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«59 Cultural Politics of Humor in (De)Normalizing Islamophobic Stereotypes Zara Zimbardo California Institute of Integral Studies ISLAMOPHOBIA STUDIES ...»

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Cultural Politics of Humor in


Islamophobic Stereotypes

Zara Zimbardo

California Institute of Integral Studies


VOLUME 2, NO. 1, SPRING 2014, PP. 59-81.

Published by:

Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project,

Center for Race and Gender, University of California, Berkeley.


Statements of fact and opinion in the articles, notes, perspectives, etc. in the Islamophobia Studies Journal are those of the respective authors and contributors. They are not the expression of the editorial or advisory board and staff. No representation, either expressed or implied, is made of the accuracy of the material in this journal and ISJ cannot accept any legal responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions that may be made. The reader must make his or her own evaluation of the accuracy and appropriateness of those materials.

60 ISJ 2(1) Cultural Politics of Humor in (De)Normalizing Islamophobic Stereotypes Zara Zimbardo California Institute of Integral Studies This paper offers an examination of the role of humor in both normalizing Islamophobic representations as Other and in creatively challenging them. The first section traces historic connections of ways dominant culture in the United States portrays targeted groups as both full of irrational anger and lacking a sense of humor or the ability to “get” or “take” jokes. In the perpetuation of dehumanizing stereotypes, this discourse of negation undermines core aspects of being seen as fully human, as humor is a fundamental communication realm of bonding and generating shared symbolic and social meaning within different cultural contexts. Against this backdrop, the more specific level of denial of humor functions to dismiss socio-political causes for anger at injustice, discrimination and violence, pathologizing the targeted group for not being able to share laughter at jokes that normalize their oppression. This power dynamic serves to invisibilize context, psychologize structural issues, and delegitimize resistance. The following sections turn to uses of humor and political comedy to strategically surface, explicitly challenge and subvert Islamophobic stereotypes since the start of the War on Terror. From the Axis of Evil Comedy troupe, to The Daily Show’s satirical Muslim version of The Cosby Show to the recent appropriation of Newsweek’s “Muslim Rage” cover and the subsequent mocking transformation through social media that followed attaching a wide range of hilarious humanizing images and tweets to the #MuslimRage hashtag, diverse comic strategies have worked to expose dehumanizing stereotypes in a time of war and made them “uninhabitable.” By holding up mirrors to mainstream narratives of the monolithic Muslim Other, both Muslims and non-Muslim allies have used techniques of humor to create punchlines that open shared understandings of the underlying assumptions of dominant frames, and destabilize them through making those assumptions visible, and laughable. Drawing from cultural studies, humor studies and media studies, this paper incorporates scholarship on audience response, popular culture, theories of humor, and interviews.

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The thing that frustrates me is when you see us on TV nowadays who do they always show, they always show the crazy dude burning the American flag (waving flag gesture) and going “Death to America!” always that

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How does humor bring into a sharp focus what the blurry lens of Islamophobic tropes distort and universalize? As stereotypes work to make particular contexts, histories, diverse identities and structural inequity invisible, political humor works to make them visible, and their stereotypical distortions laughable. Anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her essay, “Jokes”, poses, “We must ask what are the social conditions for a joke to be both perceived and permitted”(Mukerji & Schedson 1991:298). Jokes and audience reception reveal unique dimensions of the social, cultural and political context in which shared laughter occurs. This paper seeks to contribute recognition and analysis of forms of emergent and proliferating comedy since the start of the War on Terror, that have specifically arisen in direct response to mainstream Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism. Many of these entrenched stereotypes have a longer history pre-dating 9/11/01, in film, news media, colonial literature and the American national imaginary. The main focus of this research is based in dynamics within the United States, though in our globalized world and media environment, a number of the examples have international reach and significance.

Of the dehumanizing Islamophobic stereotypes that perpetuate seemingly unbridgeable, untranslatable gulfs in the militaristic framework of “us vs. them,” the stereotype of humorlessness supports and upholds the others, as irrational, rage-filled, violent and unrelatable. The axis of humor in the recurrent “clash of civilizations” discourse in media and popular culture, reinforces core War On Terror narratives that “Islam is incompatible with democracy,” as a parallel discourse of “Islam is incompatible with comedy” has concurrently circulated.

Edward Said utilized the term “thought-stopping headlines” (Said 1997) to point out the phenomenon of intentionally created visceral fear in the journalistic enterprise of “covering Islam.” As a counter to thought-stopping headlines, thought-provoking punchlines engage in warfare by humorous means. Moving into the Orange Alert spotlight, many comedians have crafted performances against a backdrop of tragedy. Challenging the distorted lens through which the mainstream media views the Muslim Other, forms of humor bring into sharp focus human faces, while blurring the line between “us vs. them.” As a prism to understand conflict, change and social tensions, humor and comedy may serve as a “restoration of reason” and “means of undoing otherness” (Bilici 2010: 207), and wedge open space in which critical thinking can gain a foothold.

