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Muslim Diasporic Cinema of North America

Resisting Stereotypes Through Personal Narratives

Irum Shiekh

University of California, Riverside

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Summary

In the early twenty-first century, a growing number of Muslim storytellers have been

writing, directing, and producing feature films and television series about their respective

communities in North America. Falling under the umbrella of Muslim Diasporic Cinema, these

stories settle somewhere between the longing to flee from the essentialized binary identities of

immigrant/native, religious/secular, etc., and the desire to claim the performance of a

continuously shifting and politically charged Islamic identity. The crux of the Muslim Diasporic

Cinema is this dialectical yearning to unapologetically claim a Muslim identity without defining

its aspects.

The bulk of this work depicts the everyday lives of multigenerational Black Muslims and

their conscious and unconscious relationships to the transatlantic slave trade. Additionally, these

narratives revolve around the experiences and identities of immigrants, refugees, and exiles, and

their children growing up in the West. Most of these stories feature themes of intergenerational

conflicts, coming of age, and hybridity. Shattered memories and imaginings of a distant home,

along with desires, conflicts, dreams, and quests, comprise many of these stories. Most of this

fictionalized work is inspired by personal experiences and tells gripping, political, humorous,

and entertaining stories. They revolve around the memories of real or imagined forced

displacement and its ongoing conflicts with the concepts of home and a desired sense of

belonging. Politically subtle yet savvy, these stories normalize the everyday lives of

Muslims. By doing so, they create an oppositional space and stand up to the tropes of the

Hollywood industry that have dominated the silver screen for over a century. Instead of

providing angelic characters that can do no wrong, these storytellers create complex and rounded

characters full of contradictions. These artistic expressions reveal a world of possibilities,

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realized when marginalized communities pick up pens and cameras to shape their own

narratives. The success of these visual stories is reshaping the contours of the Hollywood

industry and inspiring emerging artists to claim a space within the increasingly diverse tapestry

of North America.

Keywords

Muslim diasporic Cinema, resistance, personal narratives, storytelling, diasporic queerness,

Black Muslims in film.

Introduction

In One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, a wise, witty, and brave woman named

Scheherazade marries King Shahryar to save her father and other young women in her kingdom.1

Understanding that she may be killed in the morning, she develops an ingenious plan of survival.

Every night she harnesses her imagination to tell the king a captivating story but stops just short

of finishing it in the early hours of dawn. Each morning. the king decides to spare her life so that

he can hear the end the following night. Scheherezade understands that her life depends on the

continuity of the unfinished story, and she spins each story’s end into a new tale the next night. In

the end, she survives, marries the king, and saves all the young women of her kingdom. One

remembers Scheherazade as a feminist, a loving daughter and wife, a visionary, and much more.

However, the superb craft of her storytelling kept the king wanting more. Without arms,

ammunition, and soldiers, she used the power of her imagination, and the skill of storytelling to

survive, resist, and save countless young women.

1 Antonie Galland, The Arabian Nights ̓Entertainments: Consisting of One Thousand and One

Stories (London: Cowie, Jolland, 1838).

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Like Scheherezade, Muslim storytellers of the twenty-first century in the diaspora are in a

similar yet different space. As creative artists living in an Islamophobic world, they constantly

struggle with how to pick up a pen and camera to dissipate the thick clouds of hatred and

suspicion around them. How can they stay true to themselves and yet use film to resist a century

of negative stereotypes through artistic expressions? In these times of crisis, for these

storytellers, the creation of narratives are artistic expressions and acts of survival.

