So, Did You Hear the One About the Funny Muslim?
In a perfectly ordered world, Mirza Baig goes off to medical school, gets a good practice somewhere in the suburbs, settles down with a girl in a nice, arranged marriage and lives placidly ever after.
"Within our culture, the South Asian, Indian subcontinent culture, it's very -- you're very coerced into and you're styled into certain careers in your life," Baig says. "It's either technical or medical that you go into, and these were kind of predestined for you and decided at the age of seven or eight and it was in my mind."
His parents' closest friends had three children who all became doctors. Eight of his 14 first cousins went through med school. If you count his second cousins, the number of MDs goes up exponentially. At the northside mosque where he grew up, no one should ever worry about having a heart attack and hearing a pin drop when the imam calls out, "Is there a doctor in the house?" Friday jummah might be better staffed than some area hospitals.
Yet at Klein Forest High School in the early '90s, Baig knew what he liked. The native Houstonian lettered in debate ("I look back on it, man, it sounds so nerdy"), attended public-speaking tournaments just about every weekend and took on roles in drama productions and comedy routines like Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?"
Language, performance and promotion were his passions, but a "huge barrier of repression" stood in the way: that insurmountable social inertia that shepherds young Indian kids into sensible professions and steady success.
"Back then, ten years ago, if I were to have free will, I would definitely pursue the avenues of acting, advertising -- somewhere where I can outlet my creativity," he says.
Halfway through his senior year, when the oil market tanked, his father, a petroleum geologist who had emigrated to Houston from Hyderabad, took a job as a civil engineer in Chicago. The family moved and Baig started at a junior college there, on track for premed. After three years, as Baig was carving up cadavers and prepping for the MCAT, he realized there was a class clown trapped inside him, straitjacketed by a lab coat and badly needing to get out and moon the test proctor.
"It was just that doctors think based on objectives, based on empirical data and information," says Baig. "I couldn't see myself in that. I just didn't want to become like that. And there was that apparent fear that I may one day lose everything and lose my personality."
So in college, Mirza Baig, with the help of a few friends, launched Islamica (www.islamicaweb.com), an online humor company that sells apparel, publishes spoof articles and maintains a vibrant message board. In fall 1998, it began with the following:
Islamica Finally Reveals Secret!
SCHAUMBURG, IL - Feeling under pressure from the public and parents alike, the boys at Islamica revealed the source for their creative, yet controversial ideas. At a news conference held in a Suburban Chicago garage last Friday, company CEO Mirza Baig told all about the longtime coveted issue
"The real source for our ideas is the devil." Baig went on to explain that the company hired the devil at its inception, and has been enjoying his input since
The news did not come as a shock to many, and simply reaffirmed the older generation's longtime suspicion.
"I knew them boys were up to no good," said 58 year old Sartaj Farooqui
Company CIO and Webmaster Azher Ahmed was all compliments toward their evil associate. "The devil is a genius when it comes to graphic arts," Ahmed raved. "Whenever we work together, I just give him the mouse and watch in awe. I love that little guy."
-- Islamica News, Issue 1
When Muslim parents logged on to the Islamica News Web site and read accounts of this fictitious event, some, no doubt, recoiled in horror. Their children, on the other hand, many of them born in the United States and versed in The Onion, got the joke.
Like many of these young Muslims, Mirza Baig grew up on a cultural divide. He was Islamic, but not an immigrant; American, but not secular. And he was starving for a pop culture outlet as hip, creative and witty as he aspired to be.
That fusion came to be known as Islamica, a unique "identity-centric" hybrid drawing thousands of young members and millions of page-views. At a time when most media images uniformly cast Islam in somber, angry tones, the cheerful lunacy of Baig and his conspirators might be the lone voice of reason.
So, did you hear the one about the funny Muslim?
16 Hour Drive Looms Ahead For Rejected Bachelor, Family
COLUMBUS, OH - After failing to make a match at a hastily-arranged matrimonial meeting, 34-year old bachelor Farouq Bashir and his parents face a long road home.
"I can't believe this crap," lamented Farouq. "She didn't even say one word to me "
The Bashir's can find comfort in the fact that their Nissan Maxima (above) gets excellent fuel economy.
-- Islamica News, Issue 6
On a pleasant spring afternoon, Mirza Baig, now 27, pulls into the masjid parking lot and steps out of the car. Dressed in a black and gray Islamica shirt and prefaded blue jeans, he slips off his Ralph Lauren sunglasses and tucks them into his shirt collar, revealing dark brown eyes to match his mocha five-o'clock shadow and black tangle of gelled hair.
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.
"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.
"Even though it might seem mundane at a general level," says Baig, "for the Muslim audience, the Muslim market, to see something like that, it's just overwhelming because, 'Oh, my God, you know, what are you doing? You're putting humor and you're putting Islam?' " They printed up 50 of each, hoping, at best, to break even and maybe get a few chuckles and accolades.
