Yvonne Abraham

Laughing it off

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / November 28, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — Azhar Usman, an Indian Muslim with a long beard and a booming voice, was telling a story.

“A car full of hoodlums pulls up next to me,’’ he said, “And one of them goes, ‘What’s up, Osama?’ Then his friend goes, ‘Yeah, what’s up, Gandhi?’ ’’

“I was totally confused,’’ Usman said.

“I’m gonna kill you — by not eating?’’

The audience roared.

Usman is a very funny guy. And do we ever need him right now.

He performed at a fund-raiser for flood victims in Pakistan on a recent Friday night. In the Kresge Auditorium at MIT, four comics riffed on airport security, Islamic bathroom etiquette, terrorists, and how Muslim is the new black — the M-word as N-word.

“I’m afraid ‘Muslim’ will be the new negative word,’’ said comic Dean Obeidallah. “ ‘What up, my Muslim?’ ‘Where my Muslims at?’ ‘Oh, Muslim, please!’ ’’

To some (e.g. those who have never seen “The Daily Show’’), the term Muslim humor might seem like an oxymoron.

It shouldn’t. Pain and laughter have always been the best of companions. And it has been a particularly painful year for Muslims in this country, worse in some ways than 2001, when, in the direct aftermath of the 9/11 horrors, people knew you shouldn’t broad-brush all Muslims with the infamy of the most extreme.

That bit of simple decency seems almost quaint today. We had the election-fueled uproar over the so-called ground zero mosque — actually mainly a cultural center not at ground zero and headed by an imam widely seen as moderate before the uproar. Then there was the nobody preacher in Florida who got famous for threatening to burn Korans.

We had NPR’s Juan Williams saying the mere sight of a person in Muslim garb on an airplane makes him nervous. And Marty Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, who blogged, “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,’’ before writing that the nation’s millions of Muslims are not “worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment.’’ (He later apologized, but only for the second comment.)

Locally, we had the hilariously named Americans for Peace and Tolerance, which tried to whip people into a frenzy over five Wellesley sixth-graders participating in a prayer service on a field trip to the Islamic Cultural Center in Roxbury. This was a cynical attempt to capitalize on the national hatred to reopen a discussion on radicalism at a mosque they’d tried to stop from being built in the first place.

Everyone worries about the extremism that leads to terrorism, and many of us have a problem with Islam’s treatment of women and gays. However, it’s distressing to see so many people ready to set aside the religious tolerance that is supposed to make this country special when it comes to this one faith — and with so few repercussions. Some of the people I spoke with before the MIT fund-raiser worried that Muslims would never find acceptance here.

But it certainly makes for good material.

Obeidallah compared the Mafia and Al Qaeda.

“When something happens,’’ he said, “the Italians deny responsibility: ‘He must have shot himself in the back seven times!’ Al Qaeda claims responsibility for everything: ‘You know the solar eclipse?’ ’’

He offered the mostly young, mostly South Asian and Arab audience travel tips.

“Dress white, make your flight. Dress brown, never leave town.’’

And mused on how toxic Arab and Muslim names are — to absolutely everybody.

“You’re immune to identity theft,’’ he said. “I have a friend, Osama, he could leave his driver’s license and credit card in a crack house and no one would take them.’’

The more jokes piled up, the more the Kresge felt like a tiny pocket of sanity in a country gone mad. Out there, the year’s cavalcade of intolerance was profoundly depressing. In here, it was just what it should be: Spectacularly, hilariously absurd.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at