A few weeks have gone by since the November 11 premier of the TLC reality show “All-American Muslim.” I have only just found some time to sit down and watch the first two episodes of the show. Having already read reviews about it and seen the previews, there was nothing in it that surprised me, although it was strange to see a woman wearing hijab on TV getting mad at her mom and being nice to an old lady with a walker on a mainstream American TV channel. I’m not used to seeing people who dress like I do on the screen unless they are completely covered up in some exotic location mourning their dead terrorist children or huddled up and abused in their oppressive husband’s home. It was actually refreshing to see different lifestyles featured among the families, all of whom are Shi`i Muslims of Lebanese origin living in Dearborn, Michigan.
The show has received a lot of flak from Islamaphobes, raving that it is another step in the Muslim plan for world domination. As Pamela Geller exhorted, the show is “an attempt to manipulate Americans into ignoring the threat of jihad and to bully them into thinking that being concerned about the jihad threat would somehow victimize these nice people in this show. The problem is not people; it's ideology. The show doesn't address that.”
Americans Muslims, too, have been complaining that the show distorts Islam and does not highlight the diversity of American Muslim society. Other Muslim writers havedefended the show, explaining that it is impossible for one reality TV show to represent all American Muslims. For me, it’s really neither here nor there: “All-American Muslim” is just a reality TV show that happens to feature Muslims. Hopefully it’s the first of many attempts to show Americans that Muslims really are American (with baklava replacing the apple pie), just like them.
Interestingly enough, Dearborn, Michigan is an anomaly, not just because the majority of Muslims in America are not Arab unlike the majority population of Dearborn, but also because most American Muslims live in large urban areas of the US and not in ethnic enclaves. Unlike in Europe, where many Muslims tend to live in neighborhoods dominated by ethnic and/or religious minorities, American Muslims are well integrated into the fabric of American society. You’ll find them in great numbers in the suburbs of Washington DC, Chicago, LA, New York, Houston, and other major cities, as well as in small towns in the middle of nowhere. Some live in small ethnic, immigrant enclaves, such as Atlantic Avenue in New York and Devon Avenue in Chicago, but most live, work, and study among Christians, Jews, Agnostics, Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, and others.
Where I live in Chapel Hill, a liberal bastion in the conservative Christian South, a few hundred Muslims, including a large population of students, call the town home. Membership at the Muslim Student Association at the University of North Carolina is rapidly expanding by the year, especially as the children of immigrants who settled in the Raleigh area a couple decades ago have grown up and cannot even comprehend calling anywhere but North Carolina home.
Muslim students walk around campus in Tar Heel paraphernalia, volunteer at the football games and share a hatred of Duke with the rest of Chapel Hill. In my little college town, we do not have a mosque, cultural center, or even a store where we can buy halal products. We have to drive at least half an hour to the nearest mosque in Durham and 40 minutes to the nearest halal grocery store in Raleigh. The Muslim kids at Chapel Hill High School don’t get to switch around their schedules during Ramadan, unlike the football players at Fordson High School in Dearborn, who practice at night while they fast during the daytime. Despite the lack of community infrastructure, the Muslim population in this little town is also very diverse, with people of South Asian, Arab, African, Turkish, Burmese, and Central Asian heritage, as well as converts from a rainbow of ethnicities and religious backgrounds. There are thousands of small communities like Chapel Hill –as well as big cities− around the country where you’ll find Muslims getting on with their lives.
So while many of the complaints about "All American Muslim" are valid, they miss the point. The producers of the show are not even making a passing attempt at representing Muslim or even Arab Americans on a whole. The people featured in the show also highlight this point in an interview. Take it for what it is, and you might learn something about the diversity of beliefs and lifestyles of Lebanese Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan.
Those whose curiosity about Muslims is whetted by the show can go on to watch: New Muslim Cool, Mooz-lum, Bilal’s Stand, A Son’s Sacrifice, Little Mosque on the Prairie,Arranged, AmericanEast, and Islam in America among the many recent TV shows, documentaries and movies that offer vignettes of Muslims’ lives from all walks of life. The Hijabi Monologues offers a window into the experiences of American Muslim women beyond the superficial discourse around their clothing and the play Domestic Crusadersby Wajahat Ali presents the internal workings of a Pakistani American Muslim family struggling to assert their identity in a post-9/11 world.
Or maybe you would like to explore the growing trend of Muslims expressing themselves through art. You might want to check out: A Land Called Paradise with vocals by Kareem Salama, who also produced this all-American music video, a comedy sketch by the hilarious Chicagoan, Azhar Usman, or a music vid
eo from the Muslim boy group Native Deen about the challenges and joys of being an American Muslim. The creative Cambodian Muslim American artist and activist Anida Yoeu Ali raises awareness about Islamaphobia through art and music. Other noteworthy singers and artists include Dawud Wharnsby, sometimes referred to as the Muslim Bob Dylan, Bay-Area based Baraka Blue, the talented singer Liza Garza, and Brother Ali, the rapper from Minnesota who produces rap from a unique Muslim American perspective.
These are just a few of the emergent collection of media often produced by Muslims or in collaboration with them; unfortunately they haven’t received nearly as much media exposure as “All-American Muslim.” It can only get better from here: a little more than a year ago, leading up to the elections, we had to deal with the Park 51 fiasco and fierce opposition against mosque projects across the country. The show might help its viewers realize that being Muslim is a lot like being a devotee of any other faith and it is a lot more complicated than mainstream media usually portrays. “All-American Muslim” is not something to combat or distance ourselves from, but rather something to consider as a jumping board for helping Americans to get over their fear of Islam and Muslims.
Photo caption: Hamza Perez and his brother Suliman, in a scene from.... This photo was accessed via the POV Press Room.