February 6, 2015 By Azhar Usman/ Navas Machingal

Azhar Usman: “A Clash of Two Worldviews”


Azhar Muhammad Usman


Azhar Muhammad Usman is an American standup Muslim comedian, of Indian descent. A former lecturer, community activist and lawyer. His troupe “Allah Made Me Funny” consists of himself, Bryant “Preacher” Moss and Azeem Muhammad, who was later replaced by Mohammed “Mo” Amer. He has performed in 23 countries on five different continents. In 2008, CNN aired an hour-long special, entitled America’s Funniest Muslim, on its Turkish affiliate, which included both performance clips and an extended Q&A session with Usman. In November 2008, he toured India, debuting at the American Center in New Delhi.

In an email interview he offered to Interactive, he  speaks to Navas Machinal about Charlie Hebdo, being a Muslim in the west, epistemology of modernity and traditionalism, fundamentalism, stereotypes etc-a few grave topics-without being so grave……

We ask you for this interview in the context of Charlie Hebdo. The stereotypical response to this incident is that Muslims respond to satire using violence. Some commentators have it that they could have simply ignored it. What is your take on this issue? What are the cautions need a satirist take before venturing into critique? Need a satirist or humorist be culturally sensitive? What is the line of demarcation do you draw between you and culturally insensitive cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo?

There is a lot there to unpack. So let’s break it down as follows:

