Meet the Mipsterz: Millennial Muslims of Philadelphia

 

They're two words that have been trending for years: Muslim and hipster. Put em together and you have one very unique demographic: the Mipster. But who are Phillys millennial Muslims? How do they feel about international affairs, the current political climate here at home, and how they are viewed by their fellow Americans? Whats it like being a Mipster? We talked to a handful of Muslim Americans to find out.

Abbas Rattani

Filmmaker, comedian, and creator of Mipsterz

I lived in Philadelphia while I was doing graduate school over at University of Pennsylvania. I was studying ethics, so philosophy, moral theory, and specifically bioethics and medical ethics. There are a lot of interesting situations in ethics or in decision making that lends itself to comedy, so in many ways they go hand-in-hand. Although situations can get pretty morbid in ethics, especially in the medical realm, I try to find the hilarity in all of it.

I started doing comedy formally in college; I started doing a lot of MC work and then a pretty big college comedy competition came to my university and I ended up winning within my school and winning at the state level and then I ended up opening for Lewis Black and Kenan Thompson, from Saturday Night Live, so it kind of snowballed from there. Comedy was still a new endeavor for me, it wasnt something I could just jump all the way into. I started doing a lot of comedy through the university circuit. You have Drexel, Temple, USP, Penn, so theres a lot of great universities and I started doing a lot of stand-up in Philly. I left Philly to go to Baltimore, but I kept finding myself back in Philly doing comedy and at some point I moved to New York City and Ive just been doing comedy and filmmaking as much as I can. Then, whenever I need money, Ill do some sort of ethics consultation work.

What sort of led to me landing the Lewis Black gig was, hes sort of a political commentator and he makes a lot of political observations and at that time I started commenting on my experiences as a Muslim American growing up post-9/11 and created a compilation online, The eXtreme Muslim tour. Its definitely a composite of what its like to be a Muslim American post-9/11 and sort of the hypocrisies and the gaffs people make when they interact with me. Many people dont know that Muslims believe in Jesus, so a lot of Christian pastors that come to university campuses dont realize that and when my rebuttal is, Oh, I also believe in Jesus, theyre like, What? Its not supposed to be that easy, youre supposed to fight with me and argue.

You dont hear many comedians talking about Muslim issues or Islam and when you do its sort of in a mocking or jeering way. And in my opinion, it hides behind the veil of free speech or First Amendment or satire, but I think a lot of what people are missing is the intention of satire is to poke fun at the hegemonic, its supposed to poke fun at the man. But when you are making fun of the downtrodden or youre making fun of a community that are sort of under-represented or fits within a certain lower socio-economic scale or where theyre treated like second class citizens, its no longer satire. Youre just ridiculing or mocking people for the sake of inciting a reaction.

I think theres definitely a responsibility to comedians who occupy that hegemonic space to be careful making chauvinistic jokes that end up mocking the downtrodden. On one end when you view jokes on Muslims, its never really in a comforting, I can relate to you, kind of way, its just sometimes in this xenophobic, Islamophobic kind of way that gets masked as satire or Muslims cant take a joke. The fact of the matter is, Muslim-majority countries are ripe with comedy. Egyptians are known for sitcoms, Pakistanis and Indians have these like Americas Got Talent for comedians. Theyre very well watched and Muslims compete actively. In Turkey you see this; in Iran especially you see a lot of self-deprecating humor.

There was this really dumb documentary called Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World or something like that that portrayed this idea that Muslims dont joke. You may find Arab Muslims joking in Arabic, but if you tell them an English joke they wont get it. They are always reading satire newspapers, theyre putting satire comedies all over the web. My friend Hisham Fageeh is a Saudi-based comedian who makes fun of Saudi Arabias atrocious human rights record, and hes a Muslim guy and hes been threatened by the government, hes been almost sent to jail, but he has millions of followers who watch his stuff. So he and a group of friends put out comedy videos all the time and really push the limits on comedy. So to say that there arent Muslims who make fun of themselves or who do comedy is silly, because I think laughter and comedy are innate human qualities.

The Mipster movement sort of came about as a joke. Around that time Occupy Wall Street was happening and there was a group of friends I met while I was at Penn. They all attended Wharton School of Business and were sort of the next generation of the Muslim yuppie. And we all had day jobs and couldnt participate in Occupy Wall Street, so we thought wed lampoon our fellow Whartonites, and have an Occupy the Muslim Yuppies, or the Muppies as they called themselves. And the Muslim hipsters were Mipsterz as a joke. That joke ended up catching fire and people turned it into a thing bigger than it was.

