Is it OK for comedians to joke about religion?

Muslim comic: Terror is no way to address valid gripes
Muslim comic: Terror is no way to address valid gripes

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Muslim comic: Terror is no way to address valid gripes 02:31

Story highlights

  • Dean Obeidallah: Some challenge him to tell anti-Muslim jokes in defiance of terrorists
  • But he and other comedians say freedom means being able to choose to offend or not
Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM's weekly program "The Dean Obeidallah show." He is a columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report. He's also the co-director of the documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter: @TheDeansreport. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)"Would you tell a joke mocking the Prophet Mohammed?"

Being a comedian who is Muslim, I can't tell you how many times I've been asked that question over the years. And in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Paris, I am again being asked it over and over.
Dean Obeidallah
My answer before the attack was that I have never told jokes mocking the Prophet Mohammed, nor have I told jokes mocking Jesus, Moses or any other religious figures. And now after the attack, I'm certainly not going to go out of my way to write jokes about those subjects. I refuse to alter my freedom of expression because of terrorists.
    Yet some -- mostly on the right -- have insisted to me, via social media, that I must now do jokes mocking the Prophet Mohammed. They frame it—bizarrely-- as a litmus test for my patriotism to America or my support for freedom of expression.
    Just so it's clear, as a writer, comedian and Muslim-American, I strongly believe that all the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad should be published, uncensored by media outlets. (In fact, I have organized a comedy benefit in New York for next week in defense of freedom of expression that will features mostly, but not all, Muslim comedians.)
    But what jokes are acceptable to show should be the choice of every media outlet, just as it's the choice of every comedian to decide which jokes he or she wants to tell.
    Freedom of expression encompasses both the choice to say what you want and to refrain from saying things you don't want to.
    So why won't I tell jokes about religious figures? It has nothing to do with religious beliefs. The reason, simply put, is that my comedy focuses on mocking the people in power; the ones who are committing the bad acts or holding elected office (and often those two are the same.) The Prophet Mohammed died nearly 1,500 years ago. He isn't doing anything. ISIS, al Qaeda and the like are, so they are the ones I will continue to mock.
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    This is the same reasoning that guided me and my co-director, Negin Farsad, in our choices for the 2012 comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" The film, which uses humor to counter misconceptions about Muslims, also comically mocks the anti-Muslim bigots. But even though some of these haters were self-proclaimed Christian leaders, like the Rev. Pat Robertson and the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer, we didn't mock Jesus for their actions. No, we went after the people spewing the hate.
    Still I was curious as to how my fellow comedians, especially the Muslim ones, would respond to the Paris attack. Would it change their comedy in any way? Would it make them more defiant in their content choices? Would any be more hesitant to do certain jokes?
    So I asked about 20 comedians, via social media and email, about the Paris attack.
    Regardless of whether they were Muslims living in Cairo or atheists living in New York, the comics' responses were consistent: They denounced the Paris attack and stood up for freedom of expression. That was true even for some of the Muslim comedians, who acknowledged that they could understand why the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed could offend people. But none of the Muslim comedians said they were personally offended. (Generally, it takes a lot to offend a comedian!)
    Dubai comedian Ali Al Sayed explained by email that there are limits on comedy content in much (but not all) of the Middle East when it comes to jokes about religion, sex and politics. Some of the restrictions are based on laws, while others are imposed by comedy show producers in the hopes of not offending audience members (it's bad for business). Of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, Sayed wrote, "this 'gangsta Muslim' response needs to stop, it has no place in our religion and is no way justified by the Quran."
    Maysoon Zayid, one of the best-known Muslim-American comedians, has pushed the envelope over the years. Zayid explained via email that she has told jokes that mentioned the Prophet Mohammed in the past and would do so in the future. "I will not let extremists scare me silent," she said.
    Interestingly, Egypt's Rami Boraie did acknowledge that the Paris terror attack would change his comedy. But not as you might predict. Boraie noted via Facebook that he's more motivated now than ever to become better known as a comedian so he can use his fame and comedy to "reclaim Islam from these radicals."
    This sentiment — taking back Islam from groups like ISIS through comedy -- has been gaining for months in the Middle East. Muslim comedians across the region have been risking their lives to ridicule ISIS in TV shows and YouTube videos. They have, in effect, called out ISIS for being the "un-Islamic" state.
    But as New York based comedian Joe DeRosa (not a Muslim) mentioned, telling jokes about any religious figure, not just Mohammed, can be challenging: "I've been physically threatened for telling Jesus jokes. ... Am I a coward if I don't joke about certain things that could cause a dangerous reaction? Or am I smart? I honestly don't know."
    There's no right answer to this thoughtful question. To me it sums up the essence of free speech. It's a choice that each person should be free to make.
    We must defend both those who are making statements that offend and those who choose not to do so.