Combining comedy with social commentary, award-winning Arab-American comedian Dean Obeidallah spoke Friday about his mission to counter stereotypes with humor Friday.
“In America, we have a great tradition of using comedy to raise social and political issues,” he said.
Half-Palestinian, half-Sicilian and New Jersey-raised, Obeidallah has an unconventional background. He said that the Sept. 11 attacks gave him a new perspective on his own upbringing and how it relates to the world around him.
“My life changed with 9/11,” Obeidallah said. “I was a white guy before 9/11, and after, I was an Arab.”
Along with this revelation came a new take on comedy. Perceiving a growth of “Islamophobia,” or anti-Muslim sentiment, Obeidallah said he uses his shows to try to promote understanding.
“I don’t like calling it ‘Islamophobia’ — it sounds like a cute disease,” Obeidallah said. “It’s a hate movement. We have to go out and counter that hate.”
By touring the United States and the Middle East, Obeidallah said he has reached out to people of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
“I think what makes Dean stand out is how he takes away that veil of ignorance through a very humanizing approach,” said Cynthia Schneider, professor in the School of Foreign Service and moderator of the Q-and-A session.
Attendee Julia Tanaka (SFS ’15) said she appreciated Obeidallah’s unique take on social issues.
“Often, politicians are afraid to say what’s right because of the political capital at stake, and this is a fantastic way to truly address what needs to be addressed,” she said.
Benjamin Nickl, a graduate student pursuing his Ph.D. with the SFS and the McDonough School of Business, said Obeidallah’s talk related well to his budding dissertation on ethnic comedy.
“We have the same kind of conflict going on in Germany and all over the globe,” said Nickl.
Obeidallah has taken his brand of comedy to countries including Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Oman, Israel, Qatar and Dubai. After performing shows for audiences in these countries, he always conducted free comedy workshops to help local comics.
Though Obeidallah recognizes the importance of countering the anti-Muslim sentiment, he also finds it difficult to quantify his success.
“People always ask if I’m making a change, and I say ‘I don’t know,'” Obeidallah said. “But I would rather take a chance and try to change something than sit back and not try at all.”
“I think with Dean, you see the combination of creativity, intelligence and humor that goes with comedy,” Schneider said. “And you see why in some ways, comedy is uniquely positioned to take on issues of anti-Muslim sentiment. I think that’s the humanizing element.”
Obeidallah said he continues his work in hope that his comedic approach encourages people from all around the world to become increasingly tolerant and willing to learn about each other.
“Some people I met in my southern tours had never met a Muslim in their lives,” Obeidallah said. “Teaching you something without trivializing it — that’s the type of comedy I aspire to.”