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Muslim Funny Fest: Ali Hassan and others fight racism with humour

07/19/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/18/2016 05:59 EDT
Islam and humour are not words we usually see in the same sentence, but organizers of America's first Muslim comedy festival are hoping to change that.

Muslim Funny Fest, being held in New York City this week, is using laughter as a weapon to combat Islamophobia and racism. Featuring 15 top comedians, it gets underway on Tuesday and continues for three nights.

"The Muslims depicted in our media tend to be from ISIS, Al Qaeda or under arrest," comedian Dean Obeidallah, one of the co-founders of the festival, told CBC News.

"The U.S. mainstream media rarely shows Muslims in a positive light and never shows us being funny."

All of the participating comedians are Muslim, but they come from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities. What they share is a desire to change attitudes with humour – and perhaps skewer themselves in the process.

Bridging a gap with laughter

The only Canadian performing at the festival is Ali Hassan, host of CBC Radio One's Laugh Out Loud.

This isn't just another comedy festival, he says. It's a chance to break down barriers and show the world that there is laughter to be found amid the increasingly hostile attitudes toward those who follow the teachings of Islam.

Hassan revealed a bit of what he has planned for his set, slated for Wednesday night.

"I'll tell a few jokes [about] the issues of the day, linking them to my kids," he said during an interview in Toronto before the festival.

"For example, people worry about terrorism. I don't worry about terrorism because I'm being terrorized in my home by my children. I'm being held hostage by their emotions – I can make jokes like that."

Hassan performs about 300 gigs a year, but this festival is special for him.

"This will probably be the most important festival I do this year," he admits.

"And that would be weird for comedians to hear, for friends to hear. 'Hey what about Just for Laughs? What about this festival?' Those are great festivals and great credits for your career as you move your way up... but as far as a festival that has the most broad reach... you can't beat [the Muslim Funny Fest]."

Reaching out to a wide swath of people is also a goal for Obeidallah. How will he measure the success of the Muslim Funny Fest? Simple: his dream audience is "as many non-Muslims as possible."

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