turned to satire and stand-up comedy.
Azhar Usman is a Chicago-based attorney, lecturer and community activist. That mix of vocations is unusual enough, but it's all the more unusual because of his move, eight years ago, into stand-up comedy. Usman uses his comic routines - offered up in small comedy clubs and TV appearances - to fight what he says is the negative stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs in America.
He likes to joke about how his own swarthy complexion and long, dark beard trigger predictable racial profiling by U.S. airport security guards.
"Imagine if a man looking like me is walking to the airport: Heads turns simultaneously. A security guard would whisper, 'We got Muhammad at four o'clock with us. Excuse me, sir, can I see your ID?' And my middle name actually is Muhammad. [The guard would say] 'That is what I thought. Come with me. We go to the extra-special security.'"
Comedic trio's humor gets at complex social issues
Usman is a practicing Muslim of Indian descent. After he began doing stand-up comedy in 2001, he performed in cities all over the United States. In early 2004, he got together with two other Muslim stand-up comedians: Preacher Moss, an African-American who converted to Islam, and Mohammed Amer, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian-American.
The three launched a comedy tour called "Allah Made Me Funny" that took them to comedy clubs across the United States and eventually to cities on five continents Their routines used humor to describe what it's like being Muslim in a predominantly non-Muslim society.
Given his general appearance, it's not hard to imagine Usman being mistaken for a terrorist by nervous airline passengers - a scenario he explores in his stand-up routine.
"The only thing worse than that is the moment I have to get on the plane. People are in shock… they are in the middle of conversations like, 'Where are you from? Where are you heading?' Then [they see me and think], 'Oh my God! I am going to die!'" Usman jokes.
"I do not even blame people anymore. I do not think they are racists or prejudiced. They cannot help it. They see somebody who looks like me walking on the street. They hear a little voice in their heads: Osama [al-Qaida leader bin Laden]!"
Entertainers aim to break down stereotypes
Usman says that while the Arabic word for God is Allah, in the discourse of many Americans, that sacred name evokes the war cry of violent Islamists and terrorists.
"Muslims have to do a better job of reclaiming the discourse and reclaiming our own voices within that discourse. So part of that is to associate positive and beautiful words from our tradition such as Allah with something beautiful and positive - which is humor and being funny," Usman says. "And for many people, it had the effect of making them kind of question their assumptions regarding that word. And that is ultimately what we were after."
Usman and his fellow comedians believe their stand-up routines have made a positive difference in the way non-Muslims in the U.S. and other western societies think about Muslims.
"We try to do jokes that are funny, first and foremost, and, number two, [that are] universal, meaning that they have some universal appeal. They talk about some core human values that everybody can relate to, and then it just so happened that one of the consequences of that is it ends up changing a lot of peoples' stereotypes about Muslims and about Islam."
Usman says when he is on stage he is doing more than just telling jokes. He believes he is waging peace by promoting a better understanding of Muslims in the West.
Calming fears, building bridges between cultures
Usman's comic trio has tried to extend that mission to a broader audience with a documentary they produced of their successful comedy tour called Allah Made Me Funny: Live in Concert. The movie opened last fall in select theaters around the U.S. Usman says the response to the film and its Web site - AllahMadeMeFunny.com - has been gratifying.
"The film did very well. So we are now in the midst of negotiating a DVD release as well as a TV license," he says. "So hopefully that film will get more traction in 2009. And beyond that, we are continuing to tour and reach a broader and broader audience not only in America but around the world."
Usman says he and his fellow comics in the Allah Made Me Funny tour hope their brand of humor will continue to appeal to non-Muslims and Muslims alike, not only calming fears but building bridges between two cultures that lately have had a hard time understanding each other.