"I was definitely nervous," says Afeef Abdul-Majeed, a co-founder of Islamica who met Baig and Ahmed in college and handles the operations and finance side of the company. "It's like, you don't know how people will react. You don't know if someone's going to walk up and say, 'Hey, you guys have to get out of here -- these are degrading, these are wrong.' " Were they, he feared, marching down the road to Rushdie?
Ahmed was doubly nervous, having never attended a predominantly Muslim event. "It was a lot of shattered stereotypes," he says. "Because, again, I was approaching it as like how anybody else would: thinking there's going to be a bunch of people in turbans walking around, you know, yodeling and smelling all sorts of different smells."
In two and a half hours, they sold out. Young people would stop them on the convention floor: "Where'd you get that shirt?" "Where'd you get that shirt?" They made up prices and return policies on the fly. "Do you take checks?" Sometimes Baig would say one thing and someone else would say another. They just shrugged and kept selling. By the end of the day, they realized they had stumbled into a bona fide undiscovered subculture. Our faith? Cool?
Man Enraged That Two-Year Old Sister Is In Brothers Section
TULSA, OK - Chaos was nearly averted at the Islamic Center of Tulsa when Dadam Bazaam blew into a wave of histrionics when spotting a sister in the men's section of the prayer hall.
Two-year-old Nida Malik had her hand in her mouth when Bazaam spotted her.
"It was like I was at a wild disco with all this free mixing of the genders!" exclaimed an irate Bazaam.
"Why don't we set up a casino in here with girls in peacock outfit?"
The Center's director was unavailable for comment.
-- Islamica News, Issue 5
One day toward the end of that year, Baig's co-worker in IT called him over. "Check this out," he said, pointing to his computer screen. Baig read a few articles from this faux newspaper that called itself The Onion.
"And I'm laughing my ass off and a lot of the stuff was brilliant and, at the same time, we realized ourselves that there are so many parodies and paradoxes within our community -- that we can write about and that we've always joked around with in our own social circle," he says. "So we were inspired by various things, which include our own communities and the humor in that and seeing the, I guess, dichotomy between East meets West, observing our parents and how they co-existed in a Western world."
The Islamica Web site went up around that time, as a means to sell the T-shirts, tap into the budding Web community and more easily disseminate Islamica News, which became the satirical magnet that lures most visitors in. According to Ahmed, the fake story about the devil providing them with their inspiration was "a polite jab at the extremely conservative viewpoint." Six years, seven issues and more than 60 articles later, they seem to have only one bias: Everyone is fair game.
The hijab is a favorite source of humor, as are the frequent trans-illiterations of broken English. "No Ill Eagle Barking In The Barking Lot," scrawls the pidgin sign maker from Issue 2. They take playful digs at themselves ("Doctors Ticked At All These 'New Computer Guys,' " Issue 1); Hollywood ("Yet Another Hollywood Film Slanders Islam," Issue 2); MSAs ("Local MSA Still Ponders Reason For Its Existence: Community, MSA Members Unsure Why They Meet Once A Week," Issue 3); law enforcement ("FBI Cracks Down On Lemonade Stand Ring, Continues To Sour Relations With Arab Community," Issue 3); anti-Semites ("Man Blames Everything On Jews," Issue 7); liberal and conservative Muslims.
Their humor teeters between the obvious and the absurd, the witty and the goofy (what's not to like about Teletubbies with beards and skullcaps?); it is both highbrow and low (farting imams show up a lot in the world of Islamica). John Ashcroft and Sadaam Hussein get roasted alike.
The discussion boards offer young Muslims a chance to sound off on serious topics like sex, Wahhabism, the virtues and flaws of America, and arranged marriages, in addition to lighter subjects like hip-hop, Final Fantasy VII, whether biryani is overrated, whether boxing is halal and whether 22 is middle-aged. The Islamica crew and volunteer moderators try to censor only swearing and praise for the killing of innocent civilians.
According to Ahmed, their site is receiving 2.4 million page-views a month, a figure that's growing 10 percent a month. There are more than 3,000 members from 107 countries in the forum community. They've kept up at the conventions, creating 25 more T-shirt designs to sell, and have used their booth to gauge reactions and test ideas. They've ventured into filmmaking, shooting Muslim spoof versions of The Blair Witch Project and MTV's The Real World. Of late, they've been dabbling in live comedy sketches and hope to assemble a full show by the end of this year.
"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
JEDDAH, KSA - "Kingdom of Saudi, meet the Magic Kingdom," announced Disney CEO Michael Eisner at the opening of his empire's latest theme park in Jeddah.
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.
Popular Disney characters such as Minnie Mouse, who is famous for flaunting herself around in a mini-skirt, now can be seen strutting in the customary hijab and jilbab forcing Mickey to lower his gaze.
Other modifications include the replacement of Disney's popular "Gay Day" in favor of "No-Gay Day."
-- Islamica News, Issue 1
Peel back the layer of style and you'll find a surprising heart of substance that beats within Islamica. Muslim kids growing up in America live in a cultural vacuum.
"I come from a household which is a very Pakistani household, so in that house, it's, I'm living one culture. Outside of that, I'm living the American culture," says 28-year-old Chowdhry. "Now, for me, growing up, you know, I can't reject one and I can't completely accept the other.
