Muslim youth try humor to rout stereotypes
By Lyndsey Matthews | Friday, 05.23.2008, 08:09 PM

NEW YORK (IPS) "There are almost 1.2 billion Muslim people in the world. And at least 15 of us are not terrorists. It could even be more than that. Maybe even a lot more," quipped Obaida Abdul-rahim, 28, owner of the Muslim t-shirt business Phatwa Factory.


The Calgary, Canada-born Abdul-rahim runs one of several Middle Eastern-accented t-shirt businesses that have sprung up in saucy retort to the outpouring of anti-Muslim sentiment in years after 9/11. From Rootsgear's "100 percent Randomly Searched at the Following Airports" (followed by a map of U.S. airports) and casualdisobedience.com's "Enemy Combatant" tees, to the lighter "Lebanese Princess," and "Allah's Little Angel," they are getting their message across.


Abdul-rahim, who lives in Gainesville, Florida, studied engineering at the University of Florida and works in IT, said he hopes to use humorous slogans to bust U.S. stereotypes about Muslims.


"The best thing to happen to Muslim clothing since pants under a thawb (traditional men's robe)," says a slogan for Phatwa Factory, which he started in 2006.


"I'd like Muslims to know that it's okay to laugh, and non-Muslims to know that we have a sense of humor," he said.


Dalia Ghanem had a similar idea. The New Jersey-born clothing designer, who is of Egyptian descent, dreams up hip t-shirts for people of Arabic heritage. She decided Arab Americans needed a more optimistic representation of their culture after 9/11.


"Every store that sold t-shirts was selling 'Everyone loves an Asian girl', 'Latin girl', 'Italian' and 'Irish Girl'," said Ghanem, 29, who has a degree in textile design and develops prints and patterns for a New York fashion company. "I wanted one that said 'Everyone loves an Arab girl!'"


So she designed one, and launched her one-woman t-shirtat.co which translates to the plural of t-shirt in Arabic in 2004.


The slogans can educate, too.


"Many people ask what [is] the meaning of halal righteous or proper and haram sinful or wrong," Ghanem said. "Also, many people recognise falafel and say 'I love falafel!' and get a laugh from my t-shirts."


Abdul-rahim named his company to poke fun at the typical U.S. interpretation of fatwa.


"Most people hear fatwa and they think of Don Muhammad Corleone issuing a hit on some poor infidel," he said.


Just as the Western media has misappropriated the word jihad, Abdul-rahim asserted, the word fatwa has become synonymous with an errant death sentence. In reality, he pointed out, it's just an Islamic scholar's religious ruling.


Neither Ghanem nor Abdul-rahim has received any deadly fatwas as a result of their irreverent designs.


"I'm a little disappointed. I was kind of hoping for at least a death threat or two," Abdul-rahim joked.


But not everyone is laughing.


"I don't feel they are derogatory, just a little gimmicky," said Rosalind George, 20, a U.S. citizen raised in the Palestinian section of Jerusalem. She complained that the shirts seemed too Americanized. Regarding a black shirt with hot pink script that read "Hookah - That's Hot," she pointed out that the Arabic word for the big water pipes is sheesha.


"I would prefer a 'Free Palestine' shirt to an 'I heart NY-like shirt,'" said George, who lived in Jerusalem while her father worked for the aid organization Save the Children.


But she did like the shirt printed with "Yallah bye" because it reminded her of the common saying "Let's go, bye" used among her friends.


Shabbir Chaudhury, 22, a student at Fordham University School of Law who is of Bangladeshi descent, said he found the shirt emblazoned with a "Hello, My Name is" badge that said, "Salam, My Name is, not that hard to pronounce" funny because he could relate to it.


A hybrid Muslim-American subculture developed among the children of Muslim immigrants growing up in the United States, he pointed out.


"These shirts demonstrate that Muslims are assimilating into the Western culture and are embracing it as their own, despite popular belief," he said.


A few people have approached Ghanem and asked why they would want to advertise that they are Arab.


"Their issues are a lot bigger than I could ever resolve!" Ghanem remarked. "Our culture is rich and beautiful, and my t-shirts spark conversations which can help teach people about who we really are."


By Lyndsey Matthews

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