Comedy and humor may be used in order to break tension, to create a sense of community, to build solidarity through in-group inclusion and out-group exclusion, as a method of coping with injustice or trauma, as a survival tactic, as a form of political resistance, for therapeutic ends, and for social commentary and critique. This research examines various rhetorical devices and socio-historical connections in the diverse, comic undoing of Muslim otherness. The framework of cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall informs the understanding of the key processes of stereotyping as reducing, essentializing, naturalizing and fixing “difference.” Stereotyping deploys a strategy of “splitting” the normal and acceptable from the abnormal and unacceptable, it tends to occur where there are gross inequalities of power and thus serves to maintain the social and symbolic order (Hall 62 ISJ 2(1) 1997:258). Contesting stereotypes may involve the diversification of the range of images, inclusion of “positive” images (which may yet problematically reproduce a reductive and flattening representation), and taking the images apart to turn them creatively against themselves. As Hall (1997) states, “Interrogating stereotypes makes them uninhabitable – it destroys their naturalness and normalcy.” Humorous strategies are powerful in the capacity to “unfix” dominant meanings through subversive satire and parody, and affix new meanings that destabilize the underlying assumptions of the stereotype.

Analyses of what elicits laughter typically cite three key theories from the multidisciplinary field of humor to examine how humor produces a social effect. Superiority theory argues that we laugh at people (or categories of people, or perhaps our former selves) who we see as inferior and ridiculous, or as role reversals. Catharsis theory recognizes the particular release of psychological tension or repression through shared laughter; a desire for relief. A dominant approach to humor is incongruity theory, in which humor results from the “unexpected juxtaposition of two or more frames of interpretation” (Gournelos & Greene 2011:xvii-xviii), and may make the implicit frame explicit. Often all of these “why” aspects of humor may be at play. A fourth theory of humor acknowledges the power of ambivalence, as a humorous text may generate tension through simultaneous attraction and repulsion, expressed through laughter.

In looking at forms of humor that challenge stereotypes in a time of war, surveillance and racial profiling, it is evident that humor has everything to do with power dynamics.

Susan Purdie’s work Comedy: Mastery of Discourse, articulates the discursive power in the political operation of joking as follows: “All habitual joking - recurrent patterns of who makes jokes and who is joked about—will both reflect and create patterns of power”(Purdie 1993:129).

Popular culture studies has placed increasing emphasis on audience theory in analyzing the reception and construction of a joke, recognizing the power of the spectator’s active role in the transformative potential of comedy and humor, as opposed to seeing joke texts as non-social and non-historical. Four stages of “humor agreement” that underscore the integral role of audiences in making meaning and offering or conversely withholding “humor support” are: recognition, understanding, appreciation and agreement (Smith 2009:155). The context of Islamophobia makes each of these stages between comic artist and audience a political act.

In this exploration, I examine three different examples, each representing a distinct genre and diverse modes of audience interaction. Acknowledging the field of stand-up comedy that emerged to directly address Islamophobia over the past decade and continues to grow, I select the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour for closer focus, drawing links to other performers in the field. In stand-up comedy the audience is self-selected and fundamental for jokes’ success. The second selection is The Daily Show’s pilot of the “Qu’osby Show,” a highly satirical take on the sit-com genre, with a staged focus group reaction as a test audience, which is deliberately constructed by the producers. Lastly, expanding the realm and definition of audience is the #MuslimRage Twitter phenomenon, where users of the social network turned Newsweek’s online conversation into a platform for a digital wildfire of satire, engaging a global participatory audience.

All are in relation to the need to make those targeted by Islamophobia nonthreatening to dominant groups and thus less threatened by them. Many educational outreach strategies to reduce bias and prejudice attempt to fill gaps in what non-target groups “do not know.” A different pedagogical strategy is to engage in what people “do know,” that reinforces stereotypes and blocks counter-information. Humor strategies are uniquely and powerfully able to destabilize what is “known” as an audience enters into a shared experiential understanding of “getting” social and political context through getting the joke.

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After the post-9/11 moratorium on humor, in late September Malcolm Kushner, self-identified as “America's Favorite Humor Consultant,” called on the country to “unleash humor” calling it “our secret weapon.” Kushner went further, suggesting that the terrorists hate us because we have humor and they “lack it:” The current conflict has been characterized as good vs. evil; right vs wrong; freedom lovers vs. freedom haters: and the list goes on...But (there’s) another way of looking at it: the humorous vs. the humorless. Just think about it. The freedom to laugh at each other and ourselves encompasses most of the other freedoms that we cherish so dearly…America is the country that gave the world the one-liner, the light-bulb joke and the top 10 list…What have our enemies offered in the way of humor? The answer is found in another indigenous American joke form, the list of the world’s shortest books. It must certainly include The Wit and Wisdom of Fundamentalist Islamic Extremists (Kushner 2001).

This crystallized binary representation pits noble American humor against the whole Islamic world as the out-group who does not “get it” or cannot “take it.” The axis of humor within “clash of civilizations” rhetoric in a time of the lethal militaristic binaries makes a case for humor’s centrality in social power dynamics and political discursive power (Purdie 1993, Lewis 2006). In 2005, the movie Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World was released as a type of comedy Orientalism speaking to the desire to render knowable the “enemy other” in a time of war. The cinematic journey follows Jewish American comedian Albert Brooks to India and Pakistan in search of what makes Muslims laugh. Appearing several years after the start of the War on Terror and subsequent military invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the role of comedic inquiry was explicitly framed as a new tactic of warfare, “alongside spying and fighting.” Upon invitation from the State Department, Brooks (2005) was enlisted as a comic to write up a 500-page report on what makes Muslims laugh, and informed, “The world is in a precarious place. There are huge numbers of people that we as a country don’t really understand: the Chinese, Africans, and most pressingly, the Muslim population of the world”. By completing this report on the comic sensibilities of Muslims, “You’ll be doing one hell of a service for your country” (Brooks 2005). The significance of the film lies in its historic moment, as it echoed the question of whether this “new enemy” was possible to comprehend, relate to, laugh with, and infiltrate.

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