"So it's a fusion of both of those cultures, and in essence, Muslim youth like me are kind of defining a new culture in America. Or broadening the term 'American culture,' " he says. "I mean, I like listening to rap music or heavy metal; I like, you know, racing cars. At the same time, I have very strong beliefs, you know, there are my limits. The limits because of our submission to God."
As long as those two forces are not incompatible -- and Islamica believes they aren't -- they can focus on their original vision, which is giving a voice to young Muslims in America. In that regard, the site acts as part therapy, part back talk. It's how Bart Simpson would respond to Daniel Pipes.
"I would have to say the age range is probably 13 to maybe late twenties," says Maryam Razvi, a 24-year-old Muslim in New York who has served as a site moderator for five years. "The thing that a lot of the Muslim kids appreciate is just the sense of community, especially where there's a lot of communities where Muslims don't live with other Muslims their age." She jokes that the addictive Islamica boards are like the Hotel California -- "You'll try to leave, but you won't be able to."
"These days, kids who are Muslim feel rather alienated or on the defensive," she says. "A lot of kids in school are always being questioned as to why they don't date or why they don't wear shorts. With Islamica, it's a thing like we all know where we're coming from." She points to examples of appearance -- such as the hijab, which immediately brands a young woman as "different."
"You really need a peer group to say, 'You have the right to do this and you're not doing anything outside the norm.' " In the days following September 11, she reports, the message board, it's not surprising, became a de facto support group. In less stressful times, the board serves as an Internet version of "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Islam But Were Afraid to Ask" (your parents).
T-shirts that highlight the "fun" in "fundamentalist" and articles that mock, "Redneck Army Vows Revenge: Claims Random Acts of Violence Will Help Find [9/11] Culprit" (Issue 4), are "another way to take that attack and throw it back at people," says Razvi. "To take that thing that would be hurtful and have a humorous way of dealing with people."
"We are the transition from old-school to new-school," says Ather Ali, a close friend of Baig's from Houston who recently moved to Los Angeles hoping to break into film. "Their job was to establish a presence here -- the brown folks are here! I'm the dash between Muslim-American."
The brown folks might be new, but their story really isn't. Kids have been assimilating, to their immigrant parents' dismay, for generations, snubbing old customs in favor of adopted attitudes. How this will affect Islam in America remains to be seen, but religious elders perhaps look with concern to the well-entrenched, homogenized mass of suburbia and the kids out there who have more faith in pop culture than in their great-grandparents' rules and traditions. Muslims, young and old, are in the midst of negotiating that cultural truce.
"That's probably one of the main reasons they hired me," says Taneeza Islam, a 26-year-old first-generation Bangladeshi-American who started last August as ISNA's first youth coordinator. "I was one of those kids growing up.
"That's a struggle not only in our homes, but it's coming into these organizations as well. You have our generation come in and say, 'Let's rethink how we do stuff,' " she says. "It's difficult, because within Islam there are so many different traditions. It's a matter of convincing our elders that this is okay."
A demographic in its cultural infancy could turn out to be financially fertile. Islamica is not the only group to catch on to that. This summer, Bridges TV hopes to debut a Muslim-American lifestyle channel for satellite and cable that will offer sitcoms, talk shows, sports and news. Hallmark did a test run with Ramadan greeting cards last fall and sold out, creating an almost frenzied demand. And the Dow Jones Islamic Market Index was created to give investors a chance to profit from companies obeying shariah law.
"That's why we have been in a position to draw some revenue from [Islamica] in terms of advertising. Now we're selling real estate on the site, because it's got so many eyes on it," says Baig. They've sold ad space to Muslim companies like Azizah Magazine and Crave Halal Foods and have done promos for DeVry University, Citibank and eBay. Their goal is to push for more mainstream businesses like Gap, BMW and Subway. "These guys don't realize that Muslims prefer a lot of these businesses, so they don't see the value in advertising to them, but the numbers are there.
"I don't want to exploit the Muslim market, but generally advertisers have overlooked it, and there's a value in the Muslim market, and the Muslim entity is here to stay," says Baig.
For now, a consulting gig with an interactive marketing firm in Chicago is keeping him afloat. He's hoping that Islamica, which takes up much of the workweek, eventually will be profitable enough to be their main source of income.
"This is something we know we can live off of," says Abdul-Majeed.
"When it all boils down, we're expressionists and we're looking for ways to just kind of create and do things," says Ahmed. "Anybody that's in the creative arts is looking to just find any way to make people laugh and smile. And thankfully we've had a lot of opportunities."
When Baig's father came to Houston, he built something concrete: a cultural foundation of mortar and bricks. He was part of the generation that fostered the Adel Road mosque from a trailer park in the 1980s to the proud structure it is today.
What Mirza Baig builds is less tangible, less literal, and what he hopes to leave future generations is meant not to stand the test of time, but rather to change with the times.
"You got two steps of the evolutionary process right there, in terms of the establishment of the institutions and then the flavoring," he says. "I guess we're the icing on the cake."
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