Negin Farsad: Red States and Muslim Comedy

June 03, 2014

This week, we welcome Negin Farsad, a groundbreaking Iranian American comedian. A TED speaker and TED Fellow, she was named one of the Huffington Post‘s 50 Funniest Women. She’s been seen on Comedy Central, MTV, CNN, MSNBC, and in her movie The Muslims are Coming!, a documentary following some of the funniest Muslim comedians as they travel America’s Red States, cracking people up and demolishing stereotypes.

Host Josh Zepps and Farsad discuss everything from the gray areas in religious identification, to the situation for Muslims in post-9/11 America, and the theocracy in Iran. How does one of the best educated and culturally Western populations in the Middle East coexist with the theocratic totalitarianism of Iran’s regime? What can Western liberals do to help moderates in these countries lessen the influence of Islam’s radicals? Does any cultural action on the part of the West do more harm than good? And just what can you do with two masters degrees from Columbia? Apparently, comedy!

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. Today’s show is brought to you by Harrys, an excellent shaving company. You can visit Harrys dot com and use the promo code point to save five bucks off your first purchase. 

This is an inquiry, the podcasts of the Center for Inquiry. 

Is this a young Iranian American standup comic with her thoughts on the Middle East, 9/11, Muslims in America and the theocracy in Iran? Negin Farsad has been named one involving posts 50 funniest women you’ve seen on Comedy Central, MTV, CNN, MSNBC, maybe even in her movie The Muslims Are Coming, featuring Jon Stewart, Janine Gruffalo, Rachel Maddow, Lewis Black and a bunch of other people in which McCain travels around red state America doing Muslim comedy shows that tend to hand it to fellow. 

And she joins us now in the game. 

Thanks for being on point of inquiry. Thanks for having me, Josh. That was a very abrupt beginning because I actually recorded the intro after after what we just said. So I apologize for just putting you on this, but with a very abrupt new game. Thanks for being on point of inquiry. 

But such is the nature of recording these podcasts. You’ve been doing comedy since pretty much forever, right? 

I have. Yes. 

For Pritt, since I’m forever within the context of your lifetime, obviously, I’m not implying that you’re some kind of mahfuz like you’ve been here thousands of years. But I’m interested in like. And at what point in your comedy, in your fledgling kind of comedy identity, like the idea of Muslim ness became a focus of your attention, right? 

Well, it’s funny because in you know, I was doing comedy in high school and in college while also studying government and public policy, whatever. I was a policy adviser for a while. We couldn’t ignore that entirely or talk about at some point. 

But why don’t we talk about it now? To whom? You were your policy adviser? 

I was up I was a policy adviser for the city of New York, for the Campaign Finance Board. And, you know, I went to grad school for public policy and for African-American studies. I’ve got a dual master’s degree, like most comedians. 

And I’m so glad that you said you’re a policy adviser to the New York City board of Whatever instead of I was a policy adviser to the Ayatollah Khomeini. 

No, I mean, just be a lone wolf silence. 

You know, it was it was a stretch. I had a cubicle. It was a city job. You know, it was very American and it was really important and it was really important. And it was all about leveling the playing field and that some of this you know, that’s the kind of stuff that I really focused on in grad school and and and just, you know, social justice issues in general, but especially with respect to minority populations. 

You know what’s really important to me all throughout my studies. But the funny thing is, you know, so I had been living a double life, like doing comedy at night while I was trying to be like a regular adult person during the day. And even in in in college, it was the same. But what I put in college, what I tried to do very desperately was to be like a white guy. I would write, you know, sketches. I was in the campus sketch comedy troupe with the schizophrenics. And yes, that was the name. And and it meant everything to me. And I tried desperately to write about video games and, you know, I mean, like, dude stuff and farting and just male frat aggression and whatever. Like, I wanted to be a guy as much as I could so I can blend in because the comedy troupe was always, you know, 12 dudes and me or 12 dudin me and another girl. It was a very limited universe. And I I felt for a really long time that, you know, that that it’s best for me to kind of squelch anything that’s unique about me, you know, and try and blend in and grow a pair of, you know, testicles as best I could. 

I mean, I think that’s that’s one of the challenges, isn’t it, being a creative person, whether it’s comedy or whatever, to actually find your unique voice and to realize that I had a great career, a great writing coach about 10 years ago who said, like, the specific is universal, like you’ll never actually win people over by trying to be universal, by trying to universalize everything, then you just sound generic. What people actually relate to is the specifics about you, which they might not actually have themselves, but they’ll they’ll see something in that that is an authentic grain of truth that makes you distinct and makes your voice unique. 

