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Fighting Muslim Stereotypes With Humor on the NYC Subway

Comedians Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah get serious about combating hate with laughter.

A man passes a poster promoting the new documentary film "The Muslims Are Coming" inside the City Hall subway station in Manhattan. (Reuters/Mike Segar)

Here’s the ugly truth: “Muslims have great frittata recipes.”

Comedians Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah know you probably haven't heard that particular stereotype before. But it’s no more absurd than what politicians, presidential candidates, and media personalities have claimed about Muslims. (At least the frittata assertion could be true, Farsad says: “I've tasted many a delightful frittata from a Muslim.”)

The duo has made that statement and five others into ads, which were plastered throughout the New York City subway earlier this week as a promotion for Farsad and Obeidallah’s documentary, “The Muslims Are Coming.” In fact, that declaration is splashed across one of the ads. “Beware, the Muslims are coming!” it reads in big red letters. “And they shall strike with hugs so fierce, you’ll end up calling your grandmother and telling her you love her.”

(Courtesy of Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah)

The ads also aim to combat negative and misleading stereotypes some Americans have about the Muslim community. “The subway system has been a forum in which there's been a lot of hate speech,” Farsad tells CityLab. “So we wanted to promote the movie while telling our own story and countering all the hate speech that's gone up in MTA.” The city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has repeatedly—and reluctantly—run controversial anti-Islamic ads in the past from the American Freedom Defense Initiative after the self-proclaimed human rights group won a federal court ruling that prohibited the MTA from rejecting those ads on First Amendment grounds. (The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, has labeled AFDI as an “active anti-Muslim group.”)

For the comedic duo, getting their humorous ads up in the subway took a five-month-long legal battle with the transit agency. They had won approval from the MTA back in April, but that was soon revoked after the agency adopted a policy against political advertising. Vaguely Qualified Productions LLC, the company behind the documentary, fought back and eventually won the lawsuit on the basis of free speech.

(Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah)

Despite them “being about Muslims,” there is nothing political about their ads, the two say. “We wanted to do things that ranged from being informative—like 'Muslims invented algebra'—to silly, playful, and funny,” Obeidallah tells CityLab. “[Some] aren’t based on reality, but they'll get someone's attention, and maybe a New Yorker will laugh—which is hard to do on a subway, but maybe they'll smile.”

The project took $20,000, and the posters will be up in all 144 subway stations for a month. So far the reactions have been positive. And as for any backlash, Farsad says they’ve gotten used to it. “Every time we say anything positive about Muslims, it’s just a rain of hate tweets,” she says with a laugh.

On the flip side, she says, “When you’re laughing, it’s hard to hate.”

(Courtesy Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah)

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