  • Regarding the stereotype that “Muslims respond to satire with violence,” this is patently absurd. There are something like a billion and half Muslims on the planet. And every single day there are probably thousands of satirical expressions ridiculing, mocking, or otherwise satirizing Islam. If the stereotype were true, then the entire world would be on fire. Therefore––like every stereotype––we can acknowledge the shred of truth upon which it is based: that there is a tiny number of Muslims who indeed do respond to provocations with violence, but they are statistically negligible. Further, their actions are NOT BECAUSE OF the teachings of Islam; rather, their violence is IN SPITE OF and AGAINST the teachings of Islam. This is clear from the virtually unanimous condemnation that the Charlie Hebdo shooters have received, not just from hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide, but even controversial groups like Hamas and Hezbollah––and indeed, even the very jihadist imam who supposedly radicalized one of the attackers.
  • The next part of any thoughtful analysis of what happened in Paris is to recognize that the attackers were not simply, as political cartoonist Matt Bors put it, “offended readers.” These guys did not simply react with violence because of some stupid cartoons. Rather, there is a complex geopolitical backdrop––and a specifically Parisian/French socio-economic context––in which these attacks took place. Sadly, many people are not able to understand the difference between an EXCUSE and an EXPLANATION. Let’s be unambiguously clear: THERE IS NO EXCUSE OR JUSTIFICATION FOR COLD-BLOODED MURDER. At the same time––if we want to engage in rational, thoughtful analysis of the situation––we must understand that there is an EXPLANATION. That explanation requires us to look at everything happening in the world, and to put it all in the proper historical context. French residents of North African ancestry are basically the underclass of France, having suffered for centuries under the boot of colonial imperialism. Today, the psychological effects of structural racism and oppression––in the form of lack of equal access to fair housing, economic, and educational opportunities––all play a role in fostering a climate of antagonism and revolutionary spirit among some Franco-Arabic communities. Should it really come as a surprise, then, that a few vigilantes could emerge from the said communities, when a racist magazine provokes them for years, and decides to repeatedly ridicule, not just politically or culturally or socially, and mock the one aspect of their identity that they consider most sensitive and sacred?
  • Whenever there is a public Muslim reaction to some blasphemous attack on Islam (or its sacred symbols, such as the Prophet, the Quran, the Kaaba, etc.), the media analysis rarely, if ever, gets it right. What is really going on? One perspective is that Muslim protestors are not simply reacting to a public provocation. Rather, there is something far more fundamental at play. To understand this dynamic requires a short history lesson.
  • The modern world has become overrun and is now utterly dominated by a narrow set of philosophical assumptions. Essentially, Modernism––as a philosophical school––posits an anthropocentric view of reality, one in which Man basically invented the idea of God, all traditional religious teachings/doctrines are regarded as dogmatic superstition, and human rationality is privileged above all other ways of knowing. This fundamental view manifests in different cultural currents and philosophical conclusions: doubt, skepticism, agnosticism, atheism, scientism, hyper rationalism, nihilism, moral relativism, hedonism, etc. It most often masquerades today under the very vanilla and non-threatening name of “secular humanism,” but make no mistake about it: it is an epistemology. It offers a perspective and a standpoint on the nature of reality, and the role of human beings in the world. It offers a distinct point of view on how humans ought to relate to one another––again, under the very wonderful-sounding title of “international human rights.” However, at the heart of the matter is the fact that the above belief system provides the basic philosophical underpinnings of how modem man sees and perceives reality––that is to say, what is true and what is false.
  • Conversely, Traditionalism (the philosophical school, that is) offers a diametrically opposed epistemology: one that posits a theocentric view of reality, that God is Independently Real (Non-Dual, Absolute, Necessary Being) and that God created Man (and the entire Universe/Multiverse) ex nihilo, that all wisdom traditions and ancient/classical religions––despite the apparent mutual contradictions on the exoteric level––teach the same, inner, transcendental, esoteric truths, and that privileges revealed/prophetic knowledge over human rationality. In this sense––for believing Muslims––the Quran is a book of epistemology, which begins by making a bold claim, one that is fundamentally at odds with the doubt/skepticism of the modern age: “This is a Book that is doubt-free, guidance for those who actively apprehend/perceive the Independent Being of the Divine.” (Quran 2:2)
  • The way many Muslims see it, the steamroller of Modernist philosophical doctrines/epistemology have effectively destroyed all hopes of survival for all Traditionalist faiths, except Islam. Confucionists, Taoists, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and Christians have––as a rule––all succumbed to the power of Modernism/“Secular Humanism.” They have re-tooled themselves, re-invented themselves, re-framed themselves, etc. to basically interpret the teachings of their respective traditional religions to comport with the demands of “being part of the modern world.”
  • The Quran, on the other hand, argues vehemently against such capitulation in the face of un-Godliness. It demands rather that the believer must change himself and the world around him to comport with the dictates of the Quran, instead of simply modifying his interpretation of the scripture to comport with the dictates of his lower self, his intellect, or the world around him. Therein lies the rub.
  • So when large scale international incidents flare up from time to time––e.g. the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoon incident, the Quran burning episode, the Innocence of Muslims film, or the Charlie Hebdo shootings––whether they themselves understand it or not, Muslim protesters around the world are not so much responding to the specific provocation, which is largely inconsequential in and of itself, they are attempting to resist the Atheistic/Modernist steamroller, which demands that they dispense with their Traditionalist beliefs and sense of sacredness of God and Prophecy.
  • Those Muslims who fail to perceive the above dichotomy of the competing epistemologies have probably already capitulated, and therefore do not even understand what makes their fellow Muslims so agitated when the Prophet is insulted, mocked, ridiculed, maligned, attacked, etc.
  • The undeniable fact is that at the heart of the dispute are two diametrically opposed worldviews. So the challenge for all decent people on earth today is to figure out how peacefully to square this circle together. Is there really no way for Traditionalists to live in peace and harmony within the Modern world––a world built on technological innovation, global capitalism, liberal democracy, and international law? Will the extremists on both ends of the spectrum––narrow-minded religious fanatics hell-bent on violent interpretations of religion (a la ISIS) on the one hand, and the intolerant, arrogant, anti-religious, atheist zealots (a la Islamophobic provocateurs) on the other––take us further to the brink of disaster, or will cooler heads prevail? Only time will tell.

Ziauddin Sardar, in one of his articles in this magazine, said (many) Muslims are boring people, having a distaste for art, especially humour. As someone with eight years’ experience as a Muslim comedian and having many fans among Muslims, how do you evaluate this comment?

Actually, it is more like fourteen years, but that’s not really relevant. Just want to get the facts correct.