Exactly. And you don’t I think when you’re really early on and you’re young and you just don’t know yet that, you know, that that’s helpful, that that matters and that people can identify with it. And so you try your very best to hide it. And then, you know, and then for me, I continue to do you know, I ended up graduating, moving to New York City and going to grad school while also being in sketch comedy groups here and starting to do stand up here. And again in the beginning. And I started, you know, turning my material more about, you know, international diplomacy and social justice issues, which made sense because it was so important to me and it was going. 

How do you do that and how do you do a gag about international justice? So the point is, I’m just trying to think of what the. 

Well, I mean, we know, for example, you know, I wrote a musical called The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, a romantic comedy. So I looked at the entire conflict with a comedic lens. And I and it’s about it, you know, and this is a show that’s been kind of on and off and in development for ever. And it will hopefully be, you know, produced one day. But, you know, we would do stuff like that. We would we would write, you know, sketches about what was happening politically. We would write sketches about gun violence, you know, like and and, you know, you can put a comedic lens on these really important issues of the way they do. You know, every night on Daily Show, Colbert Report or whatever. And that’s what I was doing, you know, at a micro level here in New York City. And then, you know, I this was like in the aftermath of 9/11 where it seemed like the Islamophobia wasn’t going away. You know, the first year, were you in the city for 9/11? I was in the city for 9/11. Yeah. And the first I had just I had just started grad school and, you know, just graduated and and come to New York. And it was you know, it was it was a it was a crazy time. But I think the way you know, I think the way that the country reacted to it and the way the city reacted to it were different. I think that, you know, around the country, there was a lot more kind of hawkish go get an NFL mentality. And there was a lot more like instant kind of hatred of brown people in the city. Didn’t really it didn’t quite play out that way, which is funny because we were actually the subject of the attack. I mean, if you want to call that funny, you know what I mean? Funny. 

No, you go undefendable because when you’re in the middle of a stitching together your horrifying wounds, all you really want is like comfort and peace. You’re not really in the headspace yet. Be. I want to just go and kill somebody. 

Or maybe you are, but maybe you’re a little bit more distracted by the immediate trauma and you and you are. 

And then the interesting music right after the first, you know, set of attacks in Afghanistan, me and my friends decided to go to Afghan restaurants around the city because we didn’t want the Afghan people in New York to think we didn’t support them. And so as a very small, you know, personals stand, you know, we wanted, man, I hate Afghan food to just show our support. 

More potatoes and curry. 

No, I read we did it. I look back and I’m like, oh, that’s it. It’s it’s kind of cute. You know, it’s like that that we use. 

And I almost kind of wish I don’t know, like it’s a really it’s nice to show that kind of support and to separate those things. And that’s I think around the time when I would step in my face with Afghani food is when I sort of came to the realization that I am actually I have a voice in this sit in this. I was going to a switch which is short for situation. 

There’s the young people here and they were very, very with it crowd. Okay, got it. 

Didn’t want to overstep there. 

And and that’s why, you know, that’s when I think I kind of started to realize that, like, my identity was and was was important and there was going to end up being really important because a lot of people weren’t going to actually talk about are they going to shy away from their brown identity because the country was MOOP was was so against it at the time. 

And what was your relationship to Islam at the time of 9/11? I mean, you’re not deeply religious now, right? We raised a believing Muslim. 

Yeah. I mean, I would say I was raised like culturally Muslim. So my grandparents would live with us for years at a time and and they were practicing, you know. So I was around I was around that. My parents weren’t really practicing. They pretty secular. But there are a lot of things that they did. You know, it was a strict household and it was it was a lot more Muslim than I think it was non Muslim. But I you know, I think if you go to observe Ramadan and, you know, my grandparents did so we would watch them observe it. But we didn’t wake up in your face with Afghan food, I tell you. Well, like in their faces, like just putting really delicious things in our faces. But, yeah, we didn’t. I didn’t. I didn’t. Do you observe Ramadan? And I still do. I’m not. I’m just not. I’m a secular. And I think I’m I’m as Muslim as you know. Any one is a Christian, which is to say not that much. You know, you probably have friends that go to church like never. And they still call themselves Christian. You probably have Jews, Jewish friends that call them selves Jews, but never go to temple. Guilty, Your Honor. 

There it is. 

But don’t you think. I always think there’s a little bit of a difference when it comes to Judaism, but we don’t have to take this on too much of a tangent. But like the Jews really do conceive of themselves as a people, as like an ethnicity, almost as like a little mini race of some kind. 

