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Friday, December 16, 2011

All-American Muslim Is Way Too Sanitized to Be Terrorist Propoganda

Posted By on Fri, Dec 16, 2011 at 1:30 PM

click to enlarge The Amens, one of five families in the cast of "All-American Muslim" - TLC
  • TLC
  • The Amens, one of five families in the cast of "All-American Muslim"
TLC's new reality show All-American Muslim -- just by its premise -- has sustained a good amount of buzz since its November premiere. After all, in a post-9/11 America that has managed to grow more xenophobic and Islamophobic as the years go by, the concept of following Arab-American Muslim families in Dearborn, Mich., is pretty damn novel.

But now the show, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on TLC, is in the spotlight because hardware retail giant Lowe's has pulled its ads from the series after buckling under the pressure of the Florida Family Association. That organization cites the show as "propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda."

The Florida Family Association has clearly not bothered to watch the show.

Unless there are subliminal terrorist recruitment messages interwoven into the show's predominant coverage of marriages, babies, dogs, high school football, and living in the Midwestern 'burbs, I'd say the show is sincere in its downright wholesomeness. The only vaguely political moments are the roundtable discussions on the casts' differing interpretations of Islamic tenets, which is probably a device to reinforce to America that the Islam of terrorists is not the Islam practiced by everyday folks. Sadly, that sentiment really does need to be reinforced to a significant swath of American society, even if at times the scenes can seem ham-fisted and almost always end with "But hey, that's just my definition of Islam! You're free to interpret it differently!"

Anti-Muslim prejudice depicted on the show includes a waitress being rude to Nawal -- who wears a hijab -- and a Christian fringe group protesting a local Arab American festival. Yet even those typically end with the cast members shrugging off the bigotry and taking the high road.

The narratives have been really benign: Can the town blame it's 95 percent Muslim high school football team's loss on the fact that most of its players were fasting due to Ramadan? Will bombshell Nina turn her family into gossip fodder if she purchases a nightclub? Will single and independent Suehaila fulfill her dreams of leaving Dearborn for the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C.?

The most offensive scene to date is footage of the tailgating scene at a Kenny Chesney concert -- and I say it's offensive because it's the last place on Earth I'd want to be, personally.

All-American Muslim is engaging but certainly not the most entertaining show on the air. But that's not necessarily its fault. In order to chip away at America's Islamophobia and not be squelched before its premiere -- though, I'm sure the Florida Family Association tried -- the producers have forgone showing the general messiness of the human condition and the complexities of culture that other reality programs reveal.

For example, another TLC program, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, follows Irish travelers in the U.K. who are routinely discriminated against for their lifestyles and cultural customs. The show delves into particularly knotty elements of the culture (such as teenage marriages and the expectation for a wife to unequivocally obey her husband) in a way that highlights problematic gender roles. That same lens simply can't be applied to Muslim Americans because of how the media has already distorted the Islamic faith and its treatment of women. A thoughtful, critical discussion probably can't be held over the roar of people clinging desperately to their beloved stereotypes. Muslims are already so demonized that the show is essentially an attempt to prove their humanity. How shameful is that?

In fact, I think any title of "All-American _____ " to encapsulate non-white, Christian, straight folks achieves this same unintended goal of making its subject completely Other. Showing an American of color or of a different religion go buy cereal or wash the family car should not be an "enlightening" viewing experience by any means. The thought of a non-Muslim being shocked that he and this Muslim kid on TV both eat Lucky Charms just makes me want to shake the shit out of America.

While I don't doubt that the families from All-American Muslim are just being themselves, the storylines thus far have this very apparent air of diplomacy about them. When mother-of-four Zaynab frets that her hijab-wearing daughter will be made fun of at school, part of me really wants her to tell the camera, "because, sometimes, people can be assholes." But she doesn't. She is sweet and understanding and smiles through the anxiety for her children.

If TLC and America's bigots won't allow Zaynab to say it, then the rest of us should take on that responsibility. Ready?

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Sylvie Kim

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