An Interfaith Dialogue with a Muslim Social Justice Comedian

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I enjoy the TED Radio Hour podcast. The program offers illumination on a wide range of topics and is generally fun to listen to. But a recent episode had kind of a delayed reaction effect on me, which is to say, the more I thought about it the angrier I got.

The episode was called Painfully Funny and dealt with how people use humor to help them deal with difficult situations. It was quite uplifting until it came to the final segment, which is the one that sparked all my agita. The segment features Negin Farsad, a self-described Iranian-American Muslim comedian specializing in social justice comedy. Her shtick is using humor to defuse Islamophobia. In her words, “Keep it delightful.” “Get one person to laugh, you get more people to laugh.” “Laughter is a jointly shared experience.” She believes that if we can laugh together, we haters can let go of our Islamophobia. For the record, I find her humor facile, not especially creative.

A Muslim Comedian

Ms. Farsad and a group of comedian friends have created a documentary which they are taking around the country called “The Muslims are Coming.” One of the segments is a game called Name that Religion. They have set up a booth at an outdoor event in Birmingham, Alabama. Passers-by are invited to the table and given the set-up:

“We’re going to read a quote and you tell us whether it’s Old Testament, New Testament or the Quran.” The two quotes heard in the podcast are:

  1. Which holy book stipulates that a girl who does not bleed on her wedding night should be stoned to death?
  2. “Mary said, ‘My Lord, how can I have a son when no man has touched me?’”

Get a question right and the contestant can win a gag gift like an outdated calendar or some inexpensive salt and pepper shakers. The results are in. Let’s see how it came out.

On the first quote, two contestants identified the source as the Quran. Actually, it is the Old Testament, Deuteronomy:

[If]…evidence of the girl’s virginity is not found, they shall bring her to the entrance of her father’s house and there her townsmen shall stone her to death because she committed a crime against Israel…” (Deuteronomy 22:20).

Everyone Assumes the Quran is Violent

Ms. Farsad explains that people guessed the Quran “because they just assumed that everything that was violent came from the Quran.” Now, why would people assume such a thing? Perhaps they saw the movie The Stoning of Soraya wherein a Muslim man arranges to have his wife stoned on trumped-up charges of infidelity so that he can marry his girlfriend. Or maybe they have seen the youtube videos showing Muslim women being stoned for various offenses. Or perhaps they recall the article in the New York Times a couple of years back telling how many Muslim women are having hymenoplastic surgery to restore their virginity.

Ms. Farsad says that “We were trying to make a point that all of these texts have crazy stuff in them. So why would we hold Islam to a separate standard?”

I will happily explain it to her.

The Book of Deuteronomy was written ca. 1400 BC. In the intervening centuries, the West has developed secular laws that prohibit such punishments whereas Sharia Law, still applied in some Muslim countries, calls for them.

But don’t look to our own day. I encourage Ms. Farsad to read a little further in the bible till she gets to the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament. There she will encounter a Jewish man of ancient Israel who was presented with this very case: His betrothed, pregnant by someone other than him. The Gospel tells us that “Her husband, Joseph, an upright man unwilling to expose her to the law, decided to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). I guess Saint Joseph was not about to obey Deuteronomy. Imagine—one of our greatest saints a scofflaw!

And I will bet that, in her lifetime, Ms. Farsad has heard the words, “Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).  She might even know that they were spoken by Jesus to disperse a mob bent on stoning an adulteress. Oh, well.

The second quote, “how can I have a son since no man has touched me,” stumped everyone. Well, wouldn’t you know it—it’s right out of the Quran!

Sorry, Ms. Farsad. If Mohammed was a college student claiming this statement as his own work, he would be in the Dean’s office facing expulsion for plagiarism. Readers of Catholic Stand might recognize the statement as “How can this be since I do not know a man” (Luke 1:34), written about 600 years before Mohammed. Scholars tell us that Mohammed was familiar with the Jewish and Christian scriptures so it is not surprising that Surah (Chapter) 19 of the Quran begins with a paraphrase of the Gospel accounts of the birth of John the Baptist and what we Catholics know as the Annunciation. Suppose Ms. Farsad found a Christian contestant who knew their scripture. If they answered “New Testament,” do they still win the salt and pepper shakers or is the Quranic version the only acceptable answer? Ms. Farsad appears to know her Quran but is a little weak on the Gospels.

