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How a Christian comedian is upending stereotypes about Muslims

Posted October 24

Christian comedian Jeremy McLellan, from Charleston, South Carolina has struck a chord with Muslims all over the world but particularly in North America. He has over 100,000 followers on Facebook, and about half are from the United States.

The second highest fan base is from Pakistan, followed by the United Kingdom, Canada and India. McLellan says he knows many of these followers are Muslim through comments and messages he receives.

McLellan puts social justice at the center of his work and his comedy has turned into an unlikely form of advocacy against Islamophobia.

“I didn’t set out to write jokes for Muslims. I tell a lot of jokes about a lot of things — race, immigration, police brutality — all these hot-button topics that I love addressing. But over the past year, a lot of stuff I was saying about Muslims started to go viral, and it actually makes perfect sense. Here is this large demographic, in the United States and around the world who are interested in these exact same issues,” McLellan said.

McLellan, 30, has become a staple at Muslim festivals and events around North America, including the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) annual banquet in Los Angeles, one of the largest CAIR banquets in the country attracting 2,000 people, including prominent American Muslims, interfaith activists and politicians, and the Muslimfest in Toronto, a festival bringing together more than 20,000 people every year to celebrate the best in Muslim art, entertainment and culture.

Dubbing McLellan a rising star, Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR Los Angeles, says McLellan is an important ally to the Muslim community. “We need both voices: a Muslim voice is important because it lives, feels and experiences the challenges. But we also need non-Muslim voices that will humanize our community. You never know, a funny message coming from a Caucasian non-Muslim might resonate with someone who may not be open to listening to a Muslim.”

An untapped market

And it can be good business too. According to the DinarStandard, a New York based growth strategy research and advisory firm, the aggregate American Muslim disposable income in 2013 was $98 billion. Of this, $4.7 billion is spent on entertainment. It’s a demographic that isn’t directly catered to by Hollywood or any other segment of the entertainment industry. And yet Muslims are hungry for voices that represent them, or at least acknowledge them in relatable terms.

And the tide may slowly be turning.

In recent years, Muslim American comedians like Aasif Mandvi and Hasan Minhaj have called out Islamophobia. And it's not just comedians upending stereotypes. Earning a bronze medal for the United States, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad has highlighted how a woman in a hijab can proudly represent the land of the free at the Olympics; and Marvel Comics has created the fictional super heroine Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American from New Jersey who has shape-shifting powers.

Pakistani Muslim characters like Nasir Khan, the main character in HBO’s latest thriller “The Night Of,” has been effective in portraying Muslims in a nuanced way that provokes viewers to consider Muslims as humans with depth, complications and subtleties says Daniel Tutt, a filmmaker, interfaith activist and fellow at Washington’s Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).

“It is not a Muslim story, the main character just happens to be Muslim,” he said.

The show tells the story of the son of Pakistani immigrants trying to balance his conservative upbringing with sex, parties, drugs and all the things that can come with being an American teenager. Tutt notes that this is a departure from the one-dimensional depictions of Muslims (intolerant, angry and violent barbarians who hate freedom and have an insatiable desire to slaughter infidels) that has typically taken place in movies like "Aladdin," shows like "Homeland" and documentaries like "Planet of the Arabs."

And if mainstream media doesn’t care about nuanced depictions, it certainly does care about ratings. "The Night Of" debuted strong with a total of 1.3 million views and has averaged about 7 million viewers per episode. Viewership for the show grew every week despite competition from the Summer Olympics. The show’s viewership rivaled HBO’s most-watched half-hour series “Ballers” that averages about 7.1 million viewers per episode, highlighting that a Muslim character at the center of a series can be profitable. HBO’s other shows like season three John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” is averaging about 5.6 million viewers while “Real Time with Bill Maher” averaged about 4.4 million.

Combatting negative stereotypes

In 2014, Los Angeles based actor and comedian Omar Regan set out to create “Halalywood,” a production company dedicated to providing halal (Muslim appropriate) entertainment.

“People told me that if you didn’t have a movie with profanity, with alcohol, with sex — no one was going to watch it. Even Muslims were telling me that,” says Regan, 41. But that prediction proved to be false. In 40 days, Regan raised over $100,000 for his movie via Kickstarter. The movie was completed and played in multiple cities in the United States, Canada, Austria and the United Kingdom.

Regan already has five more movies lined up that he hopes to make in the upcoming years.

“Halalywood’s goal is to combat negative stereotypes about Muslims. We need to tell our own stories, and nobody can tell our story like us,” says Regan.

But this wave of nuanced depictions isn’t happening fast enough or on a scale big enough to counteract the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has been splashed all over American TV screens and newspapers in the 2016 presidential. “Terrorist activity in the United States like the Boston bombing, Fort Hood, Orlando — those events don’t show us as big of a jump in hate crimes and anti-Muslim violence as much as rhetoric during election cycles. Election cycles, not just this one, drive up Islamophobia. This was true for the last two elections as well,” says Tutt.

In the 2016 presidential election, many politicians have played into anti-Islamic sentiment such as Ben Carson saying in an interview with Breitbart that Muslims could embrace American democracy “only if they’re schizophrenic” to Jeb Bush saying Syrian refugees should only be allowed in the United States if they can prove they are Christian. But perhaps no one has been more divisive and bigoted than presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Since the start of his presidential campaign, Trump has called for a ban on Muslim immigrants, heightened scrutiny and surveillance of local mosques and has suggested that Muslim Americans should be registered into a database and carry special identification cards noting their religion. He even implied that Ghazala Khan, the mother of a Muslim-American solider who was killed in Iraq, didn’t speak at the Democratic National Convention because she wasn’t “allowed” to.

This inflammatory rhetoric has “created a fertile ground for threats and acts of anti-Muslim violence,” according to a recent special report titled “When Islamophobia Turns Violent: The 2016 Presidential Elections,” released by Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

The report found that the 2016 presidential season has coincided with an increase in anti-Muslim violence and vandalism across the country. In 2015, there were 174 reported incidents of anti-Muslim violence, including, among other things: 12 murders, 29 physical assaults and 50 threats against persons or institutions; children as young as 12 years old were among those responsible for acts and threats of anti-Muslim violence. At least three separate incidents involved perpetrators who were public supporters of Trump, although that number is presumed to be higher.

Tutt says “people believe that Islam as a religion is somehow exceptional; it is exceptionally violent; exceptionally oppressive; exceptionally intolerant even if other religions have the same tendencies. That’s why it’s so important to have secular Muslims as well as pious and practicing Muslims in mainstream media. When you show the whole spectrum, the stereotypes against the whole community of Muslims decrease.”

But Tutt is hopeful. “While hate crimes and xenophobia are getting very bad, there is a whole population of Americans that are more accepting than ever before. Look at the Khan family, everyone rallied around them as Muslims.” And if nuanced Muslim characters and entertainers continue to have a presence on-screen and in the arts, then “Muslims will gain the social and cultural power they need to not be the political scapegoat."

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