Jack Shaheen, a prominent film scholar, wrote, “Ever since the camera began to crank,

the unkempt Arab [Muslim] has appeared as an uncivilized character, the cultural Other,

someone who appears and acts differently than the white Western protagonist, someone of a

different race, class, gender or national origin.”2 After World War II, the “unkempt”

Arab/Muslim evolved into a brute as the United States geopolitical interests dug deeper into

using culture and media to advance its imperial interests in the Middle East.3 Articulated through

tropes of adventure, exploration, and rescue, these Hollywood images ultimately helped provide

legitimacy and justification to military expansion and domination.4 The tragic attacks of

September 11 and the elections of 2016 poured additional fuel into the simmering Islamophobic

climate that has been in the making since the 1970s.5 The Hollywood industry produced other

2 Jack Shaheen, Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture (Washington,

Walsh School of Foreign Services, 2004),

http://facpub.stjohns.edu/~layachia/MENA/Documents/Arab%20and%20Muslim%20Stereotypi

ng%20in%20American%20Popular%20Culture.htm.
3 Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East

since 1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
4 McAlister, Epic Encounters.
5Khaled Beydoun, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.

(California, University of California Press, 2019); Carl Ernst, Islamophobia in America: The

Anatomy of Intolerance. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Zafar Iqbal, Islamophobia:

History, Context and Deconstruction. (New Delhi, India; Thousand Oaks, California, Sage

Publications, 2020).

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blockbuster thrillers that glorified violence at American soldiers’ hands filled with adrenaline

targeting Muslim bodies at home and abroad.6

The stereotypical depictions of Muslims, however, did not remain unexamined. Over the

last fifty-some years, brilliant intellectuals, committed activists, and superb artists have critically

analyzed Hollywood orientalist images of Muslims on the silver screen.7 This thoughtful analysis

argued that the West’s cinematic depiction of the East revealed less about the characteristics of

the East than about the subjectivity, consciousness, and culture of the West and, more

specifically, their attitudes.8 This monumental analysis combines socio-political and historical

contexts with a theoretical framework to deconstruct these images’ politics.9 Taught through

academic texts, activist circles, community workshops, and documentaries, this critical body of

work has been challenging the Hollywood industry on various fronts.

Combined with this critical analysis, Muslim writers, producers, and directors have

continued to march on a path filled with prickles of blunt stereotypes and ongoing legacies of

orientalism. From Mustafa Akkad, the Syrian American director/producer of The Message

(1977), to Nijila Mumin, the Black female director/producer of Jinn (2018), these filmmakers

have kept their eyes on the prize. With limited resources and no uncles in the industry, these

6 Examples Include: Clint Eastwood, Jason Hall, Robert Lorenz, et al., American Sniper.

(Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. 2019): DVD; Marco Beltrami, Kathryn Bigelow, and Buck

Sanders. The Hurt Locker. (Lionsgate UK. 2016), DVD; Peter Woodward, Gregor Jordan,

Samuel L. Jackson, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Michael Sheen, Unthinkable, (Culver City, CA:

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2013): DVD.
7 Edward Said. Orientalism. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul., 1978), Jack G. Shaheen, Reel

Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. (New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001); Evelyn

Alsultany, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11. (New York:

New York University Press, 2012).
8 Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the

Rest of the World. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981).
9 Michael Singh, Catherine Jordan, et al. Valentino’s Ghost: The Politics Behind Images.

(Michael Singh Productions, 2017): DVD.

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artists have created fissures in the thick walls surrounding the fairyland of Hollywood, built with

layers of nepotism. The film industry’s overwhelming responses to these voices of change have

ranged from a complete disregard to condescending smiles to “there’s nothing funny about your

people.”10 However, the industry’s countless rejections and dismissals have not crushed the

dreams of Muslim filmmakers. Specifically, after the tragic attacks of September 11, Muslim

filmmakers used personal narratives to usher in a new body of fictional visual work that I place

under the rubric of Muslim Diasporic Cinema.

Muslim Diasporic Cinema

Hamid Naficy, in his monumental work An Accented Cinema, states that diasporic

cinema generally is written, produced, and directed by “postcolonial ethnic and identity

filmmakers” who are “either immigrant themselves or have been born in the West since the

1960s to nonwhite, non-Western, postcolonial émigrés.”11 Black Muslim filmmakers standing in

the middle of non-Muslim African Americans, Immigrant Muslims, and dominant White

American cultures,12 consciously/unconsciously haunted by the trauma of trans-Atlantic slave

trade, ongoing legacies of slavery, and structural racism, further complicate traditional

definitions of diasporic, postcolonial, and ethnic filmmakers. Paul Gilroy argues that black

diaspora is “[f]ormed through the African dispersion and the experience of slavery, and crossing

10 Michael Malek Najjar, “’There is Nothing Funny About Your People:’ Muslim American

Humor in Post-9/11 World” in Muslims and American Popular Culture, Volume 1:

Entertainment and Digital Culture (Praeger: Santa Barbara, 2014), 4.