Having been hounded around the world for thousands of years and there are little communities. 

And so and even if you’re secular, like Hitler is still going to kill you, even if you don’t believe in God, if you are, you know, whereas as a Christian, I think you can just adopt a set of beliefs and all of a sudden you’re a Christian, whereas you’re not really you’re kind of a Jew if you’re just like, oh, well, I mean, I go to temple, but I don’t have any Jewish ancestry. 

Right. Yeah. It’s much harder. They’re very select who gets to come in. But no, I think, you know, there’s that. That debate goes on forever because people are like, well, are Ethiopian Jews the same ethnicity as whatever, you know? And I mean, it’s like an endless controversy, like an endless conversation about that. But I think, you know, people can. People can call have a cultural identity. It’s in cultures kind of like it’s made up by people. So it is what you what you think it is. And I feel like there’s something, you know, about my family that, you know, deeply Iranian and and Muslim, you know, and. And I think I would say Iranian first. 

And yeah, you’re certainly Iranian and Muslim enough to, like, be selected for secondary screening at the airport. So even if you don’t feel it, at least people, other people are going to feel it. 

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And my name, you know, gets flagged for things. And, you know, that’s just that’s definitely, you know, that’s definitely part of it. So I feel that. What were we talking about? 

Well, I mean, I was just getting you to riff on, like, your relationship with Islam and how that comedy after 9/11. 

But a lot of people are really like, well, you’re not really a Muslim, so whatever. I’m like, well, yeah, I mean, I’m not like a practicing Muslim. And I but I don’t you know, I’m not going to tell, like, you know, my Jewish friends, they’re not really Jews because I don’t practice and I can tell my Christian president or Christian, it’s just it’s whatever you kind of personally identify. I don’t I don’t actually see any difference, you know, or, you know, people who are raised Buddhist but don’t really do the thing. Whatever it is, I, I don’t really care you if you you know, if you look at, like Catholic school, kind of they’ll really identify as Catholic forever, even lapsed Catholics because it’s so deeply ingrained. The Hail Marys. Yeah. 

But it’s like by a rule that when you say you don’t care, do you think that’s a good thing or a neutral thing, or do you think it can be a divisive thing? That sort of Tri-Valley try Baladi is probability a word that sort of cleats will make it a word today. 

Yeah. Do do I think identifying ends up being a bad thing because it leads to like tribal tensions? 

I mean, I guess it could be given, you know, in the wrong hands or whatever. 

Like, I mean, I’m saying that there’s a lot of religious conflict around the world. Right? I mean, you just look at that Palestine and Israel, you look at 9/11 itself. 

You look at the extremes that people are motivated to do when they regard themselves as belonging to a to a clan that is above all others, that has the true power of the creator of the universe behind it or whatever. And I’m wondering if you think that any of that is supported or backed or propped up by people who are sort of nominally, you know, oh, I’m a Catholic or like I’m a I’m a Jew, I’m a Muslim, even though I don’t I really believe it. Wouldn’t it be more sensible just to be like, oh, well, you know, I mean, my ancestors came from this and believe these ridiculous things, but I’m not going to I’m not gonna kind of feed into that that. 

Yeah. Of the world, which is separated into these, you know, set sets of different believing tribes. 

Totally. And I think I mean, I see what you’re saying, that we sort of give cover to the extremists and sort of enable them and that, you know, and that argument’s been made to me before and I and I and it’s very compelling. I can’t say that it’s it’s not compelling. 

Sometimes I’m like, well, I don’t really practice anything. Why do I why do I cling onto this identity? And I think I cling onto it because it’s just something I grew up with and something that’s very hard for me to reject it. It feels like a rejection of of all these people. 

And I don’t want to reject all of these people, you know, and I mean, I want to also why give them the right why allow them to be the only ones who get to define what I’m Muslim. Exactly. 

The moderates leave that and then all of a sudden all it is is what like why can’t my why can’t my Muslim grandmother define all Muslims? I would rather that I think that would be a great definition. Lets me write a definition based on my Muslim grandmother and world peace will ensue. 

You know, I don’t really great. I’m sure al-Qaida is going to love it. 

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So you made this movie, The Muslims are coming, right? And this kind of comedy road movie go here to the left in Latin parts of America. Right. How did that come about? And explain to people what it was? 

So I yeah, I got together with another comedian, Dean Obeidallah, and we rounded up a bunch of our Muslim comedian, American friends, and we went to Tennessee and Alabama and places where they love the Mozzie’s. 

