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Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World

March 27, 2011

Back when I still thought it was a good idea to argue about politics on Facebook, I frequently mixed it up with friends whose political opinions differed significantly from my own. That led to some fairly contentious discussions, and in some cases, bad feelings, defriending and other awkwardness, both on Facebook and IRL, as the kids say.

One of those epic arguments was between me and my friend: comedian, editor and producer Emery Emery. Last year, Emery asked me for feedback on iSlam, an iPhone app he created to criticize Islam. The app paired violent passages from the Koran with images of Muhammad.  The goal, Emery said, was to mock religion, not to spread hatred or fear about Muslims. Not very far into our debate, Apple decided to ban the app, leading to charges of a doublestandard. (A similar Bible Thumper app criticizing Christianity remains on the iTunes store.)

At the time, I argued that while I supported Emery’s right to create the iSlam app, I felt that it contributed to negative stereotypes about Muslims, and would only worsen the climate of Islamophobia in the US. Emery disagreed, arguing that if it was OK to criticize Christians, it should also be OK to criticize Muslims. Jumping in on Emery’s behalf was our mutual friend and fellow atheist Penn Jillette, who has also been very critical of Muslims (ironically, by claiming he’s afraid to criticize them).

The debate between the three of us got very heated, leading to an epic thread that ultimately left everyone more entrenched in his original position. (For the record, I’m the “liberal friend” Penn is using as a straw man in this video rant about the iSlam argument.) Subsequent Facebook arguments about Islam led to both Penn and Emery quietly defriending me. This was one of the many hints to me that Facebook and politics don’t mix, at least not where your core political values come into conflict with those of your friends.

But apparently (hopefully?), no amount of Facebook drama can kill an argument or a friendship. Several months after our falling out, Emery called me and invited me to appear on his internet radio show, Ardent Atheist on New Dissident Radio. The show is a weekly roundtable discussion devoted to all things atheist, usually featuring guests from the world of standup comedy. I was relieved to hear from Emery, and agreed to be on the show.

The program was co-hosted by actress and singer Heather Henderson and the other guests were veteran SNL writer T. Sean Shannon and comic Dylan Brody.

The twin topics of discussion were:

1) Is it OK to bash Muslims?

2) Is it OK to bash the Pope?

As readers of mine might guess, I took issue with the apparent false equivalency in these two questions. Am I being a hypocrite for creating projects like Adult Baby Jesus, while also criticizing things like Emery’s iSlam app? I’ll leave it to you to judge how well I argue my case. Here’s a link to the archived program.

In retrospect, I wish that there had been at least one guest on the show who was a Muslim, either in practice or by cultural background. It wasn’t for lack of trying. (Emery booked a Pakistani-American comic who canceled a few days before we were to air.)

Finally, as regards our discussion of America’s various imperial wars, I think there’s a reductive focus on religion as a tool for manipulating soldiers onto the battlefield. One could just as easily argue that religious faith prevents people from going to war, as in the case of conscientious objectors. The simplistic view that war is always driven by religious faith should be countered with historical examples of movements for peace and justice that were driven by the faithful. Without religion, there’s no Gandhi and no MLK, Jr. Had I another shot at debating with Emery, I might also point out that everything from the abolition of slavery to the American civil rights movement, would have been unthinkable without religion.

But I guess that’s the difference between radio and something like Facebook. There’s a time limit. Online, you can always hit reply, and dig that trench a little deeper, fighting for that last word, until you’re the only one left talking, and you’re in a hole of your own making.

  • Dylan Brody

    M,

    We are all always left with “shoulda saids.” I think you acquitted yourself quite eloquently on air and it was a great pleasure sharing the air-waves with you.

    Dylan

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Dylan! I thought you were on point too. And pretty damned funny as well. Looking forward to seeing you work.

  • Emery Emery

    I loved having you on the show and I would love to have you back. I am a huge fan of your work and no amount of differing opinions will ever change that for me.

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