All-American Muslim Revisited

Last night, TLC aired the second episode of All-American Muslim, an 8-part series that follows the lives of five Muslim American families in Dearborn, Michigan. As I wrote in an earlier post, the show aims to dispel the stereotypes that surround Muslims and Islam. As a Muslim American, I had high expectations of the show. I was excited that an entire program would focus on the Muslim American community and would generate more discussion on this minority group. Well, the show certainly created more discussion,  after watching two episodes of All-American Muslim as well as Anderson Cooper’s daytime show about it, I am a bit disappointed by certain aspects of the show.

While the show aims to provide some insight into the Muslim American community, it uses a very narrow lens to do that. The five families are all Lebanese Shia Muslims, a very small minority within the larger Muslim American community as well as the worldwide Muslim population. Moreover, one of the most persistent stereotypes of Islam is that it is the religion of Arabs, when in fact they make up only about 20%. The show ends up conflating Arab culture with Islam. At the same time, it presents many religious edicts as cultural practices. I understand the logistics of this kind of program, but a more representative show would have demonstrated the cultural diversity of the community rather than add to the stereotype that Muslim equals Arab.

Also, the cast members’ insistence that they are American just like everyone else does not address the fact that there is a homogenous image of an American that in reality does not represent many different groups. Being American does not mean any one thing, but the cast members seem to ascribe to that singular idea of what it means to be American, by insisting that they do the same things as everyone else. I am still not sure what exactly that means.

On the flip side, the show ends up putting Muslims within categories of “traditional” and “not traditional.” The “traditional” Muslim (I assume from watching the show) is a woman who wears hijab and a man who doesn’t want to participate in the details of taking care of a child; while a “non-traditional” Muslim is a woman who doesn’t wear hijab and according to Nina Bazzy, one of the cast members who doesn’t wear hijab, is outgoing and assertive and a man who is willing to change diapers. In a way, it reinforces the idea that Muslims can be put into neat categories, when they vary tremendously in their practice of Islam and are influenced by the cultural contexts that surround them.

Finally, the show introduces serious topics, but does not go into enough depth in exploring them. For example, conversion to Islam as well as the real challenges posed by discrimination against Muslim American communities in a post-9/11 America deserve more time. Perhaps a reality show is not the appropriate medium for these discussions.

Having said all this, I strongly oppose the negative reaction to the show that has come from Islamophobes around the country. Their stated reasons for why the show should be taken off the air (I certainly do not support that!) only indicate hatred and underline the need for more positive programming on Muslims and Islam. My problems with the show stem from my high hopes for the program and the possibilities that it had in really altering the negative images of Muslims and Islam. Hopefully, the next few episodes will demonstrate that my assessment of the show is wrong.

Have you watched All-American Muslim? What was your reaction to the show? Do you think it is representative of the Muslim American community? Do you think that the reality show format is conducive to really challenge the negativity surrounding Islam and Muslims? Should the show be taken off the air? Please share your comments below.

13 thoughts on “All-American Muslim Revisited

  1. I was very surprised by your response. I saw the show and I thought your comments were fairly harsh. Given that this is not a full on documentary and a reality show, you have very high expectations given the confines of the format. While you find them homogeneous, I found them pretty diverse which is reflective of Muslim diversity on a larger scale. While you view this as narrow lens, I view it as concentrated and focused that allows to go deeper into story rather than just be a superficial breeze through of the different Muslims.

    From the Facebook postings, many non-Muslims are appreciative of the show and I don’t think they are saying all Arabs are Muslim and all Muslims are Arabs. It is like saying seeing Bruce Lee indicates all Asians do kung fu and are chinese.

    I believe that Ep 2 was definitely stronger than Ep. 1 and have a gut feeling that the episodes will get better. Also, I found it really valuable when Dawud Walid was tweeting during the show. He gave great information about Islam while watching the show as he embraces the value of the show. Most people would have never had the platform or desire to even seek out that information. I am more in the camp of focus on one thing (change the stereotype) and then work from there.

