The simple question "Did you see that Muslim video on YouTube?" often generates anxiety among local Muslims.
"I think people's thoughts automatically go to extremes and negatives," says Agnieszka Karoluk, the Crystal Lake native who serves as senior communications coordinator for the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "The only time we hear about Muslims is when something bad happens."
The newest Muslim video garnering hits on YouTube couldn't be more of a departure from that stereotype. It features more than 150 local Muslims dancing, smiling and having fun in their music video version of Pharrell Williams' hit song, "Happy."
"A very important part of our religion is to smile at others," says Muslim mom Emma Qureshi, 28, of Des Plaines. In the video, a beaming Qureshi carries her 2½-year-old daughter, Sophie, while dad and husband Bilal Baweja balances son Mikael, 3½, on his shoulders.
Made in 36 hours by Northwestern University film graduate Rayyan Najeeb, 22, a native of Mequon, Wis., the video grew out of a similar British video created by a group called Honesty Policy.
"It was a huge collaborative effort," says Karoluk, who grew up Catholic with her Polish immigrant parents in the suburbs and converted to Islam about three years ago. Filmed in Chicago and the suburbs, the video features lots of dancers, a skateboarder, a woman wearing the traditional hijab head scarf drumming on a man's bald head, and a touch of gymnastics.
"I was the one who flipped," says Amir Mahmoud, 12, as he sits with his mom and siblings on a couch in their Naperville home and points to the TV showing his starring moment.
His mother, Angie Emara, 36, who grew up in the United States with Egyptian parents, says she got used to people having no idea what it meant to be Muslim. Now married to Australia native Wsam Mahmoud, she worries about those suburban residents who hear the word Muslim and immediately think of al-Qaida.
"I've been called terrorist," says Amir, a sixth-grader. He says that he hopes peers who see the video realize he's just another American kid growing up in the suburbs.
"I just want them to realize we're exactly like you," he says.
He and brother, Aiman, 6, engage in some lighthearted jostling in the video, and his sister, Lara, 8, breaks out some of her best dance moves, as does their mom.
While Emara no longer wears the hijab or head scarf favored by some Muslim women, Qureshi and many other women in the local video do. The video has drawn online criticism from Islamaphobes suggesting the dancers must be terrorists, and from conservative Muslims who say it's sinful for women to dance.
Qureshi says she loves the diversity of Muslims in the video, with men and women, kids and older people, Asians, Arabs, Africans, African-Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics, those who wear traditional garb and those who don't dancing together.
The video meshes nicely with Emara's personal "MyJihad" campaign through the myjihad.org website. Defining jihad as a personal struggle, Emara says she aims to "take back the word jihad from extremists and Islamaphobes" who use it in reference to war.
"My jihad is to move on after the death of my son," says Emara, whose son, Adam, died of transplant complications from Hunter's syndrome in 2009 shortly before his fifth birthday. His diagnosis helped his little brother, Aiman, get diagnosed as a baby and respond well to the transplant. Her son Amir underwent successful brain surgery in December to remove a cluster of blood vessels that were giving him intense headaches. Now, Amir is able to take part in community projects helping others.
"One time we went to an old lady's yard and raked the leaves and fixed up her lawn, and we got banana bread, and banana bread is my favorite thing in the whole world," gushes Amir as a grin spreads across his face.
"So we have lots of reasons to be happy," says Emara, who smiles her way through the "Happy" video.
The hope is that viewers of the video find it contagious.
"Honestly, I just hope they smile," Karoluk says. "Just to see a couple of minutes of Muslims having fun, being normal."