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Ministering to U.S. Muslims

Azhar Usman is very serious about comedy. A Muslim standup comic, he works hard at honing his joke-telling skills while hoping his humor will defuse tensions and shatter stereotypes.

“I wrote this joke,” he said as an example of his dual purposes: “I get a lot of dirty looks these days. I want to stop people on the street and say, `Yes, I am a Muslim! But I'm an American Muslim. I'm very patriotic! In fact, I would die for this country by blowing myself up!'”

The technique, known as “comedy of distortion,” takes audience preconceptions and “flips them inside out,” Mr. Usman said. He compared a Muslim joking about terrorism to an African-American comedian using the “n word.”

“It's an empowering thing, the ability to laugh at yourself and to poke fun at an oppressor,” said Mr. Usman, who will perform Friday night at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo in Perrysburg.

The 27-year-old Chicago resident said he “sunlights” as a lawyer and moonlights as a Muslim comic. “I have a virtual monopoly on this narrow niche market,” he said with a laugh.

He first began pursuing comedy as a sideline in early 2001, “and then 9/11 came along and, as it did for all of us, caused me to do a lot of soul searching.”

He quit telling jokes for a while and got active explaining Islam at interfaith programs, churches, and other community events. Eventually, he said, “I started to feel that comedy is where my heart is and I finally built up the courage to start performing again in spring, 2002.”

Demand for his laugh-making talents has been growing steadily, especially after he was featured in the New York Times in September. He often performs at mosques and Muslim gatherings, but he also is booked regularly at mainstream comedy clubs.

The majority of Mr. Usman's material works in both settings with only slight alterations, he said, although “outsiders” may not get every Muslim joke.

One of his favorite comedy routines, for example, involves “Sheikh Abdul the Radical Imam,” a caricature of a fundamentalist Islamic cleric who vows, “We'll show these people how to live!”

“Muslim crowds have really, really picked up on this. It struck a chord with them,” Mr. Usman said. “Nobody talks about it. There are these clowns running around speaking in the name of religion. Osama bin Laden and his ilk represent that extreme on a global level, but there are many such people on a local level who may not be as `jihady' and violent, yet their rhetoric is predicated on the same assumptions.”

His comedy role models include Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg, and Jim Gaffigan, he said. As a practicing Muslim and as an aspiring comedian, he appreciates their ability to generate jokes without using profanity.

“Seinfeld said using foul language or sexual material is a cheap way to get laughs. He said it's like a driver in the Indianapolis 500 cutting across the middle of the field to get to the finish line. It defeats the purpose.”

He said he also admires the comedy of Chris Rock.

“Even though Chris Rock does curse and use blue material, the inspiration I get from him is that he speaks the truth as he sees it. He speaks what's on his mind. And a lot of his humor is introspective of the African American subculture, and he's often very critical of it. In the same way, I feel that a lot of my humor is introspective of the Muslim American subculture.”

Comedy has a unique way of bringing up sensitive subjects without offending audiences, Mr. Usman said.

He tells American Muslims, for example, that they are not responsible for all of the actions of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims.

“There is this psychosis that a lot of Muslims have fallen into, that we as Muslims have to defend everything that every Muslim does on the face of the Earth,” he said. “That is ridiculous! We have wackos just like any other group. There are some Muslims who are terrorists. I'm not going to feel ashamed about that. I don't have to defend them or defend my faith because of these wackos.”

He describes this misguided sense of responsibility with a routine involving the Washington, D.C., sniper case. When the shooters were still on the loose last fall, he said, law-enforcement officials said psychological profiles indicated the sniper was a white suburban male.

“We Muslims watched anxiously,” Mr. Usman said. “When they finally announced the arrest, they said it was `John' ... OK, OK - `Allen' - yeah, yeah - `Muhammad' - Aaarrggh!

Mr. Usman believes American Muslims need to become more involved in fields that influence public perceptions - including media, politics, and entertainment - or their image will be shaped by news reports such as the fatwah, or death sentence, against Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie and the abuses of the fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

“As long as Muslims do not do a good job of defining themselves by becoming engaged in the arts and in culture, then they will continue to be defined by political events in the world,” Mr. Usman said.

Azhar Usman will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, 25877 Scheider Rd., Perrysburg Township. Advance tickets are $15, which includes dinner at 6:30 p.m. On Friday, admission to the comedy show is $15. Information: 419-874-3509.

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