Funny faith: Muslim comics on tour

Laughter is the key to bringing down boundaries, according to a group of Muslim comics touring the UK. Julian Hall reports
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Soon after the September 11 attacks, George Bush made an eloquent speech reminding a vengeful nation that "Islam is peace". He continued: "America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads." He didn't include comedians but, just two years later, the comedy revue group Allah Made Me Funny had started in Washington, DC. And this week, AMMF begins its UK tour in Bradford.

The revue's founder, a 40-year-old African-American by the name of Preacher Moss, started the group as an attempt to "do something to bring the Islamic community into the mainstream" and as an "opportunity to have some dialogue and to make Muslims and non-Muslims feel enlightened and entertained".

Moss, who has been likened to the civil rights comedian Dick Gregory, has been a comedian since 1984. He converted to Islam three years after that. "I had questions since I was a kid about religion and racial history, the validity of the church and Jesus. In a different scenario I could have converted to Judaism – but I had enough problems! In my neighbourhood Islam was what was accessible to me. I was a student and a proponent of Malcolm X."

His act aims to give African-American Muslims what he calls "a global identity in global economy". To do this, Moss has tried to throw off the pernicious labelling of all Muslims as terrorists that was either prevalent or latent across the US after September 11. "Some of us are still suffering from 9/11-itis," he says in one routine. "Some are so scared you can't even tell a 'knock, knock' joke around them. You say 'knock, knock', they yell, 'Don't answer that!'"

It's a stated aim of the group not to offend anybody, which may not sound promising for comedy. "We are not trying to be 'shock comics'," says AMMF co-founder Azhar Usman, of South Asian origin and a Muslim by birth. Usman started his career in 2000. After September 11, he "rested on the bench" until he felt able to continue. Voice renewed, he set out on what he has called a "protest tour". "AMMF wages peace through humour, fighting hatred and discrimination by jokes and punchlines".

Usman, 31, a former lawyer in Chicago, cites Seinfeld and Chris Rock as influences, while his favourites include Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. The melange of influences allows his comedy to move away from September 11 territory, such as in this Bush joke: "There's still a lot of Muslims who have kings. Can you imagine living in a country where they choose a leader based on who his daddy is?" or in pointed observations that go to the regime itself: "For decades, black people complained that 'a black man can never get a fair trial in America'... we can't even get a trial, man!"

Usman and Moss get easier laughs from variations on the joke that propelled the hijab-wearing Shazia Mirza to fame in this country in 2001: "My name is Shazia Mirza. At least that's what it says on my pilot's licence."

Mirza later ditched the September 11 gags and moved away from the "war on terror" in her act. Usman and Moss tackle it to gain the trust of the audience. "I might have grooming habits in common with the Taliban," jokes Usman, who sports a beard and a skull-cap, "but that's where the similarity ends. Truthfully, if I was a crazy Muslim fundamentalist about to hijack a plane, this is not the disguise I would go with."

The AMMF's newest member, Mohammed Amer, 24, is a Palestinian-born comedian who has performed to US troops in the Middle East and Asia. "There were guys who wanted to kill me. I could see it, but I could also see that I had changed the minds of others and I found a lot of them to be very regretful."

Amer's routine includes a skit on the fact that he's unable to call out to his eight-year-old nephew Osama in the street, and some gentle material about his own Palestinian origin, joking that his mother threatened to throw him out for becoming a comedian. "We're stateless. That's like threatening a homeless man that you are going to throw him out on to the street."

While Amer says he is developing more material about his Palestinian origins, there's a clear contrast between that joke and this gag from the British Muslim comedian Jeff Mirza: "You never know who is in the audience. The other day there were eight Israelis in the front row. I had to get on stage quickly in case they occupied it." A comedy-circuit standard, admittedly, but still indicative of what Mirza contends is "a far more politicised audience" in the UK.

Mirza believes that the past decade has seen a sea change in the relationship between Muslims and comedy. It's now possible to do a routine about one-upmanship based on how many times an elder took the Hajj to Mecca, or to joke at a Conservative Party function (Mirza is politically unaffiliated) that he grew a beard so he could get a seat on the Tube.

Mirza and Usman recognise that the Muslim community has to some extent been in denial about its militant elements. In terms of what comedy can do to allay this, Usman quotes Moss: "If someone makes you laugh it's very hard to hate them."

The AMMF tour is one of a number of North American attempts to foster understanding through comedy. Two recent TV sitcoms, the Canadian Little Mosque on the Prairie and the Malcolm In the Middle-style US show Aliens in America, focus on minority Muslim issues. In the UK, such attempts have largely been the preserve of drama, such as Peter Kosminsky's Britz, aired on TV last week.

Mirza hopes shows like Little Mosque... will one day become dated. "Then we'll be ready to take it to the next stage." AMMF itself will reach another level next April when a film produced by the comedian Dave Chapelle is released.

In the meantime, a battle for British hearts and minds begins, but it's fought on the basis of compromise, not dogma, as Amer points out with the help of a passage from the Koran: "In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful, say: O you that reject faith, I worship not what you worship, nor will you worship that which I worship. And I will not worship that which you have been accustomed to worship, nor will you worship that which I worship. To you be your way and to me mine.'"

Allah Made Me Funny tours 8 to 28 November (;