3/10/15: This post has been updated to increase clarity and accuracy, as indicated in the text below.
Abbas Rattani has hosted plenty of events for young professional Muslims in New York City. Only once did someone shut down one of his shows, an open-mic benefit for Gaza Strip relief this September in the back room of an East Village bar.
The benefit’s format was a variety show. Early on, a young female comic did a stand-up routine on sex. “I’ve been dating recently, don’t tell my parents,” she told the crowd. Another woman followed with slam poetry about witnessing 9/11 and strangers’ suspicions of her after the attacks. “I’m a terrorist,” she yelled. Next was a poet from Oakland who read from his smartphone, “I’m an insurgent of the imagination.”
But just after Shaeera Tariq, a teacher at an elementary school in Manhattan, and her friend finished an acoustic duet of the Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the show started to go sour.
Many of the event’s performers and audience were Muslim hipsters, aka “mipsters,” or urban, mostly professional, twenty-something Muslim Americans who embrace Islam as part of their modern lifestyle. Some mipsters are more traditional than others. Some of the women were wearing hijabs, and even after Rattani’s repeated attempts to encourage the audience to buy non-alcoholic beverages to patronize the bar owner who graciously allowed them his space, I was one of the few audience members buying drinks.
When an event organizer moved a piece of the bar’s furniture to make room, the owner lost his cool, and saw his chance to clear the room for his more lucrative customers.
“What right do you have to move my furniture!” the owner said approaching the center of the room. “You guys are done. Get out!”
“You don’t want to hear what we have to say?” Rattani quipped defiantly through the microphone. Another organizer insulted the owner for stopping the show half-way through.
“No, you’re a dick!” the owner snapped back.
Defeated, the audience and organizers filed out of the bar. An amateur stand-up comic, who didn’t make it on stage before the show ended, tried to perform on the sidewalk, but the bouncer asked the thinning crowd to leave. Rattani, who doesn’t drink alcohol, and I walked for a few blocks to find another spot to regroup.
Off the microphone, Rattani sympathized with the owner, and was upset over the disrespect his peers showed. They didn’t represent the best of mipsters, said Rattani, a term he invented and popularized through his events, podcasts, videos, and especially his “Mipsterz” list-serve and Facebook page.
Rattani’s Mipsterz email list serves, Facebook page and hashtag (#Mipsterz) have struck a chord among twenty-something Muslim, especially children of immigrant parents, struggling across the county to integrate two identities—Islam and so-called “American”—like himself, and has helped mipsters find and support others like them.
Like Rattani, 63 percent of the nearly 2.5 million Muslim Americans are the first-generation offspring of immigrants from 77 different countries, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study. The Muslim American population also is significantly younger than the public as a whole. Many grew up as one of only a handful of Muslims in their hometowns, or as one of the few members of their ethnic groups, which means they had to try to integrate with the larger culture early on.
“The jumble of groups in America makes it harder for Muslim immigrants and their descendants to lead a life apart,” wrote the Economist in “Islamic, Yet Integrated,” a report from the Islamic Society of North America gathering in Detroit this summer.
The Economist also noted that the Pew study found that most of this new American minority, contrary to what some might expect, is religiously pluralist and politically liberal. “Most American Muslims think that their faith is open to multiple interpretations, making them the Episcopalians of the Islamic world,” wrote the Economist.
While liberal in some ways, many Muslim Americans struggle with issues of sex, dating, alcohol and parent’s expectations, and how and whether to be observant religiously.
This is why Mipsterz list serve and Facebook page, which now boasts over 10,000 likes, has caught on: participants say it allows young Muslim Americans who still feel inspired by Islamic tradition to join others like them, others with one foot in their parents’ traditions and one in the latest music, fashion, art, critical thought, or food shared by their peers, and to attend events, find a roommate, debate, and socialize with other Muslims without being judged or pressured to conform.
Rattani says Mipsterz doesn’t have a structure, no board, no hierarchical organization, which is what he thinks most hipsters like. “We run it ourselves, anyone can be as involved or not involved,” said Rattani, “and the good thing is there isn’t any kind of ideology or mission statement.”
Rattani grew up in Elmhurst, Queens to parents of Tanzanian and Indian descent. He went to mosque regularly but didn’t really take religion seriously as part of his identity like some of his peers with a similar background.
“When I grew up I realized I didn’t connect with those kids anymore, not on a religious level, just a life level,” said Rattani. “I had the benefit that my parents weren’t extremely strict or unreasonable, I have friends whose parents threatened them or scared them.”
Tall and skinny, with short, black hair, slick glasses, and thick but well trimmed mustache and beard, Rattani is full-on hipster. After finishing college in North Carolina, Rattani took up stand-up comedy, rapping, and video production, first moving to Washington, D.C. and later to New York. He’s now in
his first year of medical school in Nashville between Nashville and Miami working on medical ethics programming for medical school students.
Through all of these experiences he felt that other Muslim groups, including the Muslim Student Association and “Muppies,” or Muslim Yuppies, were too limited in their definition of Islam, and decided to take create his own group, partially as a lark.
“The Mipsterz came about as a joke,” said Rattani. “Seeing all the more legitimate organizations that cater to different Muslim needs,” he added, “and that we don’t fit into any of these groups, it’s a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing.”
Last fall, more than a year after Rattani created an Mipsterz list serve and Facebook page, Rattani garnered a national media spotlight for Mipsterz after he
and a co-director released co-created a glossy YouTube video, staring female volunteers recruited through Mipsterz networks and set to Jay-Z’s “Somewhere in America,” in which trendy, fashionable-dressed mipsters in hijab headdresses, skateboard, ride motorcycles, and hang around New York. The video prompted coverage of Mipsterz in Daily Beast, Huffington Post, and a roundtable discussion on an episode of Al-Jazeera TV “Stream,” but also provoked a heated online controversy in the Muslim American community about mixing a commitment to God with secular lifestyle.
Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, participated in the Al Jazeera discussion on Rattani’s video controversy. Sarsour told the hostess how much these mipster women, telling their own story in their own way publicly, inspired her.
“I consider myself a mipster,” said Sarsour on the show, who mentors young Muslim women and is a mother of three in New York City. “I break stereotypes everyday…but the Mipsterz group here in NYC, I’m in awe of these young people.”
Sarsour also commented on how hurt she was by the reaction of other Muslims who felt that the young female Muslims in Rattani’s video were doing a disservice to their faith or gender by dressing attractively or acting too Westernized.
“It’s enough we are dealing with Islamaphobes,” said Sarsour, and it’s “really concerning to have people already struggling with who they are, and get criticized by people within our community.”
Especially after the “Somewhere in America” video controversy last year, and with little official marketing or organizing, Mipsterz groups took off, and now groups operate in New York, Washington D.C., Boston, and the Bay Area.
Jenine Kotob, a
n architecture student practicing designer in Boston, wrote in an email that her involvement with Mipsterz there, roughly a year after Rattani launched Mipsterz in New York, opened her eyes to a new, progressive way of understanding her life and Islam.
“Choosing to say, ‘Hey, we're Mipsterz…’ allows us to say that there are others who recognize the same mode of thinking, so we are not alone,” wrote Kotob. “And that's really the most important thing Mipsterz has given me.”
Rattani said didn’t have to convince people like Jenine of what it was, and that many knew instinctively right away that they belong in Mipsterz. “We didn’t do any marketing,” said Rattani, “but what we came to find out was that we accidently stumbled into an area that was a need.”
Shahzad Ahsan, a young tech worker in San Francisco, joined a Mipsterz list serve after a fellow Muslim at a Ramadan event suggested it. Ahsan views Mipsterz is as a more liberal version of the Muslim Students Association for the real world.
“One of the big things we are adding to the Muslim American community is a greater, more diverse picture,” said Ahsan, “a safe, open, intelligent environment, where people really make an effort to be open-minded.”
Ahsan grew up in upstate New York with Pakistani Muslim parents who were culturally acclimated to American culture. His Muslim community was moderate. But Ahsan still grew up uneasy with the unstated pressure to be one person around his Sunday mosque friends, and another around the students at his public school. “There wasn’t extreme pressure to conform, it’s a more subtle thing,” said Ahsan, “it’s slightly easier to fulfill your own cultural stereotypes sometimes.”
Ahsan tested the limits by wearing fake lip rings to Sunday mosque class, the beginnings of his mipster identity that he would later embrace. Today, Ahsan participates in the Muslim Writers Collective, an offshoot of the Mipsterz list-serve, and reads his work at local open-mics in the Bay Area.
Ahsan met a fellow mipster through the list serve who created a Muslim dating website, originally named “Hipster Shaadi,” the
Arabic Hindi/Urdu word for marriage. Ahsan helped with the technical aspects of the site, now called “Ishqr.com,” based of the word for ‘love’ in several Middle Eastern languages.
“It’s kind of like a basic dating/matrimonial site for a young group of Muslim Americans who don’t want to do the whole have-my-parents-find-a-
Adham Sahloul, more than three thousand miles away from Ahsan’s San Francisco home, joined the Mipsterz list serve while he was interning in Washington, D.C. A friend told him the Mipsterz was for people who are politically conscious, well-traveled, and don’t fit in the box of the traditional Islam community, but still consider themselves Muslim. So he joined. Once Sahloul joined, he found everything from people debating the NYPD surveillance of New York mosques, to discussion of global economic development and threads about sources of Islamic authority and holy scriptures.
“It’s not a bunch of posers, but a group of people looking for a healthy and safe space for people to share things,” said Sahloul. “Mipsters get the bad rap because they call themselves hipsters, but the title is meant to be ironic.”
Sahloul, now an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, grew up in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Chicago. He spent nearly every summer in Syria, where his father is from, until the revolution and civil war began three years ago. Sahloul sees the Mipsterz groups as part of a larger generational trend for many young Muslim Americans who find their own place outside the Muslim neighborhood or mosque.
“A lot of us, including myself, are the ‘un-mosqued’ generation,” said Sahloul. “We are really trying to find ways to maintain our Muslim identity, but we want a place where we can talk about these things, and we can’t do it at the mosque.”
To Sahloul, this transition is similar to what many communities have gone through in their integration of tradition into the American mainstream, like the Jewish community who now has reform synagogues and cultural-only adherents. “We do believe the Islamic faith has a lot to offer society,” said Sahloul, “and we are not trying to create like a severance.”
As I walked in the East Village with Rattani and his co-host for the night’s event after being kicked out of the bar, Rattani told me he doubted the owner even knew this event was about Gaza, and that his abrupt antics had nothing to do with them being Muslim. We talked about how funny it was that they organized this in a bar, when 90 percent of the demographic didn’t drink. It was clear Rattani was proud to have fostered the mipster community. But to him, this divide isn’t between being American and being Muslim.
“A lot of these labels are arbitrary,” said Rattani. “Iran and Turkey are some of the biggest mipster communities that I’ve ever seen! Nobody is different. Everyone in the entire world is the same. People laugh, people mourn, people love power, people are greedy for money and power… issues of individuality, you see all over the world.”