Q&A: CI professor receives award for research on religion

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Samah Choudhury, Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Ithaca College, received the first Young Scholars Award from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), an annual award that recognizes “emerging leaders whose research focuses on Muslims. “

The ISPU is a non-partisan, non-profit organization focused on research and education on American Muslims with the goal of providing a better understanding of the community and supporting knowledgeable dialogue.

Choudhury focused on the stand-up comedy routines of American Muslim comedians, specifically using Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, and Kumail Nanjiani as case studies.

Personal writer Mel Andia spoke with Choudhury about her research.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mel Andia: Can you give a brief overview of your work?

Samah Choudhury: My research is on how American Muslims… articulate through… humor… I think there is this association that people are already making… Muslims are stoic, they are not friendly, they are stubborn , they can’t stand a joke. So there are… points in our recent history that really underlie this hypothesis… The debates that generally follow… generally seem to boil down to two questions: why can’t Muslims take a joke, and does that mean – Islam is therefore incompatible with modernity… For me, the question becomes bigger: how is it that humor… has become a principle of modernity.

MY : You have focused your work on the case studies of Hasan Minhaj, Kumail Nanjiani and Aziz Ansari. Was your focus on male comedians a specific choice or the result of there being few high profile Muslim women in comedy?

SC: It is no coincidence that these are the three men. Minhaj was on The daily show originally,… which led to the special he had on Netflix… Nanjiani is starting out on Comedy Central… and now he’s going to be the next big superhero in a Marvel movie… And Ansari was on Parks and recreation for many years. … The high profile nature of these three men is something that has not been reflected among other Muslim comedians and certainly not Muslim comedians. … The world of comedy is… a world of men. There are actresses who speak of this with a lot of eloquence … but also of the fact that there are a certain type of Muslims [that] I think people want to see and Muslim men seem to embody this myth in a way that women just don’t.

MY : What’s the most important finding you found from your research?

SC: The most important takeaways for me are the way we think and talk about religion and race in the contemporary United States, and that’s what my project is trying to achieve. The way these men interpret Islam, embodying themselves as Muslims in their stage comedy… is in a way that really blurs the lines between race and religion. … These men are trying to talk to [the current political climate] try to understand and combat anti-Muslim hostility in this way. It also ends up re-conceptualizing what we mean by religion. Is religion the same as race or is there something different going on here?

MY : Actors are never described as a “Christian actor” but for Muslims, they are always presented first as a “Muslim actor”. Why do you think this division appears?

SC: The fact that we don’t call people like Christian actors or even white actors, [means] we assume that whiteness is… a defect. This means that when we speak of comedians via their religion, it is generally in relation to Muslims. Even black Muslims are not coded as Muslim comedians. A lot of people don’t know it, but Dave Chappelle… is also a Muslim… In the early 2000s, he actually took a break from acting… to focus on his religion, and he talked about it openly and people didn’t. still didn’t want to talk about it. . They wanted to know if he was doing drugs or not, was it because he was going crazy, that sort of thing, associations that they would rather squeeze out of anti-black racism than take this man at his word. So, the way religion is invoked in these conversations is really interesting.


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