When people think about Muslim millennials, its actually a subset of Mipsterz. Mipster is sort of an all-encompassing term for people that have an affinity toward Muslim-majority thing, like non-Muslims who watch Egyptian comedy. A Mipster doesnt necessarily have to be Muslim. We found a lot of our non-Muslim friends in different spaces, musicians, comedians, artists, academics, gravitating toward this idea. We created a listserv just to get everybody on the same page and we created a Facebook page and through that we created a very short film of some of the people we hang out with in New York, Boston, Philly and these major cities. Most of these people have come from an educated background. We mostly all went to Ivy Leagues and we got together and created this 2:30 film that ended up going viral. And I think thats what sort of catapulted me into the limelight, because when I created the Listserv and Facebook page, nobody really knew about me. The joke that we had was Wait a minute? People hate us because were Muslim? I thought they hated us because we were hipsters?

There are a group of Muslims that are dedicated to fighting the prejudice and discrimination in the world, but I think the current generation of Muslims are just striving to be the best they can be and the best professionals that they can be. A lot of my personal friends are in the fields of architecture, science, medicine, law, and what they are aspiring to is to be a Rhodes Scholar or getting into Harvard Law. They want to be leaders in their field and by virtue of that, people will recognize them as being valuable members of society and no one will question their citizenship. People will want them to be in the United States because of the asset they are.

Mohamed Zerban

Founder, Ternwater Inc.

Im originally from Egypt. I came here to go to school at Drexel. When I was 16, I built a biodigester that you could install into your home that would transform your biodegradable waste to fuel. You could then use that fuel to heat your house or [for] cooking. That got me interested in resource management. So I came here, started studying, and did an internship at the Philadelphia Water Department, which was amazing because I got firsthand experience on resource management and then I did another internship at Exelon, which was also great experience.

After that I started my own company, which focuses on making home water products. From working in resource management in the last few years I came to an understanding that theres way less work that has been done inside our homes; were working on water right now and working on products in the home that will make the process more efficient. Were about to roll out our first product, a smart faucet, which is a simple attachment to your faucet and it gives you real time data on consumption and water purity, and it filters the water as it leaves your faucet. This is going to be the smartest water product existing on the market when released.

Making the product so smart was a challenge but now we were able to improve on it. Figuring out what people needed took me the longest time. We knew there were so many things in the home that people lacked. We talked to over 500 people. Understanding what your water is and understanding what filters actually do and when they stop working, understanding the pain points of the user was really the hardest thing. The technology aspect plays a huge role. People want to know more, not less, especially in their home. This is going to give them an easy way of understanding. We ship new filters to your home whenever you need them. That combined with the smart technology is something that the market has had a need for now for a while.

It was new coming here from Egypt. It was funny, my first roommate was Jewish and we had like an Israeli side and an Egyptian side and people would come in my room and just take pictures of it. It was fun. It really wasnt hard. I surrounded myself with people that were like-minded, from other places. The idea that everyone goes to college not knowing what to expect and wanting to experience new things really makes people coming from abroad and other countries just blend in. Im a junior right now. I miss the food from home; the food back home is amazing. People sometimes here are a little less friendly than back home, not everywhere of course, but back home you would walk around and just say Hi to anyone and they would say hi back and ask you how you are doing. They dont even care if they dont know you, they still ask you about your day. People tend to not do that as often here. They arent as outgoing, thats the major thing I miss, talking to random people like that.

I feel international students shouldnt treat themselves as foreigners and they wont be treated as such. When I first came to college, my goal wasnt really to just go and see where people from Egypt hung out. I wanted to see who people at Drexel are. Im like everyone else. It was beautiful. Because if youre always going to stay in your comfort zone, thats never good. So many things Ive gotten to experience. This last Christmas, I was at my best friends house from freshman year. He used to live in the dorm next to me and I got to spend Christmas with his entire family. It was amazing and I loved it. And the year before that I spent Hanukkah with another friend from freshman year. Ive been able to go to multiple families and spend holidays with them and experience different backgrounds and religions. To see that firsthand is beautiful.

