Jobrani’s earliest role was playing a terrorist, complete with turban, in a Chuck Norris movie. He portrayed a physicist working for an Osama bin Laden-type who plotted to blow up buildings in Chicago, but instead got knocked off by Norris.
And this, he notes, was before 9/11.
Humiliated, Jobrani writes in his book, he turned to stand-up to confront stereotypes. Part of his routine is about being “Muslim-ish” in the United States, including the fear of security at airports. To avoid being confused with a low-life terrorist, Jobrani tells audiences, he over-enunciates with TSA security agents.
“Hell-oh my fell-oh American! I am just here to board the air-o-plane! Carry-ons? Just this American flag. That is ALL I am carrying-on!”
His sketches mock terrorists too. I saw him on tour in Washington D.C. a few years ago. He lambasted the 2009 Christmas Day bomber who tried to blow up a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, noting that the bomb carried in his underwear was proof that the guy was an idiot. Jobrani imagined the final conversation between the hijacker and his terror-masters.
“Ah, excuse me. I have one, ah, one last question for you,” the terrorist says. “You say my reward in heaven will be seventy-two virgins. So do you think, maybe, we could put the bomb somewhere else? I mean, I really think I’m going to need my penis.”
The crowd roared.
Comedy has long been a route for minorities to go mainstream. The Yiddish-accented parodies of Fanny Brice, the bawdy jokes of Lenny Bruce, and the political humor of Mort Sahl helped bring American Jews in from the margins. The angry satire of Dick Gregory and confrontational humor of Richard Pryor helped African Americans move beyond the racial divide of segregation. George Lopez has done the same for Latinos, Margaret Cho for Asians.
America’s Muslim comedians gained momentum after the September 11 attacks in the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (which ended up as a special on Comedy Central) and the Allah Made Me Funny troupe. In 2012, the “Muslims Are Coming” spoof filmed seven comedians performing free public skits—“Bowl with a Muslim,” “Ask a Muslim Booth,” and “Hug a Muslim” stand—in heartland cities where public fear of Islam runs deepest.
President Obama appealed to Muslim leaders last month to do more to discredit the idea of an “inherent clash in civilizations.” He called for greater global cooperation among politicians, religious figures, educators and law enforcement to stem the extremist tide. Maybe comedians should be added to the list. They have large audiences. The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour’s first performance, in 2005, was a sell-out at a 1,400-seat theater in Washington D.C., a half-dozen blocks from the White House. The tour also played to several sold-out crowds at the Nokia Theater on Broadway.
Jobrani and other Muslim comedians take their mission as seriously as their craft. “For us,” Jobrani once told me, “the goal is not simply to make people laugh. It’s also to have people, when they leave the show, go, ‘Wow, that guy was funny, and he was Middle Eastern, and he didn’t try to kidnap or hijack us.”