11 Naficy, An Accented Cinema, 15.
12 Sherman Jackson, “Between Blackamerica, Immigrant Islam, and the Dominant Culture” in

Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection.(Oxford, New York,

Oxford University Press, 2005).

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national, cultural and racial divides,…[and therefore] is a transnational and intercultural

formation, and historical process of renewal, innovation, and change.”13 Resistance as a strategy

has allowed them to survive these forced displacements, enslavement, colonization, and

dispersions.

Diasporic Cinema, therefore, encapsulates diasporic identities as well as “political

orientation and oppositional and cultural practices.”14 Naficy characterizes such work as

“accented films,” as this work focuses on the ethnic and racial identity of diasporic filmmakers

within the host country.15 Martin and Yaquinto suggest that by focusing on “the central drama in

American culture, ” these diasporic visual stories “explore the ambivalence and contingency of

diasporic identities.”16 Politically charged, this Diasporic Cinema claims an oppositional stand to

the “hegemonizing ideologies and cultural practices” of the American film industry. Searching

for unattainable authenticity, the identities of these diasporic individuals are in constant motion.

“As the factors of identity ([religion], ethnicity, gender, race, sexuality, and class) are

complicated and revisioned by the experience of exile and diaspora, such cinema suggests a

counterpoint to the deterritorializing and dislocating experience of global migrations, using

journey narratives to interrogate the ‘homeless subject.'”17

Building on the work of Michael T. Martin,18 Hamid Naficy,19 and many other scholars, I

suggest that Muslim diasporic cinema falls somewhere between the longing to flee from the

13 Michel T. Martin, Cinemas of the Black Diaspora: Diversity, Dependence, and

Oppositionality (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1998),10.
14 Martin, 3
15 Naficy, An Accented Cinema, 4.
16 Michael T. Martin and Marilyn Yaquinto, “Framing Diaspora in Diasporic Cinema: Concepts

and Thematic Concerns” Black Camera, 22, no. 1 (Spring/Summer, 2007), 22.
17Martin and Yaquinto, “Framing Diaspora in Diasporic Cinema” 22.
18 Martin, Cinemas of the Black Diaspora.
19 Naficy, An Accented Cinema.

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essentialized binary identities of immigrant/native, religious/secular, etc., and the desire to claim

the performance of a continuously shifting and politically charged Islamic identity. The crux of

the Muslim Diasporic Cinema is this dialectical yearning to unapologetically claim a Muslim

identity without materially defining it. Walking on slippery slopes of being simultaneously

outsiders and insiders, these diasporic filmmakers produce, write, and direct narratives that

examine their religious, secular, and cultural identities. Their lives and experiences are

constantly shifting and emerging. The hybridity of their experiences allows them to create

narratives that examine contradictions of being diasporic and Muslim.

However, the Muslimness within the Muslim Diasporic Cinema is not based on looks,

bodies, or religiosity; it is closely linked to the diasporic identities’ political performance in

motion. Through self-affirmation, they relate to the socially constructed “Blackness” and “self-

identified racial identity”20 within Black diasporas. Challenging the essentialist and purist

notions of identity, Stuart Hall has highlighted the concept of hybridity within the Black

diaspora.21 Michelle Wright argues, “Blackness” within the black diaspora “cannot be located on

the body because of the diversity of bodies that claim Blackness as an identity. Blackness, then,

is largely a matter of perception—or, as performance studies theorist E. Patrick Johnson

observes—made up of moments of performance in which performers understand their bodies as

‘Black.’ “22 This performance and understanding of Blackness is “a political orientation and

oppositional cultural practice,”23 similar to an affirmation of a racialized political, cultural and

20 Martin, 3-4.
21 Stuart Hall, “What is this ‘Black’ in the Black Popular Culture,” in Critical Dialogues in

Cultural Studies (London, Routledge, 1997).
22 Michelle Wright, Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology.