And we we did shows and, you know, we we did street actions like we would set up a hug, a Muslim boot, like an ask a Muslim booth in the middle of a town square. We also we would held up hug our Muslim signs. People would come just to hug us. We would do bull with a Muslim events. We we just we did a bunch of different things to kind of catch you. You say bull a bull like go bowling. Oh, okay. Right. In which we learned that Muslims are terrible bowlers. That’s a stereotype that I’ll stand by. 

But we did this thing around the country. 

And what prompted us to do it is that we really felt like, you know, this was many years after 9/11 and the Islamophobia is spiking for some reason, you know, and and it started with the election of Barack Obama in that Park 51 controversy with the Ground Zero mosque, the so-called Ground Zero mosque. And, you know, in any accusations that Barack Obama was a Muslim and the birther movement, which kind of continued on for, you know, for his entire first administration, if not today. 

Yeah. What did you make of it during the 2008 campaign when John McCain was at that rally and the woman said, I’m truly frightened of Mr. Obama. I think he’s a Muslim. And John McCain was like, no, no, he’s a he is a good, decent man. 

Yes, he’s not. OK. If he were a Muslim, he clearly wouldn’t be able to be a good, decent man. 

Right. I mean, that kind. And it’s funny because at the time, people lauded McCain for being up to this woman and be saying, no, he’s not Muslim, but but no one but no one stopped to be like actually, that’s like a really heinous reaction because he can be Muslim and still be a good, decent man. 

And at the time, it just wasn’t a position that anyone was going to take. And I think that is part of the reason what you know, that’s something that really drove us to make this movie because stuff like that was happening. And in and end, it was in its. 

And it still happens. I mean, you know, Bill Marr is a really wonderful, awesome comedian with a great show that everybody loves. And and he regularly takes a dump on Muslims, you know, real just globally takes a dump on Muslims. 

I mean, this is the difficult thing, right, for people like me or even people like me who are kind of progressive liberals. Right. There’s a conflict between wanting to be progressive towards minorities. And one of those minorities is Muslim. So you don’t want to be anti Muslim, but you also want to be progressive in the sense that you believe in liberal values like women’s rights and gay rights and a whole host of things that tend to be underrepresented in Muslim countries. So you want to have an opposition to Islam as a set of beliefs when it is interpreted the way that it’s interpreted by large swathes of conservative Muslims in Islamic countries. But you don’t want to be anti Muslim individuals who happen to live here. And I think that’s a line that Ma finds it difficult to walk the line, that maybe if he goes too far in that direction, that’s only because he’s opposed by a vast majority of white, guilty progressive liberals in the rest of the country who aren’t willing to say anything about the problems that I had Hirsi Ali faces or the widespread, you know, female genital mutilation or or gay gay right. Gay bashings and oppression of women across so many countries in the Muslim world. Like, how do you how do you thread that needle? 

It’s I mean, and I think, you know, I get this all the time because I have Iranians coming up to me and saying, why don’t you say nice things about Iran? 

And I you know, and I feel like I do say nice things about Iranian culture, you know, but I’ll be critical about the regime and and people get, you know, their panties in a ruffle or I’ll be critical about Islam’s position on women. I think the you know, the fact of matter is these things are just not black and white and they’re they’re nuanced. And I can sit here and say, oh, I think we should be cool to Muslims. Moslems are totally fine. P.S. They’re really, really not fine when it comes to gender issues. We got a we got to get that thing into shape and it’s OK. I think it’s OK for me to have both of those positions. I think, you know, the problem with with with rhetoric like the kind that we see on with Bill Marr and but also it’s funny because he is like a liberal hero. So I don’t need keep I don’t mean to keep using him as an example, but that’s he’s the most interesting one because he’s a liberal hero. Yeah. And the problem with that rhetoric. Is that it kind of you know, he lumps all Muslims into one setting and that any to any acts like it is nuanced when it is, he acts like also. I think the thing that most television commentators do is they pretend like the Middle East is a is is a monolith. They don’t actually even recognize any of the borders between the countries, although that might signify something. You know, because I think when people think of the Middle East, they think of Saudi. Right. They think women can’t drive and they’re floating around with their sheets on their heads or whatever. And and it’s and there’s just and there’s no civic culture and no one’s allowed to do anything. And Saudi is actually very, very repressive. 

And it has very, very little civic life because they’re Wahhabi and they you know, they adhere to very particular interpretation of Islam and a fairly new one. 

