American pop culture icons such as Burger King, Coca-Cola and Barbie dolls have traditionally done well around the world, including in predominantly Muslim countries. But in recent years, entrepreneurs in Syria, Saudi Arabia, France and other nations with sizable Muslim populations have created their own comparable products, which closely resemble the originals but have an Islamic twist — making them more appealing and marketable to Muslims.
"If you adapt products, as all cultures do, to the local conditions, with a slight change of name and slight difference in the way they appear, then these products sell," said Akbar Ahmed, the chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.
And with the worldwide Muslim population hovering around the 1.4 billion mark, selling merchandise directly to that demographic is a savvy move.
"It's a potentially lucrative market," said Ahmed.
Beurger King Muslim, or BKM, opened in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois last summer with the look and feel of an American fast-food chain; it has the burgers, the fries and the shakes — and a name almost identical to its inspiration (the word "beur" is a French slang term for a second-generation North African living in France).
But at Beurger King Muslim, all the meat is halal — prepared according to Islamic dietary rules — and many of the women working behind the counter wear hijabs, or Muslim headscarves.
Mecca-Cola, created by French businessman Tawfik Mathlouthi in late 2002, comes in red-and-white cans and bottles much like the Real Thing. But its name is meant to catch the fancy of Muslim soda drinkers, and it has been marketed as an alternative soft drink for those who don't want to support American capitalism and politics by buying Coca-Cola.
Fulla, made by the Syrian-based NewBoy Design Studio in November 2003, looks an awful lot like Barbie — only she has dark hair and eyes, comes dressed in traditional Muslim clothes like a hijab and an abaya (a long robe that covers the whole body) and is sold with a tiny pink prayer rug. Her founders say she symbolizes Muslim values like modesty and piety.
"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," Ahmed said. "We are talking about local cultures adapting to globalization."
But the American companies whose products are being copied aren't always flattered.
One of BKM's managers, Hakim Badaoui, told The New York Times last year that Burger King had contacted his restaurant, and attorneys for the two franchises were in discussions.
When asked to comment for this story, a spokeswoman for Burger King said: "It's our understanding that that restaurant is no longer called Beurger King Muslim." She declined to elaborate, and that claim couldn't independently be confirmed. No one answered the telephone at BKM in Clichy-sous-Bois, France.
A Coca-Cola spokeswoman said "[the] company welcomes free and fair competition in every market where we do business" when asked for a reaction to Mecca-Cola. But Coke had a different take after the Muslim cola was first introduced as an anti-American alternative beverage.
Mecca's founder "identified a commercial opportunity which involves the exploitation in Europe of the difficult and complex situation in the Middle East. Ultimately it is the consumer who will make the decision," the BBC quoted the soda giant as saying in a statement in early 2003.
Barbie maker Mattel, for its part, has been mum on Fulla. The company did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Pop culture expert Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University, said such knockoffs with very specific demographics are nothing new.
"This strikes me as business as usual," he said. "I can certainly see how Muslim companies would see the appeal of these products and adjust them to their own audience. It's a no-brainer."
And with the rise in globalization — which has actually become synonymous with Americanization — there's even more of a market for these kinds of offshoots.
Ahmed said that franchises like Burger King, Coke and Barbie have become symbols of the United States, and the Muslim-themed imitations have sprouted up in part as a reaction to that.
"Right now, all the polls confirm that American popularity is the lowest it's ever been in the Muslim world," he said. "These outlets become a symbol of the antagonism or criticism of globalization and American culture. There is a reaction to globalization, and people are going back to their own culture."
But as long as a lawsuit is avoided, it can be a smart business move for an entrepreneur to model a new product after an established one with a global presence.
"The brand name is known, it's fashionable," Ahmed said. Creating a spinoff shows that "we're part of something that's cool and smart and allows us to connect to the rest of the world."
And though there has been the arrogant perception in the past that other countries would jump at the chance for access to all things American, the current market suggests otherwise.
"Once upon a time, we had this idea that all the world was drooling for American products," Thompson said. "But in many cases, places want to make products similar to those made in the U.S. but adjust them to the appetites of their own population."