A young high school football coach training with his team; a small-town cop and his high school sweetheart raising their four kids; a rookie entrepreneur scoping out a business venture. By the usual sensational standards, these characters would not make for compelling reality television. But what about when they are American Muslims living in Dearborn, Mich.? Then we have the stars of TLC’s newest reality show “All-American Muslim,” a series that has ignited plenty of drama since its premiere last month.
The most recent controversy: Under pressure from a conservative group in Florida, the retailer Lowe’s and other companies pulled their advertising from the show. Cue public outcry: Nearly 30,000 people object to Lowe’s decision by signing a nationally circulated petition; hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons offers to purchase the remaining ad slots for next week’s episode; and politicians at the state and national levels issue shaming statements aimed at Lowe's.
Meanwhile, within the American Muslim community, debate largely centers on the authenticity of representation, relevance of story lines, and whether the show does more harm than good in rehabilitating a vilified image of Muslims in an increasingly intolerant national context. But while there are definite conceptual shortcomings, “All-American Muslim” opens the door to national dialogue that is meaningful, and especially in light of recent events, absolutely necessary.
Park51 (the so-called “ground zero mosque”) brought out the worst of popular fears against Islam and a dehumanizing paranoia that played out on national television. Now a conservative Christian group, Florida Family Association, puts the same accusations back into circulation by petitioning companies to pull their ads airing during "All-American Muslim," including Lowe’s. The group claims the show “manipulate[s] Americans into ignoring the threat of jihad” and masks “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values."
The distrust and suspicion spread by FFA and similar groups further proves that before the show can even begin to address the actual diversity of American Muslim communities, it will have to start with the basics: The vast majority of Muslims are not angry wife-beating terrorists determined to infiltrate the United States and implement sharia law. Instead, the vast majority are friendly, normal, family-oriented folks. This is where “All-American Muslim” can effectively play mediator.
Considering that 62 percent of Americans do not personally know a Muslim, the show adopts a simple humanizing objective. It uses the backdrop of Dearborn, with its largely Muslim, Lebanese-American population, as a representation of the “All-American Muslim.”
The football coach is a Lebanese-American, Fouad Zaban, and the student population is predominantly Arab. The cop is Mike Jaafar, deputy chief at the sheriff’s office, with 17 years of experience in law enforcement. The entrepreneur is Nina Bazzy-Aliahmad, a married woman, scouting locations for a nightclub. Suddenly, Muslims are just like other Americans. They coach football, marry their high school sweethearts, and own nightclubs.
The cast has familiar, easy-to-pronounce names like “Mike” and “Angela;” they wear jeans and hoodies; they speak with a Midwestern twang. Still, some within the American Muslim community have called for a boycott of the show to express their disdain for again being “misrepresented by the media.” These critics note that characters living in a community that is largely Arab, Muslim, and Shiite and that it does not represent the typical American Muslim experience.
Sound familiar? When “Jersey Shore” premiered in 2009, Italian-American groups based in New Jersey were outraged by the (mis)representation of Italian-Americans and asked for its cancellation; the show is now gearing up for its fifth season. “All-American Muslim” producers, like most producers, are interested in attracting a large viewership. Period. Muslims generally are not the intended audience of the show, nor should they delude themselves into thinking there exists an obligation to represent the community in its entirety.
Depending on this season, producers will soon decide whether to continue keeping up with the Zabans and others. Based on the reviews so far and by continuing to stay in the news, ”All-American Muslim” is well-positioned to tackle nuanced story lines in its second season.
But if the show sticks with its current setting and cast, it risks reinforcing some of the most commonly held, but false, assumptions about the “All-American” Muslim demographic. It further blurs the distinction between “Arab” and “Muslim” by reinforcing the false generalization that all Arabs are Muslim or vice versa. In fact, Arabs comprise only about 20 percent of the global Muslim population. In the United States, Islam is one of the most ethnically diverse religions, with adherents from more than 80 countries of origin, and with a majority of American Muslims being South Asian, African American, and Arab.
In terms of geographic diversity, American Muslims live in suburbs, inner cities, college towns, and on Midwestern farms. Muslims live in major metropolitan areas across the country: in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit/Dearborn. The state with the highest Muslim population is California, followed by New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and Indiana.
Venturing beyond an Arab suburb might even make for better reality television since American Muslims reflect a range of ideologies, ethnic backgrounds, and community dynamics – all the right ingredients for plenty of drama with little-to-no scripting necessary.
By gradually integrating a diverse cast and introducing more apparent “Muslim” practices, “All-American Muslim” could, in effect, debunk false stereotypes that exist today about Islam and Muslims. On the flip side, American Muslims need to be careful what they wish for and be prepared for what they may possibly see on TV: Muslim doctors running free medical clinics in their hometowns contrasted with Muslim college students getting drunk away from home.
While the cast of the show may not represent most American Muslims, Mike Jaafar is not so bad for a spokesperson, compared to Snooki for Italian-Americans. This is reality television, after all. It cannot solve social problems, but it can be a catalyst for meaningful engagement on real-world issues.
Beyond the show’s modest objectives, Americans can aspire to the point where even our apparent differences – names with unfamiliar vowel combinations, beards or head scarves, mosques or minarets – do not have to be suspicious or threatening. At that point, American Muslims can be considered just as “All-American” as the Jaafars with their policeman dad.
Aisha Saad is a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. Salma Khan is the director of the federally-funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Ms. Saad and Ms. Khan both serve on the board of directors of the Muslim Public Service Network based in Washington, D.C.