Islam: “A Metaphor for Cream Cheese”
From Inspire Magazine
Interview with comedian Azhar Usman
He’s a lecturer, community activist, entrepreneur and lawyer, hence being the last person you’d think would joke around. But this charismatic and captivation comedian from Chicago has left audiences rolling with laughter with his skillful analysis of our lives as Muslims living in North America . His debut audio CD Square the Circle: American Muslims of Distortion is side – splitting and he has received rave reviews from various publications including the New York Times and the BBC. Inspire’s Saadiq Mohiuddin contacted Mr. Usman to find out more.
What motivated you to pursue stand up comedy?
Standup is about speaking truth, but in a funny and entertaining way. I always admired how Black and Latino comics would speak truth to power through their comedy, thereby addressing unaddressed topics and jeering people into confronting the unspoken realities that everyone tries to ignore. I dreamed that one day our community would see ethnic comics doing this for Muslims, Arabs, Indo – Paks . Now it’s happening.
How do you know when to draw the line regarding your material?
I take my religion seriously, and my commitment to God even more seriously. It is my understanding that our religion requires people ignorant about matters of religion, like me, to take advice and counsel from people of knowledge, or religious scholars. Thus, I go to qualified Muslim scholars and jurists and access their insights about my comedy material. Through that ongoing exchange, I’ve developed a fairly dependable framework, or a filter, if you will, through which I evaluate all of my material. If it passes through the filter, it makes it into my act, eventually. If not, then it doesn’t see the light of day (besides my notebook!).
How do you feel about the way you are contributing to the way non-Muslims view Islam and Muslims in general?
I just hope that it is a positive contribution, one that brings people closer together instead of further apart. Islam is not the property of Muslims. I think Muslims need to begin understanding that as much, if not more, than non-Muslims do. This is God’s religion. It is the Way that He revealed and defined. Ultimately, I just pray that God accepts my work and contributions for what value do human actions have, no matter how seemingly worthy and beneficial in the eyes of people, if God rejects them?
Your material seems to be, in a humorous way critical of way Muslim communities are organized in the West. What would you like to see changed?
A lot. But most of all, Muslims living in the West must forge an indigenous Western Muslim culture wherever they are. Canadian Muslims must develop the Canadian expression of Islam, for themselves, unfettered and unburdened by the cultural baggage of immigrants from the East. American Muslims must become comfortable in their skin as Americans. This requires us to get away from identity politics, to defuse the rhetoric of rage within our communities, to shed ourselves of Islamist and fundamentalist ideologized interpretations of religion entirely. Once these important starter points are realized, then we can have true hope in establishing a community of truly God-conscious, self-aware, spiritually alive, and historically connected dynamic Muslims who will make an enormous impact on improving the state of the world. That’s not going to be easy. In fact, it may never happen. But everything short of this is just hot air, it’s talk. And as they say, “talk is cheap.”
Have you ever experienced any hostility by members of the Muslim community regarding your comedy?
Yes, on a few occasions. But in all such cases they were either being hostile based on wrong assumptions about me and my act, or they were simply ignoramuses who have neither an appreciation for culture and the arts nor respect for orthodox Muslim scholarship. If such people don’t like me, I don’t really care very much.
A popular character in your act is the “radical Imam.” What statement were you trying to make about the nature of Muslim leaders?
Sheikh Abdul the Radical Imam is an indictment of the rhetoric of rage within our communities—the diarrhea of the mouth that many Islamist and fundamentalist Muslim leaders suffer from. Sadly, the fact that so many of us can relate to his rhetoric illustrates just how vast the influence of ideologues has been within the Muslim Diaspora. These rivers run deep, and many, if not most, young Muslims in the West have been affected by fundamentalism, albeit often in subtle and unconscious ways.
What part of your act do you feel Muslims relate to the most?
I think the aspects of my act that have to do with redressing the wrongs we’ve experienced as a community—the civil rights abuses, the media portrayals, the stereotypes people hold about us—they are probably the most accessible and readily relatable dimensions of my act. Also, I believe that much of my critique of ideologized interpretation of religion and my subtle strikes at Islamism, fundamentalism, political and movement Islam has been widely appreciated because the great silent majority of the world’s Muslims are peace-loving people who hate to see Islam hijacked by counterfeits like the Islamic terrorists and their ilk.
For more information about Azhar Usman visit http://www.azhar.com