By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
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"At random conventions where we've sold our product, we've had people that are new to Islam, that are new to the faith, come up to us and say things like, 'I thought when I converted I had to check my sense of humor at the door,' " says Ahmed. "Because that's kind of what you see everywhere."
Not everyone has been amused, though.
"There has been a lot of wariness, actually," says Baig. "I guess the wariness is just the lack of communication, one, and the message being lost through a language and a style that really isn't natural for the person reading it. So you've got someone reading this who might be an immigrant or who might be just outside the age category and who is reading this and is just totally misconstrued on the whole message behind it."
"I remember when it first came out," says Ateeque Chowdhry, a close friend of Baig's who distributes shirts in Houston. "There were a lot of, I guess, older generation who we call uncles or aunties who were kind of upset. 'What are you doing making fun of our religion?!' Or, 'What's this comedic element here?' It was a shock to them. So anything that was a shock to them is kind of fear-involved. So there was always, 'Okay, well, it's probably not right. This is wrong, this is not Islamic, this is not correct.' " As he recalls the disapproval, he tries to bury a smile on his face as though, like, they don't get it.
The Islamica guys get it. They understand the backlash. They understand that, for most young people, talk is cheap, language is rarely literal, and irony -- irony is how you communicate. For someone whose native language is not English and homeland is not America, that kind of thing gets lost in the translation.
"I think it's the same thing you saw with the MTVs back in the '80s and things of that nature," says Ahmed. "With the older generation, they don't necessarily see the value in entertainment. And that's honestly something you get from future generations that are more indoctrinated into the Western culture."
Take the ISNA Convention in 2000, for example. The Islamica crew debuted a new shirt that year. On the front, it asked, in cute italic font, "do you think i'm hot?" On the back, it added, in the same precious lowercase: "so is hell. lower your gaze." (How's that for a cold shower?) At a Q&A session with religious scholars, there was apparently a sister in the audience with the T-shirt on, but a backpack covered the punch line. Someone asked if the shirt was haram, and an imam passed a fatwa, or religious edict, against it.
"But this was probably the shortest fatwa in the history of fatwas," says Ahmed. "I believe about a half an hour later, he was passed a note and he said, 'Oh, I was just passed a note, and it said the back is "so is hell. lower your gaze. "' And everybody got a good chuckle out of that."
Understood within the context of pansexual MTV youth, the "do you think i'm hot?" shirt is actually something of a rebuke, a cosmic and clever command to keep it in your pants. On the subject of sex, though, the lines often get blurry for the Muslim comedians, and the material quickly slips from edgy to offensive. Two of the more controversial articles that Islamica News has published -- one about a hijabi going to work at Hooters, another about eid salat being held at a Houston strip club -- have drawn sharp criticism. On more than one occasion, they've been holding their breath as they go to press.
"My wife reads a lot of these articles and she gives me the looks, like, 'What are you guys doing?' " says Abdul-Majeed sheepishly.
Chowdhry points to a T-shirt that says, "Muslims do it five times a day." Huh-huh, huh. He catches a breathy laugh, his inner Beavis squirming to get out. "On the back it says, 'They pray five times a day.' Has all the names of the prayers. And it's getting close to that line."
"It's hard only because we're brand-new," he adds. "Hopefully the generation below us will have a better idea." Indeed, with pioneering come missteps.
"No doubt, we even are like, we read some of these articles that we write and we're like, my God, this isn't going to fly, this isn't going to fly," says Baig. "Sometimes you just have to push the envelope a little."
SauDisney Now Open
The park, which had been plagued with various construction delays for the past 14 years (mostly due to heavy modifications for Disney to conform to traditional Islamic etiquette), was finally finished early this month.
"We only received about 4 bomb threats this morning, which is always a good low number for this time of year," stated Mujabr El-Mukhara bin Lulu, a local deputy.