(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 4. https://ebookcentral-proquest-

com.libproxy.uoregon.edu/lib/uoregon/reader.action?docID=1977409.
23Martin, Cinemas of the Black Diaspora, 3.

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religious Islamic identity. These visual narratives carry the pride, joy, pain, and burdens of being

a Muslim in the diaspora.

Despite the insistence to claim an Islamic identity, these filmmakers are not claiming to

represent the entire Muslim community or depict a universal and fixed interpretation of Islam.

Instead, a storyteller provides a perspective that differs from that of others. Without insisting on

the universal application of any traditional values, these Muslim artists reveal and perform the

complexities of living in-between the contradictions of religion and modernity. Per Naficy,

“identity is not a fixed essence but a process of becoming, even a performance of identity.

Indeed, each accented film may be thought of as a performance of its author’s identity. Because

they are highly fluid, exilic and diasporic identities raise critical questions about political agency

and the ethics of identity politics.”24 These stories capture the intimate familiarity of growing up

Muslim. They are immersed with the utterances of Alhamdulillah (thank God) and Mashallah

(God willing) and breathing a space filled with the fragrances of shisha, biryani, and Turkish

coffee. This self-affirmation of Islam as a racialized identity is the marker of Muslim Diasporic

Cinema.

With this insistence to unapologetically claim an Islamic identity, the Muslim Diasporic

Cinema parallels the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s.25 “No longer burdened by the approval-

seeking sackcloth of positive imagery, or the relative obscurity of marginal production,” New

Queer Cinema demonstrated that it “could be both radical and popular, stylish and economically

viable.”26 Queer films produced in the 1990s such as Tongues Untied (1990), Paris is Burning

24 Naficy, An Accented Cinema, 6.
25 Ruby B. Rich, “New Queer Cinema”. Sight & Sound 2 (May 1992): 30-39
26 Michele Aaron, New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University

Press, 2004), 3.

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(1990), My Own Private Idaho (1991), and The Living End (1992) “had few aesthetic or

narrative strategies in common” except as Ruby Rich pointed out that they shared an attitude

which can be characterized as “an attitude of defiance.”27 Just as the protagonists of New Queer

Cinema were ‘proudly assertive,’28 Muslim filmmakers boldly assert their Muslim identities in

front and behind the camera. Going beyond the concepts of “positive images,” Muslim

filmmakers boldly proclaim themselves with their good and bad revealing what it means to be a

human with all of its complexities. Instead of shying away from their Islamic identity, these

artists not only assert their Muslim identities, but they also use them as a political platform.

Their identities reveal the nuances of juggling being Blacks, women, Americans, immigrants,

queers, and more. The pain and beauty lie in the act of creating constantly shifting identities. In

Muslim Diasporic Cinema, artists are in a dual process of creation and assertion. Their narratives

claim that they are not just Muslims, but they are Muslims and third-generation comedians, or

Muslims and Black and queer, or Muslims and artists and activists. This aptitude for embracing

multiple identities is the pillar of Muslim Diasporic Cinema.

For many Muslim filmmakers, filmmaking is an act of resistance. Ongoing

misrepresentations, distortions, and dehumanizing images were the primary reasons that inspired

them to pick up a camera. They shine a light on a spot that had remained outside the frame. For

many, their voices were unheard and their images unseen. Most of them grew up in an

environment directly or indirectly impacted by the September 11 attacks, and they were blamed

for the actions of a few. With a fire in their hearts, they felt an urge to twist the frame and change

the angle of the light by telling visual stories. For example, Nijla Mumin, the writer and director

27 Ibid, 3
28 J. Hoberman, “Out and Inner Mongolia,” Premiere (October 1992): 31, Quoted in Aaron, 3.

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of Jinn, tells the story of “a black girl who dances, kisses, and reads the Qur’an.” Therefore, the

film is a way of fighting the erasure of the things Mumin loves. Unable to see herself and her

community on the silver screen, Mumin writes, “As a Black Muslim woman, filmmaking is my

resistance.” Since the Islamic identity takes a stand against the prevailing Islamophobia, its

affirmation is a site to perform and politically resist.

