In the aftermath of the shooting massacre in Orlando, Florida, perpetrated by a domestic terrorist with an apparent affinity for ISIS, and amid the polarizing racial and religious rhetoric coming out of the Donald Trump presidential campaign, some might think that it's a daunting time for a stand-up comedian, especially a Muslim one. But Maysoon Zayid, who has been plumbing uncomfortable topics for humor for years, is up to the challenge.
Zayid, whose family is Palestinian, was born and raised in New Jersey and is no stranger to making lemons out of lemonade. She has cerebral palsy, which has made her the target of hate and prejudice from online bullies, yet she has not shied away from speaking out about her disability or allowed it to define her 16-year career as a performer. She has made the rounds of the talk show circuit, starred in feature films, and both co-founded and appeared in comedy festivals that, among other things, put stereotypes on blast. Today, she is taking aim, not just at Trump, but the pervasive climate of Islamophobia in the U.S.
"As a comedian, Trump is comedy gold, and he almost makes my job too easy ... the stuff that comes out of his mouth is a precious commodity," she told NBC News on Friday. "But as a Muslim public figure and especially as a woman who's been doing comedy for years -- including doing comedy post-9/11 -- I've never felt more unsafe. I've never received more threats through social media than during this past year of Trump's insane ride."
"The reality is this is incitement, and incitement can have real-life effects," she added.
Besides the kind of vitriol invoking sexual violence that so many outspoken women are subjected to, Zayid said she has been told to go back to her own country (although she was born in the U.S.) and taunted with the phrase "the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim." And in the wake of the murder on Thursday of British lawmaker Jo Cox, allegedly by a man with suspected links to anti-immigrant, neo-Nazi groups, Zayid realizes the stakes for taking a stand couldn't be higher.
"I try to have layers in my comedy where I'm not trying to preach to anyone. I'm not here to impose Sharia law, and I'm not here to have a message about disability being inspirational -- I'm here to make people laugh," she said. "But when I can layer things and make people not only laugh but question, make people not only laugh but be offended ... I have to do that."
Still, despite the outcry from many Muslims in the U.S. and around the globe over Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from emigrating to the U.S. and his more recent assertion that the community may be deliberately providing sanctuary for terrorists, he remains the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and a legitimate threat to win the White House. Zayid has an interesting theory as to why Trump has remained relatively Teflon in the year since he first announced his 2016 run.
"I think he represents what a lot of people were thinking after Obama got elected twice," she said. "I think there's a backlash against minorities in this country and that part of what caused that was the fact that a black man became president. And a certain portion of the privileged population think their privilege is at stake, and they want it back. When they think of 'old' America, they think of glory, and when minorities think of America, we think of a world without the Americans with Disabilities Act. We think of segregation and Jim Crow."
Media coverage of Trump, particularly his controversial mocking of a disabled New York Times reporter, has been a real source of frustration for Zayid, as has the preoccupation with the religious background and mental state of Orlando gunman Omar Mateen. Meanwhile, she believes too many Americans want to ignore looking honestly at their own complicity in the bombing deaths of thousands of people in the Middle East.
"The majority of mass shootings [are] committed by non-Muslims," she said. "We have been sold a Muslim boogeyman. We are buying into it, and we are terrified, and that terror is causing people to lash out at comedians like myself or women wearing hijabs, or anyone who seems to defend equality for Muslims worldwide." And yet, Zayid has not allowed the climate of the past few months to dampen her spirit or her mostly comedic outlook on life.
"I'm born with a disability. I've just always had a sense of humor. I think that it's just inherent in my personality that when things anger me or when things offend me, that the way that I express myself is in a comedic way -- it's always been my way. And it's the only way I know how to deal with stuff that I think otherwise would break me," she said. "I have the ability to go on stage and recognize the fact that a portion of my fellow Americans no longer want me to live. If I let that consume me, I'd be too scared to go stage -- it would destroy me. So instead, in order to empower myself, I make it a joke. Because that gives me back my power, and it doesn't put me at the mercy of bullies and trolls who hate rather than laugh."
"I think that in America, we have a real opportunity to shift in the fall," Zayid added. "I think that if Donald Trump loses, which I hope he does, that this is a period in our history that we'll look back on and have kind of hindsight be 20/20, where people who weren't appalled at the time now look back ashamed that they allowed any of this to happen. But there is no overnight fix."