We should always try to remind people. Right. It comes from like the late eighteen hundreds. Right. This is not people. When people say, oh, this is Stone Age culture, actually, Islam for most of history was not was not batshit crazy until the Saudi Wahhabi so took control. And then we funded them with our oil money and made them. Made them what they made them the beautiful shining example. 


And also and for some reason, let that country have the stranglehold on Islam’s PR, you know what I mean. Like what it is the imagery. 

Well, it’s a totally corrupt deal that was made there, which was that, you know, hey, you get to the house, the side gets to control the country. As long as you allow us Wahhabi radical clerics to fan out across the entire Muslim world and set up all these mosques to indoctrinate people as far away as Indonesia, where now young Indonesians speak Arabic like, what the hell are they doing? Speaking Arabic And that’s the world’s most populous Muslim country. And they’re being indoctrinated with all these kind of essentially foreign Muslim ideas. It’s terrifying. 

And this is exactly it is terrifying. And this is stuff that people of Americans don’t know. And they don’t even know that like in that is our biggest ally, you know. Yeah. And it’s these are the kind of connections that we’re not making in mainstream news coverage. And it’s really frightful. And then you look at a country like Iran where the rate of degree attainment by women exceeds the rate of degree attainment by men, where women do drive and they vote and they do all of these things. And people in there are cinemas and there is civic culture. And there is and it is a repressive regime in its own in its own ways. And I’m not forgiving any of that. But but it’s just not the same countries in that and in the Iranian people like ours are far more likely to like, you know, be like I think they’re like closer to the Cardassian than they are to anything good, you know? 

I mean, like they adversary on the shores of sunset. We know. 

Oh, God. Yeah, he’s right. But, you know, they’re they’re like they’re into, like, vanity and looking great. And then they’re also into engineering and technological advancement. And they’re really smart. And they it’s so it’s like these two countries are not the same. 

Lebanon, Beirut. I mean, Beirut. It’s like you’re in New York City, go out and get drunk and go party and whatnot. And everyone’s like hot and wearing little dresses or whatever it is, it just looks like it, you know. 

I mean that no one understands these differences about these these countries. And and so they kind of get treated as one large lump of horrible, which is not which is not what the Middle East is. 

I mean, I’m not here to defend Bill Maher, but allow me to defend DOMA, which is I think that you would think that he would say that to the extent that Beirut is like New York and to the extent that Iranians are like the Cardassian is the extent to which they’re not following the letter of the law of the Koran and. 

In other words, if you’re if he’s attacking Islam as a set of beliefs, then the people who most closely mirror those sets of beliefs to the letter of the of the holy holy book are the Saudi interpretation, not the Beirut interpretation. So that’s what we have to worry about. Right. If we were in the 13 or 14, hundreds would worry about people who are taking the letter of the Bible way too seriously and launching the Crusades. Right. Right. 

At the moment, the people who are a threat to us and who are the most crazily adhering to a set of wild beliefs about what happened thousands of years ago in the Middle East, Muslims. 

And I’ll tell you that I have I. And I wrote an op ed about this recently that I’m like I’m generally against I am against a church run state. And it doesn’t matter what kind of church it is, I’m against it. So whatever, you know, an Islamic republic, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t think it’s it. 

But I, I uniformly don’t think it’s a good idea for there. But that means that I also don’t think it’s a good idea to have any other type of religious state. So and that’s where, you know, things get hairy because people are like, what are you against the Vatican? That’s not what they get here about. They get angry about it. So but I put you know, and I think, you know what? I think we should have a uniform policy on that. Why do we have. I don’t think we can separate out one religion be like a government that’s run by this religion is crappy, but a government run by this other religion is totally fine because they both are slippery slopes. We can’t you know, they both every one of these books has nut nutty, crazy shit in them. You know what I mean? And if we start it here, you know, and and if and if the wrong people get into a position of power, they start looking at the wrong shitty stuff, look like not the run with it, but the crazy batshit stuff. And then they start thinking and then and that’s when the slippery slope occurs. And it can happen with any type of religious state. 

Christian, Jewish or Muslim. 

Do you get back to Iran? Much to be a family? 

I used to. And then, you know, I started doing standup and started saying too many things out loud and publicly that it may, you know, may not be like the best idea. 

You’re afraid that you get arrested if you went back in? 

Well, I’m not afraid. I’m like, you know, a five foot three little Iranian American person who will look dresses like a cartoon. You know what I mean? Like, who’s going to care about me and my whereabouts ultimately. But but my parents are really worried about that kind of thing. 

So they’re worried about the rest of the family after you leave or something being spied on or whatever. 