As for Ziauddin Sardar’s point, it is his impression, and he is certainly entitled to it. But it is admittedly a broad and sweeping generalization about one-fifth of the world’s population. It seems rather absurd to pass such a negative judgment on a large swath of humanity, especially when (a) no social scientific research exists, to the best of my knowledge, measuring the “boringness” of Muslims worldwide, much less their “taste (or distaste) for art, especially humour,” and (b) we live in a world of media images and psychological manipulation. Such imagery tends to create a perception of reality on a subconscious level, such that we all tend to unquestioningly accept narrow sets of assumptions about the world based on the images we have seen our entire lives. This is why, for example, Americans know so much about Jewish culture, customs, and practices––even though there are only roughly 14 million Jews worldwide (out of roughly 7 billion). That’s one-fifth of one percent of the world, and yet Seinfeld’s popularity worldwide ensures a widespread, basic knowledge about Jewish life in NYC. By contrast, there are over 1 billion Hindus on earth, and yet the average American knows basically nothing about the Hindu faith, culture, or traditions. Do these media-induced impressions mean that we can––as Sardar seems to suggest––make any confident conclusions about Jews and Hindus? Or is it more likely a reflection of the way the stories, images, and entertainment content is created, manufactured, and sold to the viewing public? I suppose the jury is out, but the facts are certainly the facts.

The Propaganda of Islamophobia is so rife in the Media, particularly after the 9/11. You have tried to bring to home the fact that fundamentalism does not explain the life and imagination of all Muslims. It is “FUN” damentalism, as well.  According to you, what could be the creative ways to participate in the media?

To be clear, religious fundamentalism is a real problem in the world. I do not believe in “FUN”-damentalism, whatever that means. On the contrary, the warnings of people like Bruce Lawrence in his fantastic book Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age, Olivier Roy in The Failure of Political Islam and Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, and Mark Juergensmeyer in Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence must be taken very seriously. It is not religious fundamentalism that needs to be better represented in the media, but rather actual, traditional religious teachings. The average person on earth––despite being bombarded daily with images of Muslims involved in all manner of horrible acts, or political enterprise, or even sports activities––basically has no real understanding of the actual religious teachings or ideas promoted by Islam. What, for example, is the Islamic conception of the Divine? Who exactly is the Prophet Muhammad, and what do Muslims believe about him? What is classical Islamic doctrine about the eternal question of human free will and destiny? Most people on earth have no real idea. By entering the entertainment industry, and producing works of art (such as films, television programs, documentaries, podcasts, radio shows, Web videos, etc.), Muslims can contribute toward greater cross-cultural understanding, public education, and information sharing, thereby promoting peace, harmony, and social cohesion.

You’re talking about Islam. For a visible Muslim like you in the US, What are the challenges you are facing?

Perhaps Michael Moore put it best when he said something like, “The gaping hole in capitalism is that you can criticize it all you want, as long as you can figure out a way to make your project profitable.” Commercial viability: that is the name of the game. And often, remaining true to one’s artistic integrity and personal ethics––while producing commercially viable entertainment projects––can be a difficult needle to thread. However, the only limiting factor in such an equation is creativity. If one has a perspective one wants to add to the conversation, then one must simply be creative about finding a commercially marketable approach to conveying said perspective. This is the greatest challenge facing my artistic collaborators (and me) as our careers rapidly unfold in an increasingly “mainstream” direction. Preaching to the choir is great, but a wider audience beckons, and the opportunities to make a positive impact are limitless.

Last question. A Sufi Muslim. Comedian. A big communicator. Beyond making it a career, what mission did motivate you to take it up? If you think your medium is a message rather than a mere massage, what would that message be?

The Sufi sages have taught us: “Beware the maker of claims,” and no real Sufi aspirant in the history of the world has ever claimed to be a Sufi! So how could this fakir dare to make such a claim? Indeed, even claiming that one is NOT making a claim, is a claim––such are the mysteries and riddles of the Path… The motivation and the message are actually quite simple: to use the tongue, the talents, and the gifts with which one has been blessed by God to call people to Love. Love over Fear. Love over Hate. Love over Everything. Truly God is The Loving One, and God knows best what secrets our hearts hide, even from our own lower selves and egos. We pray that God blesses and accepts our humble offerings, in service of Divine Love. And truly, success comes only from God, The Most High.


All Responses (c) 2015 Azhar Usman

Des Plaines, Illinois, USA

03rd February 2015

15th Rabi al-Thani 1436

Posted in: interviews