In terms of the current political climate, I also feel like there are not as many people out there that are not good as there are people [who] care. The people that arent doing good, arent good because they have not seen good. You should have empathy toward them, because producing more hate wont help; they havent seen the greater good. The duty of people is to showcase more of the good and less of the bad. I plan to stay here and just visit home. I used to work at the Library of Alexandria back home when I was young. I got fired and I came here and people have treated me much better. To me home is where people accept my ideas and Im able to share ideas freely and I can work on ideas. Philly has helped me a lot, it feels a lot like home after living here for the last few years. Im such a nerd, Philly has allowed me to pursue my interests. Ive started my own company here. Thats been my dream since as long as I can remember. In the future I hope everyone will benefit from our products.

Mahmoud Mustafa

Operations, ROAR for Good, Fashion safety jewelry for women

ROAR for Good is a social impact B-corp helping reduce the incidence of attacks against women while addressing the underlying causes of violence. Weve created Athenafashionable self-defense jewelryto help deter attackers and instantly call for help. The company also partners with nonprofits that teach empathy, respect and healthy relationships to youth. Yasmines (founder of ROAR and Mahmouds sister) passion for female empowerment and desire to leverage technology for good inspired me to join the company and help get Athena developed.

I stand for freedom and equality above all else. The Constitution stands for it. The Quran stands for it. I dont consider being American and being Muslim two independent truths but a complementary path toward my own pursuit of happiness.

Obviously, it saddens me to hear some of the generalizations being thrown around. I can only hope that those who falsely classify all Muslims as a security threat become more empathetic, especially in understanding what it feels like to be misjudged and stereotyped.

I do recall having to avoid pepperoni pizza during school lunch but in all seriousness, I cant say that I feel my life is different from a non-Muslim millennial. I approach every day with a fresh perspective and enjoy the same activities as my Christian, Jewish or Atheist friends. We all like to watch movies, listen to music and play videos. Is it a possibility that someone I meet for the first time hears my name and thinks, Uh oh, this guy must be a Muslim? Not sure, but I hope by the end of our first meeting they can walk away and realize that were not that different from each other, but more similar than they originally thought.

I remember when I was a child, after 9/11, hearing one of my good friends tell me that his parents said hes not allowed to play with me anymore. I remember feeling angrynot at him or his parents, but at God for suddenly making me feel rejected and unwanted. As a kid, I just wanted to be normal and fit in with everyone else. Its not until I got older that I began to appreciate the various [thing that] made me different.

Ive lived in the Philadelphia area for 25 years (all my life). My family were refugees from the Gulf War and have settled in the area ever since fleeing Kuwait. We had a very stereotypical beginning, such as owning a 7-11 in a small suburban town, but a few of us are now pursuing the American dream in building a company with the potential to change the world.

CES feels like an escape into the future. I believe technology will only continue to help bridge the cultural gap. Social media is only the beginning in helping connect the world. Imagine the day when you can visit and experience another part of the world through Virtual Reality. While I envision the endless possibilities of VR, such as the excitement from seeing Machu Picchu for the first time, I can also see its applications toward increasing empathysuch as experiencing the hardships of being a current Syrian refugee on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

Humaira Mubeen

Founder of Ishqr, Millennial Muslim Dating Platform

I was born and raised in northern Virginia, Washington D.C. area. I studied psychology and International Affairs at G.W. and then I started a startup called Ishqr. Its an online dating platform for millennial Muslims and we applied to DreamIt Ventures, and theyre based in Philly. I moved to Philly for that program. I was this a part of this community called Mipsterz, Muslim Hipsters. It was just a bunch of young Muslim Americans who were very into the idea of taking progressive action, being a part of their communities, talking about our Muslim identities and our American identities and how its possible to live with those two, and finding other Muslim Americans to connect to.

And the other issue we were really talking about was finding compatible partners within this community. Finding someone who is on the same wavelength as you when it comes to living your Muslim life but also your American life. So we had this problem of finding that and there wasnt really a platform that just caters to Muslim Americans. The idea started very jokingly and then people were interested and were asking where to sign up. That made us see that obviously this was something that was needed, so we started the website and we just came out with the iOS app.

One problem I had was finding other like-minded Muslims and really being part of a community, and thats where Mipsterz came up and a lot of my Muslim friends now, I feel that connectedness. I think you never really fit into one box when you are from an immigrant family, when you are Muslim, and youre a millennial, and all these other labels that people put on you.

A Mipster is very hard to define; we dont define it. The groups tagline is like 100 percent acceptance rate. Everyone is a Mipster, whether you want to be one or not. I think the best thing about the community is we have so many points of view, you have from the most conservative Muslims to the most liberal (I hate using these terms). Its a place where you can openly express your ideas and how you want to help the community grow.

