ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH: Sometimes I feel like I'm not smart enough to be Muslim.
TANZILA AHMED: I know. I don't have time to do all this homework that's needed to be Muslim.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
That's from the podcast #GoodMuslimBadMuslim. Iranian-American comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh and Bengali-American writer Taz Ahmed find humor in things like that pressure they feel to be experts on global politics. They also discuss current events, share stories about marriage and dating and awkward ask-a-Muslim moments. Taz Ahmed says the podcast was born out of recurring discussions about just what it means to be a good Muslim.
AHMED: In the Muslim community, we're looked at as the bad Muslims because, you know, Zahra drinks. I go to punk shows. Externally, in the mainstream American community, we're looked at as, you know, bad Muslims just by default of being brown skinned and being Muslim, and so we kind of are in this gray zone.
NOORBAKHSH: Then even to complicate matters even further then, many times, because I identify myself as a pork-eating, alcohol-drinking, premarital-sex-having Muslim, then I'll have audience members who say, oh, you're the good kind of Muslim.
NOORBAKHSH: Because to them...
RATH: That sounds great.
NOORBAKHSH: Since I am less Muslim - yeah.
RATH: So in the traditional sense, between the two of you, who is the baddest Muslim?
AHMED: That's a hard question.
NOORBAKHSH: The funny thing is, the thing that people are shocked by most - when I do stand-up shows or fans who write in say, but you eat pork.
NOORBAKHSH: You can't eat pork and be a Muslim. Like, that's, you know...
RATH: Well, you have these fun sort of signature segments on the show. I want to play a clip from one. This is the good Muslim awards.
(SOUNDBITE OF #GOODMUSLIMBADMUSLIM PODCAST)
AHMED: I did have a good Muslim award I wanted to give out.
NOORBAKHSH: Oh, to who?
AHMED: I wanted - so I went to watch "Fifty Shades Of Grey"...
AHMED: ...With a good friend of mine. And in our row - we look down the row - there was a hijabi girl sitting by herself with a big old thing of popcorn and chocolate...
NOORBAKHSH: That's awesome.
AHMED: ...And an extra-large soda. I was like, who is she? I want to be her friend.
RATH: How do you decide for the good Muslim awards? Clearly this is your idea of what a good Muslim is.
AHMED: Yeah. I think - I mean, we're always thinking about how people are labeled as being bad or good. And we kind of just wanted to disrupt that narrative and kind of shake things up. We are also kind of trying to uplift, like, narratives that we hear from our friends. We gave a good Muslim award to the Women's Mosque, too. You know, we're taking the good, and like, we're reimagining it for ourselves.
RATH: You're saying that kind of draws out one of the bigger themes that kind of comes out of the podcast, which is that these things aren't settled. I mean, that's part of the, you know, the stereotype - right - that there are these strict rules that all Muslims follow. And it ain't like that.
AHMED: And I think that's one of the things that's so scary for other people to hear our podcasts, 'cause we're allowing people permission to think and have internal dialogue and to be challenging to themselves. And that's part of the pushback that we've been getting from the community. People...
RATH: From the Muslim community?
AHMED: From the Muslim community. People don't like that two Muslim women have a voice and we're just talking. And the fact that it's out there is really intimidating and scary to people.
NOORBAKHSH: I think that when a community is so lumped together and one person's actions across the globe who has nothing to do with you suddenly defines what your values are, what your community is and what can then happen to you in acts of violence as a Muslim, it's really scary. And so anybody, then, who comes out saying, I'm a Muslim, even for me, as a progressive liberal who likes to think she's smarter than that, we see them then as a representative of the community.
RATH: But you know, you also have as an extra burden, you know, especially after, like, the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the recent attack in Texas - you have this weight of this notion that Muslims can't take a joke.
NOORBAKHSH: I love that phrase. I never get tired of hearing it. I recently had to ask myself, is it safe for me as a feminist Muslim comedian who advertises herself as a pork-eating, alcohol-drinking, premarital-sex-having Muslim to go to Iran. And it wasn't safe. And I couldn't go. And sure, I could turn around and say, oh, I wish they could just take a joke and see that it's satire. At the same time, you know, there are major geopolitics at play here that are much bigger than, you know, my tag. You know, it's a much more complicated conversation.
AHMED: Just what it means to be Muslim, it's always just so serious. And I think what we can do with our podcast is bring a little humor to it. You need, like, an equal dose of politics and pop culture to engage communities and engage people in actual conversations. And I think that's kind of what our podcast does.
RATH: You talked about some of the pushback you've had from the Muslim community, but I'm curious about the reaction more broadly and things that may have surprised you so far. Zahra, you go first.
NOORBAKHSH: I think one of the things that we continue to discover that surprised both of us is how even though we are both progressive Muslim women, we're also entirely different.
NOORBAKHSH: We argue all of the time (laughter). We actually have very distinct voices.
AHMED: It's been really interesting to get feedback from people. I got a really awesome email from a 25-year-old Muslim girl that wanted relationship advice. It's great to be able to be that resource because growing up as a South-Asian, as a Muslim in LA, I felt so alone. And for these young girls, I can make them feel less alone.
RATH: That's Taz Ahmed along with Zahra Noorbakhsh. She hosts the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast. Thanks to both of you - real pleasure speaking with you.
AHMED: Thanks for having us.
NOORBAKHSH: Thank you.
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