He glances around at the Adel Road mosque -- now a red-brick building with pentagonal windows on a plot of land north of the Beltway. The place has come a long way from when he was a little kid playing football on the low hill where the prayer hall now stands. But then he's come a long way, too.

When Baig bailed on premed some seven years ago, he opted for a computer science major, something the family could accept -- these were the dot-com '90s, after all -- and something he could enjoy. It was at junior college that he met his main partner in crime.

Azher Ahmed, like most brown men, he notes, was supposed to be a doctor, too, but wound up in computer science. Ahmed, a Karachi native who describes himself as "26 going on 12," walked into the school's Muslim Students Association with his own reservations. He hadn't been a very devout Muslim growing up and hadn't been very involved at the masjids in his Chicago suburb. He knew as much about an MSA as a WASP kid from Winnetka would.

The Islamica Web site generates more than two 
million hits a month.
Jim Newberry
The Islamica Web site generates more than two million hits a month.
Azher Ahmed, Islamica co-founder, says he's "26 
going on 12."
Jim Newberry
Azher Ahmed, Islamica co-founder, says he's "26 going on 12."

"Nobody wants to hang out with the Bible burners or the zealots of any faith. And you know, honestly, that was my opinion when I went into it, and I was pleasantly surprised," says Ahmed. Even so, like Baig, Ahmed's laid-back, wisecracking persona made him stand out from the crowd in what was a more traditional, lecture-oriented MSA. "It was kinda like, you know what, that's great, there's a lot of stuff to discuss, a lot of heavy topics, but at the same time, crack a joke every so often, act lively. It's not something where you have to sit and be all drab about it," he says.

They started a newsletter featuring top-ten lists, à la David Letterman, on topics like "Top Ten Signs It's Ramadan" and "Top Ten Signs You're at an ISNA Convention," the annual meeting put on by the Islamic Society of North America. As e-mail developed, the lists spread far and wide, and Baig heard from friends who were getting the forwards he had written. The seeds of Islamica News had been planted, though they didn't realize it just yet.


Editorial: Sikh of Being Mistaken For an Arab

by Preet Wallawallabangbang

Look, buddy…some tings are really estarting to pass me off. Hawing the guy say me not talk the English when I AM talk the English is insulting enough, but now this happens.

How many guys I gotta explain?! I'M NOT ARAB!

I'm Sikh, dang it. Sikh, sikh, sikh!

You aydeeots hound me and say me go home. But I say I am home so what? They look with confuse and start throwing the thing and the other thing…

-- Islamica News, Issue 4

Like the name itself -- a "brain fart" Baig had on the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway one day -- Islamica's beginnings pretty much came out of nowhere.

"It was a very impulsive move on our part," says Baig. Revolutions usually begin that way. Someone throws a rock; someone trashes a guitar; a couple of Muslim kids print up funny T-shirts to sell at a national convention.

It was August 1998 and Baig had nothing planned. He would usually walk into the ISNA Convention with some kind of entertainment cooked up or something else to keep him busy for the Labor Day weekend event. The gathering, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, draws up to 30,000 attendees for arts festivals, panel discussions and bazaar booths. At the time, Baig floated the idea of doing T-shirts, but others cautioned him against it, arguing that it had been done many times before. Boringly.

"Well, these shirts have a different twist to them," he told them. "They're not your objective, blah, praise-the-day type shirts."

They drew up three designs. One had a pig on the front with a circle around it, crossed out. "A lot of people confuse that for an anti-cop shirt, which it isn't at all," says Ahmed, laughing. On the back, using the Arabic word for "forbidden," the shirt read: "Pork is haram / Dancing is haram / Dancing pigs are really haram." A second shirt spoofed the "Got Milk?" campaign that was popular at the time with a simple "Got Wudu?" -- the common refrain among Muslims seeking the water ablution that cleanses them before daily prayers. The third was nothing more than "salam," written in lowercase Arial font on a basic black T-shirt.

"Very simple, very straightforward, but given the market we were dealing with, they were starved for something like that," says Baig. "It's something that you buy a religious shirt, put it in your closet, never wear it to school at all, and then here's something they look forward to wearing, you know, you can blend it in. It works just as a Nine Inch Nails shirt."

It's a small detail but a huge turning point: To simply tweak the font to something hip, opting for Arial instead of, say, Zapf Chancery, opened people's minds that Islam could be packaged in ways as contemporary, stylish and clever as any other facet of American pop culture.

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