However, this resistance does not follow the Third Cinema’s contours of the 1960s, which

was revolutionary, bold, and assertive in its style, language, and contents. It aimed to disrupt

form, content, and the system.29 Instead, the politics in Muslim Diasporic Cinema is subtle but

savvy. These stories focus on normalizing the everyday lives of Muslims, historically seen as the

Other. Most of their messages remain under the radar and features the politics of everyday

people. More specifically, the political messages of these films are traceable through the humor

found in the ordinary lives of Muslims living in the diasporas. Unlike the films about religious,

historical, and political leaders, including the Prophet Muhammad, Malcolm X, or Muhammad

Ali, these visual narratives revolve around everyday people’s lives and experiences. Just as Ruby

Rich suggests that New Queer Cinema “reinterpreted the link between the personal and the

political envisioned by feminism,”30 Muslim Diasporic Cinema uses personal narratives to claim

its resistance. These filmmakers continuously remind the audience that their work stems from

things that happen to them, people they know, dialogues they hear, and places where they live

and work. Whether it is Jinn, written and directed by Nijla Mumin,31 or Big Sick, written by

Kumail Nanjiani,32 all of this work speaks to Muslim filmmakers’ personal experiences in a

29 Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. “Towards a Third Cinema,” in Film and Theory: An

Anthology, ed. Toby Miller and Robert Stam (Oxford, Blackwell, 2000), 265-287.
30 Ruby Rich, New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut. (Durham: Duke Univ. Press. 2013) xv.
31 Nijla Mumin, Jinn, (Sweet Potato Pie Productions, et al., 2018): DVD.
32 Kumail Nanjiani and Holly Hunter. The Big Sick (Sony Pictures, 2018): DVD.

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variety of ways. The audience gets a glimpse into everyday Muslims’ personal lives, which is

unknown to most non-Muslims. For example, through Jinn, viewers see a multifaceted narrative

of contemporary Black Muslims who live in upscale homes, have respectable jobs, attend

mosques and pray, have sexual relationships, and love their families. These activities are usually

not seen and depicted on film, especially by characters in Black communities. The creative

control on their narratives allows these artists to carve out spaces that have remained hidden up

until now.

By using personal narratives, Muslim storytellers take a political stand to reveal their

fleeting identities, which range from religious to spiritual, cultural, and secular. Here, the claim

to the political identity requires that “the author is [not] dead.”33 These creative artists are not

only writing, directing, and producing, but they are also embodying those visions. These visual

stories are extensions of some pieces of the artists—part of the performance. Just as Naficy

notes, “Although many of their films are authorial and autobiographical, I problematize both

authorship and autobiography by positing that the filmmakers’ relationship to their films and the

authoring agency within them is not solely one of parentage but also one of performance.

However, by putting the author back into authorship, I counter a prevalent postmodernist

tendency, which either celebrates the death of the author or multiplies the authoring effect to the

point of de-authoring the text. Accented filmmakers are not just textual structures or fictions

within their films; they also are empirical subjects, situated in the interstices of cultures and film

practices, who exist outside and prior to their films.”34

33 Ronald Barthes, Images, Music, Text, Trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977).
34 Naficy, An Accented Cinema,4.

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Most of the Diasporic Muslim Cinema is financed outside the major studio system.

Unable to provide simple and clear narratives that are the bread and better of Hollywood’s

blockbusters hits with special effects and glamour, marginalized filmmakers seek better control

of their message, form, and contents without thinking about winning over the audience and

profit-making. Fortunately, over the last twenty years, grass-root organizations, including

Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Arab American Film, and many more, are trusting

these storytellers’ visions and providing them with financial and mentoring opportunities. With

additional opportunities springing up everywhere, now the sky is the limit.

