The Muslim Alter Ego
American Muslim millennials are a mosaic of various ethnicities and races. Some are pushing back against stereotyping by creating subgroups to take charge of crafting their own narrative, that has nothing to do with their religion.
On a leafy block in Cambridge, MA, in a remodeled garage of an old house, Sara Alfageeh is running sound checks and rearranging furniture. The first Mipsterz event for the year is about to start. Wearing a sunny yellow headscarf and black floral high-waisted palazzos, Alfageeh is effervescing with energy, and dishing out instructions to volunteers about the performances for the night.
Mipsterz is short for Muslim Hipsters, a group created five years ago by Abbas Rattani, a filmmaker based in New York, at the time. You didn’t have to know Abbas to join, or even be Muslim, for that matter.
Alfageeh furrows her brows when the microphone check fails and asks one of the volunteers to fix it. She is the vice president of the group, and this is her first time hosting a Mipsterz event. She is wearing black, thick-framed glasses, which are a little too big for her small, milky face. Ostensibly overwrought, she informs the artists the order in which they will perform.
Mipsterz started as a tongue-in-cheek email list serve. It was an avant-garde online space for American Muslims to exchange ideas on latest music, fashion, art, food, poetry, music, pop culture, alternative culture, and politics etc. In 2013, Mipsterz created a videothat went viral. The footage showed young Muslim girls wearing stylish variations of hijabs, chatting, skateboarding, and biking with Jay Z’s song ‘somewhere in America’ playing in the background. The viral video put Mipsterz on the map, created fans, followers, and also critics.
The former online space has now morphed into a community that hosts social events, music shows, stand-up comedies and open mics across the country. They provide mentorships and coaching to artists, comedians, musicians and speakers.
Various subgroups, including the Muslim Writers Collective — a platform aimed at reclaiming the Muslim narrative, sprang out. Ishqr, a popular dating service amongst Muslim millennials, was also birthed on a Mipsterz email thread.
Being young and Muslim in the U.S. means navigating multiple identities. American Muslim millennials are one of the most ethnically and racially diverse faith groups in America. Half of the Muslim population in America admits, that it has become harder to be Muslim in the U.S., according to Pew Research Center’s 2017 surveyof U.S. Muslims. The survey also details that 48 percent of Muslims have reported discrimination incidents over the last year.
Mipsterz is a vaguely defined group that claims to be a space for community building for young Muslims without any set goals or ideals but, in effect, they are creating a narrative for themselves by pushing back on stereotypes. They are Muslim, but don’t want to be identified just by their religion.
Back in Boston, the garage space is now packed and the lights are dimmed. Alfageeh takes the stage. She is a 21-year-old artist who represents the new face of Mipsterz. “Mipsterz has evolved over the years and has turned into something really purposeful. The word Mipsterz used to be a dumb combination of Muslim and hipster. A lot of people think that we are still part of that hipster thing that died in 2013” announces Alfageeh, and the crowd spurts in laughter. After introducing the line-up for the event, she says “I am just going kick things off and as the evening goes along, we will try to unpack what Mipsterz is, what it isn’t, what it probably should be and we’ll see how that goes!”
Kamala Khan, a MarvelComiccharacter inspired Alfageehto be an artist when she was in college. Created by editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker, Khan is a teenage Pakistani American from New Jersey with shapeshifting abilities, who discovers that she has superhero genes. Khan is not defined by her religion, but by her superhero qualities. Khan’s character encourages Alfageehas an artist, who doesn’t want to be seen as “just a Muslim.”
Alfageeh has launched a BOY/BYE projectwhich is a product line of pins, stickers, patches and prints showcasing women of color. She calls it, “a crossover of fashion and activism, designed to celebrate diversity and individual identity.” According to her, “the point of this to beunapologetic and individualized through our own projects and hopefully other people see that, and either they will want to join us or do their own thing.”
Nouran Shehata, an IT analyst and a self-proclaimed Mipster aspires to be like Oprah. Shehata feels that Mipsterz has given her space to truly express herself. Backstage, before her first Mipsterz performance, she says, “It is not traditional for a Muslim hijabi to be a comic, but I feel it’s worth a shot.” The stand-up comedy piece that she performed revolved around the theme of how her Arabic name shaped her identity in the U.S.
When Salwa Tareen, a student at Harvard Divinity School, went upstage to recite her poem on her Pakistani-Muslim heritage, she gave a shout out to Shehata, that now, she will never forget her name. “Just making sisterhoods at these events,” she said, smiling. Her red lip color reflected a shade of deep plum, in the fluorescent setting. Tareen’s poem narrated her biography through the story of her hair. She called it “hairography.” The poem unpacked, how the South Asian practice of oiling hair played into Tareen’s identity, growing up in a small town in Michigan.
The performances ranged from talks about identity issues, dealing with depression, cultural poetry, stand-up comedy and ended with a buzzing music jam session.