I think that’s probably that’s that’s a concern. I think it’s just that, you know, people have been arrested on on so little there. I feel like, you know, if they wanted to, you know, be in a bad mood and arrest me, I feel like they could. 

What was it when was the last on you? You went there. 

Oh, is like 10 years ago. 

What did you what did you make of it? Was it after 9/11, do you remember? 

Was right. It must have been right before 9/11, actually. 

Yes, I’ll have that one. 

What did you what did you make of it at the time? What did you make of what you of that conflict that you were talking about before where you’ve got this large middle class, a fairly liberated female population, a well educated population that’s comparatively wealthy by the standards of the region, and then you’ve got this really crazy theocracy under which they’re living. How do they reconcile those two things? 

How do they reconcile those two things? I think, you know, if you, you know, step off the plane in Iran, you. I honestly at the time felt like this is unsustainable. That’s what it felt like, that people want to kind of do stuff. You know, those men want to sing at the top of their lungs and the women want to take off their head jobs. And, you know, and people just want to want freedom along with their intense over educated intelligence. And it’s I think it’s very hard to control a population that’s as educated as the Iranians are that has access to the Internet. And and in for it, especially women who have really come into their own. You know, and I have been instrumental in in stuff like the. The the the Green Revolution of 2009. So, you know, the last time I went there, I just thought, this can’t go on for very much longer. And it’s just it’s only guns that that make that keeps it up. And it’s every time, you know, it’s. 

It comes in cycles like they’ll clamp down and then they’ll release and clamp down and release. And so I remember I was there during a clamp down period and I started whistling on the street just like whatever, not like a Lauryn Hill song or something. 

And then my aunt was like, What are you doing? What are you doing? You know, you cannot whistle. And I was like, what are you talking about? And she’s, you know, she’s like, it’s banned. 

And right now they’re being really steer strict. And you can tell it like how much by how much like lipstick the women wear, whether or not it’s a strict period or not. You could tell by how much like bangs they’re showing outside of their head scarves. Like, if it’s descript strict period or not. 

What happens if Schoenberg’s inside of their heads, guys get rounded up? 

Well, no, I mean, like you it depends. Like, if it’s a strict period, you might just get a citation, like, you know, lady, pull your scarf up. 

I was wearing a two dollar fine for banks to love. 

I was wearing like very like fashionable sunglasses and I was stopped for that. 

What did the dude say? It was a woman, actually. They had women stopping women and called the cultural police. They handle stuff like that. And she was just like, your sunglasses are too fashionable. 

And I took them up other ways, you know, but other I’d love it if she had a big bag of really unfashionable sunglasses that she was handing out to people who sunglasses were too fashionable and have these very functional, ugly old 1950s little do they know they were probably hip and Williams browse through. 

Now they just don’t know. Yeah. I mean, I don’t I don’t mean to make it sound OK. 

Everything I’ve said does make Iran sound crazy. And that stuff is crazy. It’s crazy. But but the people are definitely not crazy and they recognize that it’s not right to be stopped for two fashionable sunglasses. 

Is there anything do you think that we can do from the outside? I mean, this is almost a parallel to my other question, which I was going to ask, which is there? 

Is there anything that, like a wide progressive liberal like me or Bill can actually do to change, like to change what’s going on inside Islam? Or is this just something where we just have to shut up and let Muslims figure it out for themselves or by supporting moderate Muslims who are speaking out against the extremes of of the religion? Does that help or does it hinder it in the same way? Is there anything of the West and the United States can do to help the Iranian people shrug off the theocracy? Or does every time we try to like help the moderates that just plays into the hands of the extremists because it looks like they’re puppets or they’re in bed with the evil, the great Satan? 

All right. Well, in the American context, I feel like we can if we do embrace moderate Muslims or secular Muslims, that, you know, that could have an impact. I feel like we did that with. 

It’s not like, you know, Orthodox Jews control the dialog in the United States about Jews. Right. Well, we embraced moderate, you know, Jews in the United States. And it and I think by and large, we embrace, you know, just your kind of mainstream moderate Christians as well. It’s not like, you know, we’re the movie Neimann. 

Evangelicals tried to control the discourse for a while. I don’t think that’s worked out for the Republican Party. 

But we you know, I think giving giving legitimacy to make moderate voices is going to tip. I think the entire population to a more moderate space. 

And what about the parallel question of what liberals not taking any shit from not taking any obfuscation, I suppose, about the nature of extremist Islam by playing into the. Oh, well, you know, all religions have they crazy people. What about the Bill Maher line of saying, well, no, at the moment there’s one religion that has much more crazy. You couldn’t do the Book of Mormon if it was the Book of Islam on Broadway. 