Journey of Muslim Diasporic Cinema

Most filmmakers of Muslim background entered the industry after the 1960s due to the

complex sociopolitical history of decolonization, immigration laws, wars, occupation,

displacement, conversations, and digital technology changes.35Among these included Mustafa

Akkad, a young Syrian who came to the United States to pursue his love for film with two

hundred dollars and a copy of the Qur’an in his packet.36 His first major feature film, The

Message (1976), provided historical background about the Prophet Muhammad’s life and his

message for the world. His next major feature film, Lion of the Desert (1980), depicted the story

of Omar Muktar, a Muslim freedom fighter who fought Italy’s colonization of Libya before

WWII. For Akkad, the purpose of his work was to “introduce the Western audience to his faith,

to dispel their apprehensions and misconceptions.”37 Despite his passion for educating the

35 Naficy, An Accented Cinema, 3-29.
36 Pat Twair “Honoring the Vision” The Middle East, (June 2007): 62-63.
37 Joumane Chahine, “Keeping the Faith: From the Prophet Muhammad to Michael Myers and

Beyond:The Unlikely Two-track Career of Director Producer Moustapha Akkad” Film

Comment, (May June 2014):56.

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Western world about Islam’s beauty, his religious-themed films remained less popular. Akkad

made his fame in Hollywood by producing eight Halloween movies. A few other successful

Muslim filmmakers, including Dodi al-Fayad, produced films without any reference to

Islam/Muslims; they are Hook (1999), The Scarlet Letter (1995), and Chariots of Fire (1981).

Hollywood was not ready for Muslim narratives.

Kamran Pasha, a lawyer turned Hollywood screenwriter, immigrated at the age of three

from Pakistan. Passionate about writing, he sold one of his science fiction screenplays and

landed in Los Angeles before September 11. In 2005 he got an opportunity to write for an

episode of Sleeper Cell, for which he successfully developed a positive character of a Muslim

FBI agent fighting Islamic terrorists. Pasha enjoys writing screenplays about the golden age of

the Islamic empire, specifically Taj Mahal, Saladin, and Fatma Shajarat al-Durr. For him, such

narratives are significant since they can flip Hollywood’s agenda about Islam/Muslims. Despite

his “God-given gift to write,” Pasha believes that the industry underappreciates his work since

they see him as an “incredible threat to the [Hollywood] narrative of Islam.” Despite all the

challenges, he wants to make a change by staying within the Hollywood system.38

While small changes are occurring within the industry, a bigger storm is brewing outside

Hollywood through independent films written, directed, and produced by Muslim filmmakers

about their respective communities. Specifically, after September 11, several standup comedians,

spoken-word artists, and writers/directors/producers felt that their personal jihad was to combat

the thick smoke surrounding them. At the forefront were the standup comedians. With bruised

hearts, they swallowed their pride and tears and “outed” themselves as Muslims. Just as early

American standup comedy rose out of the Civil Rights era and the minorities’ quest for

38 Kamran Pasha, interview by Irum Shiekh, Zoom Recording, June 25, 2020.

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recognition in America,”39 self-identified Muslim comedians stood at the forefront, embraced

their Muslim identity, and incorporated their lives into their comedy. These included Ahmed

Ahmed, Dean Obeidallah, Maysoon Zayid, Maz Jabrani, and Aaron Kader. They toured the

United States and the Middle East with their comedy tour, Axis of the Evil. The tour was a local

and global success. Both Muslims and non-Muslims laughed with the comedians about the

absurdities of airport security rules, racial profiling, government surveillance, and much more.

For Ahmed Ahmed, “We can’t define who we are on a serious note because nobody will listen.

The only way to do it is to be funny about it.”40

Out of the standup comedy scene, several filmmakers emerged, including Kumail

Nanjiani. He incorporated humor and personal narrative in The Big Sick (2018), which he wrote

and produced with his wife, Emily Gordon. The plot revolves around his early courtship and

falling in love with Emily during her illness. Through this fictionalized personal narrative,

Nanjiani humorously juggles his Pakistani family’s cultural …

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