On Monday's NBC Rock Center, correspondent Harry Smith began a story on an American-Muslim comedy troupe touring the American south by asserting to comedian Dean Obeidallah that, "A lot of Americans hate you." Obeidallah was slightly taken aback and replied: "I'm not sure how many actually hate me, but I know what you're getting at." [Audio available here]
Smith went on to explain the goal of the comedy tour: "Doing their best to try to win friends and influence people. Pilgrims armed with punch lines, in hopes of shattering a few stereotypes. They call their tour 'The Muslims Are Coming.'" Smith again proclaimed American bigotry: "Nearly half of all Americans admit to feeling some prejudice towards Muslims. In a funny way, the comics are fighting for their civil rights." [View video after the jump]
Obeidallah furthered the analogy to the civil rights movement: "If I was alive during the civil rights struggle, would I have come down to the south with the freedom riders? Would I have come down here and fought for other people's rights? I think I would have come down here during the civil rights movement."
Smith described how the small group of Muslim-American comedians would perform free shows and talk to people on street corners about Islam, noting: "Polite, congenial. The comedian's street antics were received with southern hospitality." He them ominously added: "But on the web, they were vilified. The hatred flowed freely. Islam was called 'the scourge of the planet.' And worse."
Obeidallah responded: "I'll tell you, it takes a real confident bigot to say something to your face. They'll yell it in a car driving by. They'll post on the internet all day."
After the story, host Brian Williams asked Smith if the comedy toured had succeeded in overcoming supposed American discrimination against Muslims. At first, Smith replied: "It certainly was working where we saw it." But he then fretted:
On the other hand, the folks that they encountered on the street were not swayed much. The people who showed up at the comedy shows were moderates to progressives. They were people who wanted to hear what the comics had to say. Maybe to try and influence those who were on a farther fringe who are really, you know, consumed with a kind of hatred, they're – they may never get through on that level.
Here is a full transcript of the December 19 segment:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: 9/11 changed everything in this country, and in the months and years since, life sure is different for a lot of Muslim-Americans. Just today, in fact, two men, both Muslim, sued Delta Airlines, claiming they were thrown off a flight from Memphis to Charlotte earlier this year simply because of their beards and traditional clothing. Delta, for its part, insists it opposes discrimination in any form.
There are all sorts of serious efforts to promote understanding, but not a whole lot of stand-up comedy on the topic until recently. Tonight, Harry Smith introduces us to an effort to use humor to deal with a topic that has often been no laughing matter.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Dean Obeidallah, everybody.
HARRY SMITH: Is there really anything funny about being Muslim in America these days?
DEAN OBEIDALLAH: And it could be more challenging for us. They could give hurricanes Muslim names, that wouldn't help.
SMITH: Dean Obeidallah thinks so.
OBEIDALLAH: Turn on the news, Hurricane Mahmoud is coming. Run for your life, Mahmoud's a killer.
SMITH: Dean is a comedian. He's also Muslim born in America. A lot of Americans hate you.
OBEIDALLAH: I'm not sure how many actually hate me, but I know what you're getting at. The only way I know to counter it is by reaching out to people and trying to dispel the misconceptions, the lack of facts they have about American-Muslims, about the religion itself.
SMITH: We went along as Dean and fellow American-Muslim comedians Negin Farsad, Omar Elba, and Maysoon Zayid, toured across the American south, in comedy clubs.
OBEIDALLAH: You just need to trust me.
SMITH: On the streets.
OMAR ELBA: How you doing, Ma'am?
SMITH: And in chance encounters. Doing their best to try to win friends and influence people. Pilgrims armed with punch lines, in hopes of shattering a few stereotypes. They call their tour "The Muslims Are Coming." Nearly half of all Americans admit to feeling some prejudice towards Muslims. In a funny way, the comics are fighting for their civil rights.
OBEIDALLAH: If I was alive during the civil rights struggle, would I have come down to the south with the freedom riders? Would I have come down here and fought for other people's rights? I think I would have come down here during the civil rights movement.
NEGIN FARSAD: Hey, we're having a show tonight, tomorrow night. Because you're amazing for coming here on a Thursday night ans seeing us!
SMITH: The shows were free. And everywhere they went, they played to a packed house.
