Does Comedy Help?

Can comedy defuse an increasingly Islamophobic atmosphere in the west? Or do short films, sketches, and new media actually solidify preexisting bigotry and reinforce stereotypes through caricatures of Muslim people?

In the wake of the Lowe’s controversy, some comedy sketches have poked fun at the ridiculousness nature of fearing Muslims and Islam. In one sketch (below), two men of presumably South Asian Muslim descent, visit a Lowe’s Superstore to shop for “materials.” The epic background, set by what is meant to be “Islamic-sounding” music, presents an ominous mood, preparing the viewer for the culminating, climactic event. I don’t want to spoil the ending, so watch the clip to see what happens.

Although the “Un-Aired LOWE’S Commercial” was created in response to blatant discriminatory corporate business practices, other films have capitalized on stereotypes in a more general manner.

Last week, Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedian behind Ali G, Borat, and Bruno, released a trailer for his new film, The Dictator. Loosely based on Saddam Hussein’s romance novel, Zabibah And The King, The Dictator follows General Aladeen (Cohen), an outlandish, maniacal leader of a fictional Middle Eastern country, Wadiya. In a Coming to Americaesqe way, Aladeen is portrayed as a womanizing, ignorant buffoon who “risks his life to keep democracy from coming to the country he lovingly oppressed.” Scenes throughout the film characterize Aladeen’s beliefs and actions mirroring that of Moammar Gadhafi, Hussein, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Aladeen’s large beard is even stylized similarly to that of many Muslims who identify with puritanical interpretations of Islam. And let’s not forget his name–Aladeen–presumably chosen for its resemblance to Aladdin, an archetype of “Middle Easternness.”

For many, the absurdity of the images presented are humorous. For others, they’re offensive. Even more concerning, those with little exposure to Muslims and Islam in real life may view these caricatures as a relatively accurate representation of reality. If this is the case, is this type of broad comedy more harmful than helpful? Or is it all just good fun?

What do you think? Are these works offensive to you? Are they funny? Do you see this line of comedy as reflecting your own images of Muslims, Arabs, or Islam? Do you think it reinforces stereotypes or undermines them?

6 thoughts on “Does Comedy Help?

  1. I found the video included in this blog posting quite humorous and believe that it clearly satirizes the absurdity of the stereotypes so commonly held by many ignorant people. I hope that this accentuates the ridiculousness of viewing Muslims in only one way. Not being Muslim, I don’t know if the lighting of the house for the Christmas Season would be offensive or not. The point being that buying electrical wire or whatever it was at Lowe’s and using the music that was chosen and the men being serious during the majority of the video did make fun of but at the same time, reinforce the idea of the “terrorist” to some who may have viewed it. The ending however, might startle those same people into reflecting a bit about their bias’ and why they have them. If that is the case, then the video and those like it will have served a useful purpose.

  2. Great topic. The interesting thing about comedy, and humor generally, is that it can both reinforce xenophobic ideologies and serve socially critical goals. The opportunity for education through humor is there–but we can only best describe it as an opportunity, rather than a certainty. After the events of 9/11, Muslim American men and women use stand-up comedy as a tool of social activism (see the men of Allah Made Me Funny, Tissa Hami, Maysoon Zayid, etc). In so doing, they continue an American minority tradition of engaging with negative social stereotypes through publicly performed humor (like Jewish American and Black American comics). It will be interesting to see where this humor goes as American Muslims continue to examine their relationships with the American public, and vice versa. For those interested in further research on this topic, please see my recent publication in the journal “Contemporary Islam” (2011).

  3. just wanted to say, if more people smiled or laugh, they wouldn’t have time to frown… just something to make you say hmmmm. laughter is heatlhy!!!!

  4. It would be more appropriate for Muslim comedians to make fun of Muslims within our own contexts as opposed to non-Muslims who make fun of Islam from their own skewed interpretations of Islam. It’s like non-Muslims are setting the agenda for what is funny in Islam when they don’t know what its even like to live as a Muslim…similar to when white people making black-oriented jokes. Hope that makes sense. Peace/Salaam.

  5. Please help me understand..

    Why is it not OK to play a Jewish character (on the same level as Borat) if youre a non-jew?

    Why is it considered anti-semetic if we (Muslims) do so?

  6. I find this guy Baron Cohen very Islamophobic. What he is cashing in on is the fight against some supposed notion of political correctness. What people like him don’t get is that political correctness comes from a sensitivity towards people who are not like them.