Yusuf Siddiqi, 29, a Brooklyn musician didn’t have a lot of Muslim role models in his field growing up. He joined the group when he moved to New York back in 2014. When asked if he calls himself a mipster, he cracks into a humble laugh and says, “I don’t necessarily introduce myself that way, but yes, I am a mipster.”
Sitting in a crowded Brooklyn café with white walls and brass finishes, Yusuf talks about the diversity of New York and how he found a group of musicians to create music with, through Mipsterz. “You can’t do that in the mosque. We don’t have music in the mosque, the way churches do, black churches especially.” He says he needed a space that was “semi” Muslim. “I say semi because everyone doesn’t have to be a practicing Muslim, but there is no explicit requirement either. Mipsterz is vague and general … kind of a starting point for most people who fall under the category of hipsters,” Yusuf adds.
When he was actively producing music with Mipsterz in New York, he had a string of musical shows at his apartment. They recorded their music and put the videos online. The musical series they produced is called “Sundays/Cool” pronounced Sunday School.
Mipsterz also provides young American Muslims with a space to hang out and chat. “We just have chai sometimes,” Yusuf’s face lights up. He says, “It’s similar to what you can do at juma (Friday congregation prayer) too, but sometimes you don’t want to go to the mosque, so this is also just an excuse to hang out.”
Layla Shaikley, an entrepreneur based in Boston, is from the veteran class of Mipsterz. She was one of the hijab wearing girls featured in the viral Mipsterz video. She says,“we realized there was a deficiency of spaces for young American Muslims to connect. We saw it grow, without marketing, and today it is mostly a thriving group with very rich dialogue.”
Mipsterz is not without its critics. Hamdan Azhar, the co-founder of Muslim Writers Collective is of the view that Mipsterz puts a label on people; confining them to a box. “Any usage of the term Mipsterz is doing a disservice to the Muslim community,” he says. He appreciates that when Mipsterz was just an email listerv, it brought a lot of people together, but dissents that Mipsterz is trying to develop an image of Muslims which appeals to the Western community, thus creating a good Muslim vs. bad Muslim paradigm.
Sana Saeed is a journalist based in San Francisco who has written on representation of Islam, Muslims and Arabs in English-media, and on how Muslims in America represent themselves both in the media and in politics. Saeed says that groups like Mipsterz that are good at branding and PR create a sense of elitism within the community by putting labels on themselves. She feels that Muslims need to be careful about the kind of messaging they are putting out.
ThePew Center’s 2017 surveyalso found that American Muslims arewary of Trump, especially after his statement during the 2016 election campaign that he would seek a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Since Trump took office, there has been rise in hate groupsin the U.S., with anti-Muslim hate groups taking the lead, followed by white nationalist, neo-Nazi, anti-LGBT, and neo-confederate groups.
Imam Khalid Latif, thechaplain of the Islamic Center at New York University explains that racial and class issues have existed in the U.S. since a long time, and since 9/11 Islamophobia is added to the mix. He grew up in a Muslim household in Edison, NJ in a neighborhood called Little India. As a child, he witnessed racial and ethnic tensions in his hometown, targeted towards the South Asian community. The Muslim population in the U.S., is highly diverse within itself. Latif says, one way to deal with the increasing diversity within the Muslim community, is to create institutions that are reflective of that diversity. He acknowledges that Mipsterz is doing that.
Muslims in the U.S. are not all immigrants from the Middle Eastern or South Asian diaspora. It is estimated that 30% of slaves in the transatlantic slave trade were Muslim and the rest later arrived as immigrants from various parts of the world in the seventeenth century. “There is a deep legacy of black Islam in the United States,” says Latif.
Haroon Moghul is a Pakistani-American commentator on Islam and public affairs, and a fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He recently wrote an autobiography titled, How to Be a Muslim. He discusses, that in their struggle with identity, many Muslim millennials are letting go of their religious roots to appease the society. He says, “today, some Muslims are doing what members of the Jewish communities once did in the last few generations, which is when their Jewishness, basically, disappeared.”
Despite Islamophobia, the Muslim ban, and an increase in hate crimes, the Muslim population in the U.S. is growing. Latest 2018 PEW surveyshows that migration and high fertility rates are driving up the Muslim population by roughly 100,000 per year. Researchers predict that, by 2040, Muslims will replace Jews as the nation’s second-largest religious group after Christians.
Back in Boston, the garage was teeming with eclectic millennials, casually dressed like one would, going to a bar to catch up with friends, on a Saturday evening. A girl wearing a kitty eared head band stood out from the crowd. The kitty ears glowed in the fluorescent lighting. As the performances proceeded, there were cacophonic bursts of laughter, applauding and occasional snapping of fingers from the crowd.
For the last time that evening, Alfageeh took the stage and thanked everyone in the audience effusively. “That is the end of Mipsterz, for tonight! If you want to present, reach out to me. If you don’t want to present, keep showing up! I’ll bully you into presenting eventually,” she said, with a wink.