If the immediate goal of Negin Farsad’s and Dean Obeidallah’s (that’s them above, respectively) comedy-roadtrip-documentary “The Muslims Are Coming!” was merely to ridicule the anti-Muslim rhetoric that ramped up in the national discourse in 2010 then they achieved it in the first few minutes of the film. It opens with several splices of the usual Tea Party-fueling, right-wing talking heads: Pat Robertson, Ann Coulter (who seems particularly fixated on anuses and foreskin), Bill O’Reilly, Herman Cain, Glenn Beck, and even Oklahoma’s own U.S. senator Jim Inhofe, as they –like cats playing with bright, fuzzy toys– batter around non-issues like the manufactured, fear-mongering concern for Sharia law on Fox News and other conservative profit centers.
Farsad (who introduced the film to the packed audience by shouting “I didn’t know Oklahoma City had such a boner for Muslims!”) and Obeidallah, a pair of comedians living in New York with roots in the Middle East (Farsad’s parents immigrated from Iran and Obeidallah’s from Palestine and Sicily), are aiming a lot higher here than mere ridicule though, elevating “Muslims!” above what a five-minute bit from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” could achieve, and already has. Their plan? To drive an all-Muslim comedy tour across the American deep south and west to dispel the toxic rhetoric and Islamophobia that they and other experts like the Southern Poverty Law Center say has lead to an FBI-reported increase in hate crimes against Muslims since 2010. “We wanna give America a big, Muslim hug,” Farsad says in her ever-cheery tone.
While the tour’s plan seems similar to Sacha Baron-Cohen’s “Borat,” its tactics are much less malicious, more transparent and earnest. On the tour’s first stop in Columbus, Georgia, they pass out handbills at –where else?– a gun show. They pull these sorts of stunts throughout the film, often going to the last place you would expect a Muslim to hang out in the deep south. These lead to mostly hilarious exchanges with locals that only occasionally turn into actual encounters with the raw shock of racism. In Lawrenceville, Georgia, a shop owner betrays her ignorance by refusing to recognize that Farsad and Obeidallah are even American. “I thought you were Muslim Muslims,” she says, conflating religion with nationality.
Farsad and Obeidallah toggle back and forth from the road to interviews with an all-star cast of comedians (Lewis Black, Jon Stewart, David Cross, Janeane Garofalo, Lizz Winstead, Aasif Mandvi), media members (Soledad O’Brien, Rachel Maddow, Ali Velshi, Cenk Uygur), and even imams and hate speech watchdogs (there’s a dude from the Southern Poverty Law Center whose name I didn’t write down) to debunk misbeliefs like that Islam preaches violence. Also to their credit: The bouncy, uptempo animation work is just plain silly. The comedians play a round of “Who’s the Most Hated Group in America,” in which every time a group is mentioned a bubble with its name on it swells larger and larger. It’s a funny trick that helps to maintain the often-difficult balance between comedy and documentary.
There was one thing about “The Muslims Are Coming!” that I thought seemed a little … stretched. Early on in the film Farsad and another comedian on the tour, Omar Elba, make it clear that their ideas about who a Muslim is are very different. Elba insists that you’re either a Muslim or you’re not, there’s no middle ground. I read into it to believe he was saying either you practice the five pillars of Islam or you don’t. Whereas Farsad, who was raised in an extremely conservative Islamic home, chooses to self-identify as a Muslim more culturally than religiously. I bring this up because late in the film, at a show in Arizona, several women wearing traditional Islamic coverings get up and leave during Farsad’s act, which featured jokes about sex and her genitalia. Later in the hotel room she confesses to the camera in tears how sad it made it her that they left because of how medieval some people in Muslim cultures are when it comes to gender and how some conservative sects of Islam don’t approve of her outspokenness. I sympathized with her sadness but I think she might be mistaking a few individuals’ intentional choice of piety for cultural backwardness here.
This is all to say that talking about religion and culture can be a treacherous exercise, but “The Muslims Are Coming!” does so admirably. It’s a deeply funny documentary that occasionally even achieves a real poignancy as it fights codified, crusty ideas about American-ness with the best weapon there is: comedy. – carney
“The Muslims Are Coming!” screens again at 4:00 p.m. Sunday at Harkins Bricktown Cinema.