The New York comedian Negin Farsad has been trying for years to battle anti-Muslim sentiments in a quintessentially American way: spoof hate with satire.
Back in January, after Donald Trump first suggested a “complete shutdown” of all Muslims coming into the United States, Ms. Farsad went to Washington Square in Manhattan to film an ironic commentary. She asked people if they were Muslim or not, and if someone said, no, she’d say: “Prove it!” and ask them to eat from a plate of bacon (which is forbidden in Islam).
Just this week, the posters for the satiric documentary by her and fellow comedian Dean Obeidallah – “The Muslims are Coming!” – went up in New York subways. In its tongue-and cheek “Facts About Muslims,” one poster claims: “Muslims invented Justin Timberlake.”
The obvious point is to introduce Muslims and Islam as a normal a part of the American mosaic. And that sense of humor could come in useful again after Mr. Trump told CNN Wednesday: “I think Islam hates us.”
“It’s funny, I’ve been dealing with the Trump stuff a lot,” Ms. Farsad says.
The fact is, for many, a poster claiming “The Muslims are Coming!” – even sarcastically – cuts a little too close to home. New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority bans political ads, and it took a year of legal action to establish that the ads were not political and could be posted.
Still, just the fact that Farsad needs to introduce the everyday lives of Muslims in America with humor – or wax sarcastic about ideas others find dangerous – speaks to negative views about the Muslim community in the US. A 2014 Pew survey that gauged Americans' "temperature" toward different religious groups found Muslims were viewed more coldly than any group except atheists.
After the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., last year, a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric has been mirrored in an increase in attacks and discrimination, according to different studies.
In February, President Obama made his first visit to a US mosque, decrying the “inexcusable political rhetoric” during the presidential campaign and assuring Muslims that “You fit in here.”
On Wednesday, Trump suggested the opposite. "We have to be very vigilant,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “We have to be very careful. And we can't allow people coming into this country who have this hatred of the United States."
Such rhetoric infuriates Pastor Bob Roberts, head of the 3,000-member NorthWood Church, an evangelical congregation in Keller, Texas. “He’s wrong, he’s very wrong,” he says of Trump. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s just wrong, and what he’s doing is dangerous. He’s spewing fire, and he’s doing exactly ISIS would want.”
Though he says members of his “evangelical tribe” have often made Islamophobia worse, Pastor Roberts has made a ministry of building ties to Muslim clerics in the US and abroad. “They’re watching out for the Christians who are there, and we’re watching out for Islamophobia here.”
“But in my conversations here and overseas, they feel like Trump is stirring up a lot of negative feelings,” he adds.
The same is true here. “It’s frightening when rhetoric being spoken on a national platform can actually translate into actual acts of violence against people,” says Madihha Ahussain, staff attorney with Muslim Advocates in Oakland, Calif., which helped the comedians sue the MTA to allow their ads.
But this week, she at least got a chuckle from the posters. If they can evoke the same response from others, she says, that would be no small thing.
“It makes you laugh,” Ms. Ahussain says. “And what it can do, is that it can really change preexisting perceptions that many people have of what a Muslim is. And we are thrilled that these ads are going up because we think it means a lot to the community right now, for them to be able to walk into a subway station and see that those ads have a right to be there – it’s not political to be Muslim.”
Not surprisingly, Farsad can only crack wise about the recent Trump outburst. “Maybe somebody someday will say something nice about Muslims, and that will be major news!” she says. “But we’re not at that point yet in our political history.”