There wasnt really any dating platform catered to Muslim Americans and I think that has a lot to do with the stigma around online dating or finding someone on their own. The first thing we did was to get people open to the idea of online dating or even talking about relationships and dating. I think before that many people were like, We dont talk about these things openly. We talk about them with our close circle of friends, but not an open platform. So the site opened that conversation up. Everyone seemed to have the mindset, Oh if Im on one of those sites, that must mean I cant find someone in real life. Ishqr gave off a really light-hearted vibe, so it was like, Haha, Im on Ishqr, I dont really know what Im doing here, but Im here anyway. People would say, If we connect, lets just say we met at Starbucks, rather than say they were met on the site. And then a couple of months after that, I would hear people at parties say, Yeah, Im on Ishqr. Before that I would never hear people openly say that theyre using an online dating platform. But we lead such busy lives, we work in different environments, where else would you go to find someone or talk to people, especially other young Muslims?

We learned through talking to people, we are for Muslim millennials. If you are of another faith, Im not sure why you would want to sign up, because what youll find are young Muslim millennials. Youll find really conservative Muslims to the most openly liberal. I think thats something very healthy about the platform. The site is very personality heavy. You write a section about you, and a section on what you are looking for in someone. You dont have to upload photos and if you go on a profile, a picture is not the first thing youre going to see, like on other profiles. You dont see someones picture unless you both express an interest in each other. People really like that, having that control over who sees your picture. We wanted it to be very value-heavy. The site will be two years old and weve had three weddings and weve had around 15 couples who have gotten engaged, and thats just the ones who report back to us.

Our generation, just millennials in general, are very internet-savvy. And I love that about our generation. Everyone is so smart, they know all these tech trends. And were always on our phone, so why not use it to help ourselves in our lives? I think we are very different from our immigrant parents to some degree. Were very independent, we own our personalities and were comfortable in them, like our Muslim and our American identities, we embrace it. Weve taken control of these different parts of our lives.

With a lot of Islamophobia happening in the community, sometimes it becomes difficult for us. People always want us to be apologetic or explain things. I believe in being an unapologetic Muslim. I dont think you have to do that. Youre an active member of the community, youre helping your community to grow, we are Muslim Americans. When your environment is healthy you just do more for the community.

I think in many ways its a good thing that this is happening now and in our generation. I was having a conversation with my friend the other day saying I kind of enjoy the fact that we have all these technological tools to solve the problems of today. I think every generation has an asset, and for millennials, its technology. I really truly believe we can tackle any problem in the world, from global warming to Islamophobia, everything, if were smart about it, [and] technology can help. My friend didnt totally agree with me!

Like right now, everyone is on social media, were always on our phones. I would say 2015 was the year of Muslim women putting themselves out there. You heard about so many Muslim women, stories that you just didnt see three or four years ago. Social media platforms are so powerful. Even for those communities who have never met a Muslim or dont know about Muslims, we can actually reach out to them, educate them, teach them, show them what Muslims really are, instead of those people just watching platforms like Fox News. Like that whole thing about Muslims being terrorists, they believe that, because theyve never really seen a Muslim, they dont know what Muslims are like, they just see what theyve been fed by mass media and I think with technology, with social media platforms, real Muslims can show them what we are actually like, what a true Muslim actually is. That wasnt possible before the technology existed.

Our generation, Im so amazed and Im so happy with; the Muslims I interact with are very strong and just amazing people and are doing so much for their community. And that has just created a positive wave that I hope continues. Im really happy that Muslims are handling the political situation here in the U.S. With the Republican party and Trump, there was the news piece about the Muslim female attending a rally and being thrown out. Shes actually my friends mother. I was like, Oh my God. I thought that was beautiful, shes like my shero. I was so amazed she did that.

In the next year, were going to roll out the Android version of Ishqr. Theres been a lot of fixes to the website. I want to continue to build the community so one thing I want to do is reach out to Muslims for them to share their stories with us, whether its advice or experiences. Some people have posted their stories but we really want to reach out to the Muslims who would never think to write their stories, because everyones story can be so powerful. I want to get people to be comfortable with the concept of online dating, so were planning on creating some meet-ups and events and see how that goes.

Tasveer Khawaja

Student and Spokeperson @MKA_Philly

I was born in Pakistan but Ive lived in Philadelphia for pretty much my entire life. I was in school until last May. I just graduated with a Bachelors in Biology from the University of Pennsylvania. I actually just got into medical school today. So my ultimate goal is to become a physician.