OBEIDALLAH: There's a TV on and the guy goes to me, "See these freaking Arabs on TV." Just kind of a scary conversation starter. I go, oh yeah. He goes, "I have an idea. Let's kill them all and let God sort out the good and bad ones." I'm like, sir, that's not nice, I'm Arab. He goes, "You don't freaking look it." Well, that just makes it easier for me to achieve the goals of my mission.
SMITH: Turns out American-Muslims resent the terrorists as much, if not more, than the rest of us.
OBEIDALLAH: We hate terrorism. We hate them as much as you. In fact, I would argue we hate them more because we suffer a backlash for their sins.
SMITH: Town after town, the stand-ups hit the streets to interact with the locals. In Lawrenceville, Georgia, they were met largely with indifference.
OBEIDALLAH: Ask the Muslim a question. Do you have any questions, Ma'am? Do you have any questions about Islam? Not to join, just about us. We're not trying to get you to join.
SMITH: But a few folks gave them an earful.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One thing that I don't understand, you're dressed like an American.
FARSAD: Yeah. I am an American. Yeah, I'm American-Iranian.
MAN: You know, there's only one kind of American and that's American.
FARSAD: Yeah, I mean I grew up, I was born here, I grew up here.
MAN: My ancestors are from Holland, but I don't claim to be a Dutch-American. I'm an American-American. If you want to be mainstream.
MAN: You know, then you're no longer an Iranian-Muslim. You're an American.
SMITH: What they heard time after time was this, why don't American-Muslims do more to denounce terrorism?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN B: Why are there not more voices being brought to the forefront criticizing the Muslims who are being extreme?
SMITH: It's no joke. Deep in the Bible belt, the comics contrived a little quiz.
OBEIDALLAH: People of Birmingham, come play a game with us. Name that religion. You can win prizes.
FARSAD: "If anyone says, I love God but hates the brothers or sisters, he is a liar. Whoever loves God must also love the brothers and sisters." Old Testament, New Testament or the Koran?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN C: I would go with either Old Testament or Koran. I would go with Koran on that one.
FARSAD: New Testament.
MAN C: Ah, New Testament. There's not a whole lot of difference between the three in some cases.
FARSAD: Yeah, no, you're absolutely right. And that's maybe the point I'm trying to make. Okay, everybody.
SMITH: Polite, congenial. The comedian's street antics were received with southern hospitality. But on the web, they were vilified. The hatred flowed freely. Islam was called "the scourge of the planet." And worse.
OBEIDALLAH: I'll tell you, it takes a real confident bigot to say something to your face. They'll yell it in a car driving by. They'll post on the internet all day.
FARSAD: I suddenly feel like I know why my parents came here and gave me these set of opportunities. Because I'm supposed to do something with it.
SMITH: There is emotion there.
FARSAD: No, I'm just tired.
SMITH: I don't think so. I wonder if the people who dislike you so much know how much you love the country you live in?
FARSAD: Hopefully we'll be able to communicate that just a little bit.
OBEIDALLAH: Maybe I'm delusional, but I love the fact that we're trying. This is our calling. To go out there and do this. And I think we're making a difference, little by little.
SMITH: And perhaps the best way the comics can do that is by laughing at themselves.
OBEIDALLAH: Remember this slogan, "Dress white, make your flight. Dress brown, never leave town."
WILLIAMS: So here we are, we've been at war overseas for a decade. We've watched the last two presidents do things like sign guest books at mosques in Washington. There have been pamphlets and public service announcements. For your money, do you think this is as good a public education idea as any? Did it work?
SMITH: It certainly was working where we saw it. On the other hand, the folks that they encountered on the street were not swayed much. The people who showed up at the comedy shows were moderates to progressives. They were people who wanted to hear what the comics had to say. Maybe to try and influence those who were on a farther fringe who are really, you know, consumed with a kind of hatred, they're – they may never get through on that level.
WILLIAMS: And of course now they are a Harry Smith story on Rock Center, so that opens up a whole new-
WILLIAMS: I'm in there trying, pal.
SMITH: I would say this, honestly, they're motivated in an almost naive and spectacular way, because what they were really trying to do is even if they could just convince a few people that they're, in many ways, the same as they are, that's what they're really trying to do.
WILLIAMS: Naive and spectacular actually go well together.
WILLIAMS: Thank you very much as always.
SMITH: A pleasure.
WILLIAMS: And Merry Christmas.