Are Christians Really Bigots?

Now, what are we to make of this episode? The Muslims Are Coming segment on youtube has almost 6,000 views. I think it is fair to say that the Ted Radio Hour broadcast and podcast have reached many times that a number of listeners nationwide on Public Radio. Since the program’s host did not know enough about scripture or did not have the nerve, to challenge Ms. Farsad, the message was widely broadcast that there is something wrong with us non-Muslims. We must examine our consciences about how we regard the followers of Mohammed. This is made clear when we hear Ms. Farsad’s analysis of the contest results: “People were really surprised and you could see them having that moment of like omigod. You could see people changing their minds.”

Not so fast, Negin; The fact that people who did not know anything about scripture got caught out by your gotcha exercise proves nothing.

Now to be fair, Ms. Farsad’s heart is in the right place. She goes on to say that “The American people are not built to hate.” “Approach people with love and you will get love in return.” Who could argue with such noble sentiments? If she can get us to laugh with her, share some coffee and pastries, just talk with her and her fellow Muslims, the rest of us can be moved to change our hateful ways.

I don’t buy it. Ms. Farsad relies on the fallacy adopted by so many of our aggrieved identity groups today, namely that if you disagree with my explanation of the way the world is, you are a hater and a bigot—words frequently heard in Ms. Farsad’s discourse. She even goes so far as to construct a taxonomy of haters.

True Interfaith Dialogue

If there is to be true interfaith dialogue leading to understanding and changing of hearts, any interaction must start from a ground of mutual respect. I question whether the Name that Religion contest achieves this. It is hard for me to understand how this poorly constructed exercise, based on profound ignorance of other religions and deliberately designed to set people up for failure (I might even say ridicule), disarms Islamophobia. I fail to see how laughing at the non-Muslim contestants is an approach built on love. I will also wager that if she had asked her questions of people who had any familiarity with scripture the whole skit would have fizzled.

A Cheap Shot Approach

As a counterbalance to the cheap shot approach of Ms. Farsad and friends, I offer another podcast from the Commonwealth Club of California titled What Does It Mean to be Muslim. Here a trio of faithful Muslims explains their faith in a genial and respectful way. The Commonwealth Club is somewhat of an egghead organization, so I cannot say how its listenership stacks up against that of the more popular TED Radio Hour. But instinct tells me, in a head to head comparison of the two programs, What Does It Mean to Be a Muslim would change many more hearts than Name That Religion.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, at some point in our lives all of us must answer two fundamental questions: Why are we here and how should we live? In many cases, the answers are found in a religion. I once was paging through a song book and came upon a chapter heading, “Many Worshippers, One God.” Ain’t it the truth. Given the sheer number and diversity of people on earth, it stands to reason that many paths to the transcendent will arise. As a Catholic man, I live my life in the belief that the path I have chosen is the correct one. But I am aware that there are other paths which I am called upon by my religion to respect. “If a man is of good will and is seeking God, who am I to judge?” Nonetheless, when confronted with this type of affront to our faith, so common in our times, we must respond albeit in a kind, respectful and loving way. (Well, that’s not entirely true. You should see some of the stuff I cut from this article before I submitted it. But I am doing my best to be kind, respectful, etc.)

That Does Not Make Us Bigots

I do not think there is such a thing as Islamophobia if the term is defined as an unreasoning fear of the doctrines of that religion.  It is clear that there is a certain type of Muslim who will use Islamic doctrine to justify heinous acts. We are understandably wary of such people. That does not make us haters or bigots. Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “Trust everybody, but cut the cards.” Wise advice for the times we live in.

So, Ms. Farsad, if I may address you directly: I sense that you are a good woman with a generous heart and a sense of humor. I would love to meet you, schmooze a little over coffee and cake and share a laugh. No doubt we would become great friends. And if you had any questions about the scriptures that I read, I’d be happy to help.

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