Tackling Muslim-American Stereotypes with Satire

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John Edwards
Actor and writer Aasif Mandvi, creator of Halal in the Family, speaks at a Writer’s Guild of America East event in New York City.

“We’re not that kind of Muslim!” ends the opening credits to Aasif Mandvi’s Halal in the Family, a new web series battling anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States. The telling phrase sends out a direct message to its viewers: We are not who you think we are.

Emulating popular television classics such as All in the Family and The Cosby Show, it serves as the country’s first American–Muslim sitcom. The family is even named the Quosby’s, featuring Mandvi as the politically incorrect dad decked in eighties sweaters, perpetually embarrassing his wife and kids.

Halal in the Family has four episodes, each of which centers around a problem faced by Muslims in the U.S., especially after 9/11. It tackles issues such as government surveillance, stereotyping, media bias, and bullying by using satire. The series’ website also provides snippets of information and statistics to support the issues being raised in the various storylines. Its first episode, “Spies Like Us” reveals the family’s exaggerated paranoia upon having found out that the children’s white math teacher was volunteering at the neighborhood mosque. An infographic accompanies the episode, highlighting the unlawful and protracted surveillance on Muslim communities by the New York Police Department that has led to naught in the U.S. fight against terrorism. Many American Muslims now live in an environment of suspicion due to governmental actions aimed at weeding out extremism.

In an article for The Guardian, Mandvi said, “The problem with the mainstream media is there’s no room for nuanced, complex conversations in terms of Middle Easterners and Muslims, and the millions of identities that that entails.”

The Indian–American comedian is best known for his work on The Daily Show, where he often features in parodies on Middle Eastern and Islamic topics that challenge the media’s painting of Muslims in a largely negative and unified light. With this fresh but unapologetically crude web project, Mandvi is contributing to continuing initiatives by Muslim activists and organizations in combating Islamophobia in the U.S. Halal in the Family portrays the diversity of the Muslim community as a whole while proving that Muslims in the U.S. are just about as American as everyone else.

Despite this brave effort, Mandvi’s sitcom plays a heavy gamble as it employs provocative humor that sometimes serves to entrench the very stereotypes it wants to diminish. “Why would I build a mosque? I’m not trying to cause any trouble,” says Mandvi’s character Aasif Qu’osby, in a Halloween episode in which the family’s neighbors adversely react to their house decorations based on a misperception that the family was constructing an Islamic site. It begets the troubling view prevalent in today’s world: the more religious Muslim is the more dangerous one.

Still, Halal in the Family is a media breakthrough that pioneers the advent of Muslim voices in the American mainstream. Muslims watching can take consolation in the belly laughs induced by jokes that underscore the shared experience of being Muslim in America while the show’s non-Muslim viewers are allowed the realization that the world of American Muslims is not much different than their own.