Trey Parker and Matt Stone would be beheaded by now. 

Really? I don’t know. I mean, we published like one picture of Muhammad in a cartoon and like there were embassies ablaze all over the world. 

Well, that’s true. But that wasn’t in Denmark, right? 

Yeah. It began in Denmark and then erupted everywhere else. 

Well, I think the thing is we don’t actually have a large Muslim population in the United States and the Muslim population that is in the United States. I think they really enjoy being American. So I don’t think, you know, I understand that. Forget whatever whatever is happening geopolitically. Let’s table that for taking part in the American context. If you wanted to write the Book of Islam, you know you’re going to get some letters for sure. But I don’t I don’t know that American Muslims are violent. 

People, you know, maybe not American because they know how to take a helicopter plane. 

Can people would you would you have a sufficiently radicalized set of underprivileged Muslims in the U.K. and in Western Europe and in other parts of the world that it would be impossible for Trey Parker and Matt Stone to write the Book of Mormon to mock Islam as the Book of Islam and to feel safe walking around Los Angeles. 

And, you know, you might be right, but I don’t think that that’s because of American Muslims. 

No, I’m not saying it is. I’m just saying that it points to a problem in global Islam that doesn’t exist in global Mormonism. 


I mean, yes, I think it but I don’t actually view those people that go in and do violent acts in the name of Islam. I don’t actually view them as Muslims. So I just view them as like crazy people. 

But doesn’t that then just get down into a circular argument of like, well, I’m a real Muslim, so I’m a real Muslim? No, I’m a real Muslim. 

I do. It does. And I think, you know, I isn’t. 

In other words, isn’t the only out to say? Well, yes, they clearly believe that they’re Muslim. And they clearly think that they’re abiding. They’re they’re enacting a set of scriptural scriptural tenets. Right. It’s not just that they’re crazy and they just happen to pick Islam as a reason for doing it. I mean, they have very good reasons, according to their deluded brains, why the Koran and the Haditha are telling them to do. Yes. You know, they’re not just making it up out of whole cloth. 

No. No, there, there. There are interpreting, right? 

I mean, they’re interpreting the their texts in a way that I think is atrocious. 

But yeah, I mean, I agree. I do. Is there a potential for there to be factions like this in Christianity? Absolutely. We saw that, you know, with the Spanish Inquisition, with all the way with the religious war. Yeah, totally. I mean, you know, we’ve seen it. This isn’t like this isn’t like. Oh, it’s so weird. For the first time ever. There a radicalized religious sex. 

It’s like, no, no, no. I don’t think anyone watching the Christians, I don’t I don’t think anyone makes that claim that they’re not they’re not saying that there’s something intrinsic to Islam that that creates the saying that the particular historical moment. That’s no, it’s not and never is. 

But transected Islam that makes them do it. And it’s like we forget our entire history why even the United States was formed or where why white people came to the United States is because. Because of religious persecution. 

No. But I think I don’t think you’re listening carefully enough to what they claim that they are making, like it might be the claim that Fred Phelps, the crazy pastor who wanted to burn the Koran, is making its claim that if the claim that fundamentals Christians make the claim that far right skinheads in Europe. But it’s not the claim that like Sam Harris and Bill MAAD like that, the new atheists and stuff make, they they make the claim that for various historically contingent reasons. Right now, at this particular juncture in history, Islam suffers more from having a larger proportion of its adherents take it way too literally than other religions happen to right now. 

And I think this might be true. 

But if we analyze the context again, I feel like we can break it down into more like, you know, of a political reality, which is to say, what are these countries whose funding what like you mentioned. 

You know, the Saudis, you know, paying for all of these mosques in Indonesia and radicalizing people. What what are the political realities that are allowing those kinds of things to happen? And that’s and those are those that that’s the politics of the United States at play. 

Do you not know what to do about that? 

Do we agitate for a change in foreign policy and hope that if we fund the Saudis less, that there’ll be less of this stuff swirling around? 

It seems like there’s a more pressing concern, which is like, you know, there’s a good line that I like, which is this isn’t that was said of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that this isn’t a off against them. It’s some of us and some of them against some of them and some of us. Right. So you’ve got to find a way to create those collaborations with people who are like minded in the other community and and alienate the extremes. 

And I’m just curious about how you think a person, a well-meaning white liberal, goes about doing that. 

