Rutgers Cinema hosts ‘docu-comedy’ tackling Islamophobia

Advocates for change often use protests, public demonstrations and campaigns to combat Islamophobia, but the film “The Muslims are Coming!” uses a different approach — tackling hate with comedy.

Rutgers Cinema on Livingston campus premiered the “docu-comedy” on Friday.

This film follows a band of seven rotating comedians tackling Islamophobia across America, using the forces of comedy and social justice in an effort to change stereotypes of Muslim-Americans.

Larry Haber, the owner of Rutgers Cinema, said he brought this film to Rutgers to evoke thought, start conversation and promote new ways of thinking in an educational community.

Haber said the filmmakers had trouble getting theaters to run this film, and Rutgers Cinema is the only theater in New Jersey showing it.

“This film is a way to promote active thinking amongst the Rutgers community, where students can really get involved in the world and have ideas and concepts that can and will change, and it’s really quite funny,” he said.

The diversity of such a large university community like Rutgers is another reason why director Negin Farsad also believes the film will have a successful impact.

“We’ve screened the film on a university setting before and students loved it,” she said. “There’s something about being in college, in knowing that you can really effect change.”

The comedians had a purpose for touring every location they visited.

“We wanted to go to places that were more conservative, places where Freedom Writers have gone, or places that may have had mosque controversies or something like that,” she said.

The movie has premiered in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and New York, and is scheduled to premiere in Nashville, Farsad said.

Farsad, an Iranian-American Muslim, is also a producer and one of the seven stand-up comics in the film.

Farsad directed this film along with fellow comic Dean Obeidallah, who is an Italian-Palestinian Muslim.

The comedians had worked together at Comedy Central, and together realized they had the common goal of wanting to change the perception of their religion in the mainstream media.

“At the time, we were both really upset about the Park51 controversy, and how in the past, Obama was being accused of being a Muslim — like it was a bad word — and it didn’t go away,” Farsad said. “The birther movement held on for Obama’s entire first term, so those kinds of things just really got us going.”

A few years ago, proposals to build an Islamic center near the World Trade Center site received backlash in New York City. It is known as the Park51 controversy.

Farsad and Obeidallah decided to use comedy to combat Islamophobia they were witnessing in the media. Obeidallah said shows like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have used humor to both educate and entertain people at once.

“Islamophobia is just people skewing hate against Islam, just like there are anti-Semites and whatnot, they are people who hate,” he said. “We wanted to provide a counter-example for the mainstream media and to change misconceptions, and what better way than comedy to do so?”

A number of comedians and celebrities are featured in the film, such as Jon Stewart, David Cross and Lewis Black. Farsad said she has a specific reason for putting these people in the film.

“It is partly because these people are icons of comedy and culture, and they have used comedy to move the needle on social issues,” she said. “Whatever your opinions are, you’re going to be more willing to listen to something if it makes you laugh. It’s the number one kind of emotional door opener.”

Farsad said only the skits prepared by the comedians are scripted. Only 25 percent of the film is stand-up comedy, while the rest shows the comedians meeting and interacting with people.

“We would set up an ‘Ask a Muslim’ booth in the middle of Times Square. People would come ask us anything they wanted,” she said. “We also did a ‘Bowl with a Muslim’ event. It was about exposure — we want be thought of as normal people, not affiliated with terror or violence.”

Obeidallah said he became much more optimistic than he was before the tour based on his experiences and interactions with people while filming.

“It’s often that the lack of exposure leads to misconception, not hate,” he said. “We’ll never be able to eliminate all hate. Most people we met were really open-minded, and really great. Going down south, we thought we’d meet a lot of people who really hate Muslims, people who were even outraged by us, but that didn’t happen.”

Answering people’s questions was one of Farsad’s favorite moments when filming.

“Some people don’t know anything about Muslims, or any other ethnic groups,” she said. “What we really enjoyed was that people were open enough to speak to us, and made themselves vulnerable, or even on the verge of seeming kind of racist, but they were actually brave enough to ask us questions. They wanted to learn.”

Although Obeidallah does not believe one comedy show will change the world, he thinks this film has made progress in chipping away misconceptions.

“It’s little steps, and this is one of the steps to get people who have never met a Muslim before to think ‘Hey, these people are pretty funny. They’re American like me. I don’t see the whole big deal about Muslims,’” he said.

“The Muslims are Coming!” is playing at Rutgers Cinema all this week, and depending on the turnout, could potentially run into next week, Haber said.

Both Farsad and Obeidallah plan to attend Tuesday’s 8 p.m. showing to view the film and stay after for a question and answer session with the viewers.

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