Apart from all of that what I try to do in my spare time is keep affiliated with my mosque and try to learn more about my religion and practice my religion. I guess one of the things Im kind of responsible for is sending letters to editors. I run like a Twitter account for my mosque to tell what we do for the community. My ultimate goal has been to show people the other side of Islam and give them tons of information other than what the media provides, which is usually in a negative context.

My religion has a set of beliefs and a way of thinking, but also you have to assimilate with society and I think also something that our religion teaches us is that you have to live with people around you and you have to be one with them rather than think separate from them. Your religion has these type of guidelines for you but there is nothing stopping you from creating friendships and bonds in society. As far as technology goes, I think its a good way of showing others what our religion is about. I run the Twitter account for my mosque and we try to show people that what we do to serve the community [are] the same things that anyone else would do. Were trying to help the community just as a church might do, as a synagogue or any type of religion or any organization thats trying to work for the betterment of society would do.

One of the things we do is provide shelter meals, so we go to the shelter and we prepare food, and we feed people who are in need and thats something that you know members of a mosque might do, something that Christians might do as something associated with their church. I think its important to realize that just because were Muslims doesnt mean were doing anything that Christians wouldnt do.

I think most people, at least most people Ive interacted with, they dont really have a negative view of Islam but there are definitely people out there and you hear people say things like all Muslims are terrorists or that killing and hatred is part of our religion which, it is obviously not, and those are the kinds of misconceptions that we try to dismiss or show that theyre false by doing things like feeding others and helping society. Its really just to show that Islam is a religion of peace, just like all religions. No religions that Im aware of advocate violence against anyone, thats not what religion is about. Religion is about ultimately bringing yourself closer to a God or whoever you believe in, but also a part of that is always serving society.

I think whats concerning is when hateful things are said, there is always a group of people that seems to kind of back it and believe that its actually true. But I guess you have people with misconceptions about almost anything that you can name, so just because there are misconceptions about religion doesnt mean that its necessarily any different from misconceptions about something else. What we have to do is just work to overcome those and I think that the best way to do that is to expose people to people who are more moderate and not at the extreme. Obviously the moderates are the large majority of whos out there and its just that they dont get as much attention because theyve been around forever. They are perhaps not as interesting to people.

For example this man who shot the police officer, why he believed that Islam says anything about defining his actions I guess what you learn more times than not is that this person has some kind of very skewed perspective on the religion and that they dont actually understand what it is about. Groups like ISIS release press statements all the time kind of verses from the Quran and things like that, and they try to justify the actions of these people. What the people ... dont realize is that ISIS and groups like that are always taking these verses out of context and you could say one thing, look at one verse, and its saying something specific but you have to also be aware of the context, so it might seem negative to you or seem like promoting some type of violence but without the context you cant really understand whats being said. Thats what happens with these people. I think they are exposed to something without fully understanding it and then they do something that the Quran or whatever it is isnt actually endorsing.

I think the benefit that we have is that we have grown in American society so its easier for us to make friends with people, its easier for us to have conversations with people. Its easier for us to interact with people and to teach them what our religion is about. Before you form an opinion, you have to understand whatever youre forming an opinion [of] is really about, and I think teaching and kind of helping others to understand and interacting with them and telling them, Hey Im a Muslim. Youve known me for so long. Does the fact that now youre learning that Im a Muslim really change your perspective on me?

So I think most of my friends know Im Muslim, it kind of just comes out when you do things like go eat together. I cant eat pork so that kind of comes out. I dont think that really impacts how they think about me. I think its a personal choice. Obviously it affects some of the things I can and cant do. But everyone kind of respects that and I think thats one of the great things about American society: That people will respect diversity. They dont think that its wrong and if they learn something about someone different from themselves they kind of want to understand more rather than thinking of it as weird or kind of dismissing you as, Youre different from me. Youre wrong.

I think something thats been in the works for a little while now is Muslims actually condemning the actions of these extremists. And I think thats something we really need to continue [doing] because until we do that people arent going to understand what these extremists are doing. I think also the average Muslim needs to come out and say things like that. Again, just because that will help spread the message more. Not everyone is going around listening to what Muslim clerics are saying but once youre the average member of society there is a higher chance of someone listening to you.

I am a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. We are actually the first Muslim community in Philadelphia. If you want to learn more you can contact us. Our mosque is located at 5120 North 10th Street.

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