Right? Well, I think I you know, what ends up happening. The reason why people are able to be radicalized is because they lack resources and they have no standard of living. Right. So they have nothing else to live for. And so they’re susceptible to radical movements. And we are really busy declaring war on countries where this is the case, but we’re not very busy declaring nation building on any of these countries. And so I feel like if we if we replace war with nation building, if and if we see, you know, what violent action we respond to them with, like you guys need some like running water and electricity and schools, we might have we might be viewed differently. 

I mean, I think that’s certainly true of Somali pirates and like Boko Haram and like Nigeria and places like that. It’s not necessarily true, like the 9/11 hijackers who were college educated and lived in Germany and stuff. It’s not like the person, God forbid, who sets off the dirty bomb in Times Square is not likely to be someone who came from a place with no running water. It’s likely to be someone from the suburbs of a western European city who’s been indoctrinated by local mosques that preach the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and who’s been radicalized against the United States. 


And I think, you know, like that that’s that’s totally true, although I think in terms of the the the sheer number of al-Qaeda forces, I don’t think those people are all like middle class folk. Foot soldiers, perhaps. No. No. But I think, you know, I, I, you know, I don’t hear the question of like, what do we do? And I wish I had a better answer. 

I mean, my come up with the answer. You’re the Muslim girl, your support level for me. 

But it’s like, you know, like the shooter in California last week, you know, was also of means and and it’s, you know, for someone or even the fact of the family home of Adam Lanza. Why did these things happen? Why do people get into. These this this kind of mode of thought and more wide, you know, why do we have the big guns available for them to do stuff? So there’s a policy issue there. But there’s also like a a social issue there of like how how are people falling through the cracks? 

I mean, the interesting thing it’s interesting you raise that guy, the horrible Santa Barbara shooting, because one interesting thing about the way that we interpret people’s motives is like there’s been such an outpouring of analysis, I think wrong-headed analysis in the media of like what his you know, the Yesil women hashtag campaign and like, you know, is he emblematic of the modern American male? Like is the his misogyny like putting up his misogyny, his video and putting up his tirades against women online and in trying to understand him, I think is all going way too far and gives way too much credibility and only encourages other confused young people to think that they’re going to be able to get their rights ideas out there and they’ll bet they’ll be able to achieve notoriety if they do something like this. 

That being said, we do take it at face value that what his reasons for doing the thing are the actual reasons for doing the thing. Whereas I do feel like this is part of the squishy kind of liberal nonbelief like progressive part of me, that when Muslim terrorist does something and screams Allahu Akbar and murders a bunch of Jews, then we always go to. Well, he came from place without running water. There must be political reasons like there must be context and everything. Well, he’s just like he’s probably written a diatribe which said which provides precisely the reasons why he’s doing it. And he said he’s doing it because he’s good Muslim and he says he’s enacting the will of Allah. And then we go around trying to find other reasons why don’t we just take his reasons at the same face value as we took the Santa Barbara shooter’s raisins? 

That’s I mean, that’s a good question, though. I think, you know, the Santa Barbara you to where I but I but I think that the Santa Barbara shooter also comes from a cultural context that that does deserve analysis and that the cultural context is, you know, a country that’s, you know, is that has a lot of gun zealots and and social structure that favors, you know, smartphone’s over human interaction. And you know what I mean? There’s all there are there are reasons. It’s not just like what is did he write in this letter? It’s like what got him to the point where this letter was even something he wanted to write. 

Yeah. All right. I’m not going to make you defend all Muslims after the rest of the day. You did say something interesting earlier, which which I thought was interesting, which is and we’ll wrap up shortly. But you said the evangelical religious right, the evangelical right, has not been great for the Republican Party lately. Do you think that. What do you make of the religious right? And B, do you think they’re on the rise or on the wane in America? 

Oh, my God. You know, this is an interesting I can’t tell what’s going on with the right in general. I feel like they really are looking for, you know, because it’s like every weekend, like, is the Tea Party still a thing? Is that happening? I can’t tell. 

You know, and and I think that the elections, you know, the upcoming elections are going to tell us a lot about what is actually happening on the right and in turn. I mean, I think what I think one of the battles that the religious right clearly lost is, is gay marriage. And I think that the groundswell of support for gay marriage that’s coming from in a short period of time, that’s gone. You know, it feels like every you know, every month there’s new states joining and giving gay Americans the right to marry. And it’s really wonderful. And it feels like that is a definitive defeat of the religious right. And and I think that’s great. 

The beginning of the end. All right. 

Optimistic note. Again, thanks so much for being with us on point of Inquiry. It’s great to talk to you. 

Thanks so much for having me. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.