  2. I agree. I believe the writer’s expectation of the show to be too high given that ep 1 and 2 just aired recently. While they criticize the show for being too narrow i think the writer was too narrow in reviewing the show because they see the show for what it isn’t rather than what it is or could be for the general population.

    while i appreciate that the review was fair in some of its points but it was harsh since the show just started and because of the show personally lots of my non muslim friends have been calling me up and asking questions regarding islam and i was more than happy to talk to them about and one of them even asked me if i knew any good islamic websites.

    So i’d say overall my non muslim friends and others know that all muslims aren’t arabs.

    i really think its too much to ask of a reality show to be representative given that diversity is a hard thing to pull off especially in a sensitive and political issue like being muslim after 9.11

  3. I saw some of this show and, like the author, was disappointed. Doing a show about Islam using Lebanese shia as the focus is like doing a show about christianity using mormons. Why not say upfront that these people follow a form of the religion that is rejected by 80% of muslims?

  4. Yusuf, I agree with you and the author, that a show highlighting the lives of Lebanese Shi’ites is not representative of Muslim-Americans. But to say that 80% of Muslims “reject” the form of Islam called Shi’ism is a little strong for my liking. “Rejecting” denotes an active action, not a passive decision, or ignoring something. It’s true that over 80% of Muslims do not identify as Shi’ites, but to say that they “reject” it isn’t correct. Yes, many disagree with its teachings in the same way that Protestants see Christianity a different way from Lutherans, but to say that they “reject” each other is another thing all together. In fact, most people of faith are born into families that practice a particular set of beliefs that are specific to a faith tradition, and they usually do not spend much time discerning among the variations of the religion. Many go with what they were taught, or don’t even care to look much beyond their own spiritual boundaries…so they may not follow the same thing, but they don’t necessarily actively “reject” others just because they don’t practice other forms…For more information on Shi’ite and Sunnis around the world, see a recent Pew study http://pewforum.org/Muslim/Mapping-the-Global-Muslim-Population%286%29.aspx

  5. I’m a Muslim Arab-American woman married to an Irish-American convert and I thought that the show does not reflect my experience as a Muslim in the US. These people live in a bubble where they are surrounded by people of their own faith and that is all. Several comments were made on the show (as one of them put it) “I’m not sure I’d be comfortable outside of Dearborn with people who aren’t like me”, while another one was surprised to see other Muslims outside of Dearborn when he went to Washington D.C. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen more unlikable people than on that show, especially the ones named Nader and Nawal, they are arrogant, self serving, and absolutely NOT representatives of the community as Muslims or as Arabs for that matter. Nader’s reaction to a small child in his home was upsetting to say the least. He and his wife are the most unlikable characters on that show. There is no representation of people who convert and are honestly practicing Islam (like my husband who was Muslim for years before I met him). Jeff McDermott is very ignorant about Islam and even Arab culture which he should know since his wife is an Arab. He is constantly going back and forth about his so called “faith”. In one episode, he says that he would convert to whatever his wife is even if she was a Buddhist and that he is doing this for her. Yesterday, when confronted by her brother about his faith, he recants and says that he is Muslim for himself. Also, all coach Zaban thinks about is football and nothing else. Making children practice all night from 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM, what parent would agree to that when they have to fast all day, plus school, plus homework???
    The sister who wears hijaab just to have Allah give her a baby? Is she making deals with Allah and what if He still doesn’t give a child? I honestly feel that the show would have been a good show if it took place is several different places around the US and had all different kinds of Muslims in it, especially people who took Islam as a way of life because they wanted to and not because they had to in order to get married or whatever.

  6. Iman, your comparison of Sunni /Shia differences to Protestant /Lutheran differences is not an accurate analogy. Lutherans are Protestants. Protestant comes from the word protest and refers to the various religious groups that left the Roman Catholic church in protest over some of its non biblical dogma. You could compare one Sunni mathab’s differences to another’s using the Lutheran /Anglican analogy and it would be a better analogy but still not exactly accurate
    A better analogy for sunni/ shia differances would be Catholic/ Mormon differences and using that analogy you could rightly say that Catholics reject Mormonism as, I think you could say Sunnis reject Shiism. Consider, for example the differences in the attitudes about Abu Bakr (ra), or A’isha (ra) in Shia Islam and Sunni Islam.
    I’m not sure if you ment to support your argument with the link you offered but it does not.

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  8. The producers are actually very intelligent individuals. Although they probably had not chosen shia muslims intentionally, they must have seen something enlightening in the Dearborn community, and thus selected it for the location of the show. If you have ever been to Dearborn, then you would agree that it is indeed a very special and different place. Had they featured sunni muslims they probably would have gotten a lot of footage of long beards, short pants, tons of ‘astagfirallahs,’ but hardline characters certainly would not be very appealing to the tv audience or serve the purpose of showing the muslims in a more liberal light. Shias are known to be more flexible muslims, questioning and rationalizing persons as opposed to doing and believing whatever they are told without question. These are people the average american citizen could better relate to and their openness to discussion makes the show more interesting. But of course, leave it to muslims to make this a sunni vs. shia thing instead of being grateful that muslims are finally getting some positive tv time to balance CNN’s ‘muslims in america’ poll and the like.

  9. Hello everyone. I hope this question is allowed here. If not, that is fine. I do understand the need for moderation.

    In last night’s episode of this show, we saw a huge divide in the US and Muslim cultures. As a defender of this Muslim community against the corporate boycotts, I found it hard to deal with the obvious manipulation of the new convert, Jeff, by his new wife and family to fit their interpretation of Islam.

    I’ve had the difficult task of explaining to young Muslims why Westerners are so concerned for their animals. It isn’t easy. Most get a feel for it after hours of talking and may learn to accept it though never participate. That is great, as far as I’m concerned.

    Rather than find a program that further enlightens my discussions with Muslim students, TLC and Chadia’s family have made the show impossible to watch. Jeff as a person, with his own history and affections, is being ground into dust. I’m extremely upset by this development, as a Westerner myself who takes my stewardship of animals and nature very seriously.

    Thankfully, I know Muslims who own dogs who keep them out of the bedrooms and prayer rooms as a compromise with their faith. How widespread is this practice? It’s important for us Westerners to find some common ground on this issue with Muslims, so those of us who are willing to fight against the prejudices of US America can continue without rancor or second guessing.

  10. Well, now that we have seen 4 episodes of this show, I feel comfortable in saying that it is a disappointment. I cringe during every episode because of the actions and words of these “actors”. They’ve have been very successful in misrepresenting what Islam stands for, and for that matter what Hijab is about. Suehaila has nailed the headscarf portion but everything from the neck down is a blatant violation. She wore leggings and knee high boots while traveling to D.C. You could clearly see the size of her thighs and other parts!!! Hijab is not just covering your hair, it’s a lot more than that, a woman’s clothes can’t be form-fitting…Her brother has tattoos, and yet they make a big deal about Jeff’s dog as if Shadia prays 5 times a day!! Nawal showed up to Anderson Cooper show wearing tight skinny jeans and a white shirt tucked in…again, you could see everything….and then they cap on Nina for not following the religion. She’s another character I don’t understand. It seems to me like she just wants to be rebellious in order to spite people and get attention… she doesn’t pray, she doesn’t fast, it didn’t sound to me like she has the intention to make the pilgrimage, she’s a Muslim by birth and that’s it….This is a reality show just like the others, I just don’t know why they named it Muslim, they should have left the religion out of it because it’s not a true representation of Islam…

  11. Sanz, I find your comment about Sunni Muslims offensive. You imply that Sunni Muslims accept what they are told without question when, in fact it is un-Islamic to simply accept a ruling or opinion. That is why any alim worth his salt will offer evidence with his opinion. We are taught to search for evidence before accepting any opinion. What evidence is offered that Ali (RA) had a better claim to the caliphate than Abu Bakr (RA) a man who was with rasool Allah (SAWS) from long before the first revelation? And praying to saints?!? This is a practice of many Shia and puts them actually outside Islam in the opinion of many of the ulimah (who offer evidence for their opinion, by the way). Dead people are dead!! They can not help living people! Even on youm qyama, these people will be fearful and concerned only for their well being. The mother will forget her child!! Remember this ayat

  12. Sanz, your comments that you made were incredible offensive, ignorant, and very prejudiced! I’m a Sunni Muslim and what you have said about us is insulting and wrong! I agree with what Yusuf legere has written in his response against you, he made some excellent points.

    Moving on, I thought the writer made some good points and I did not find any of her opinions harsh. I saw all 8 episodes of All American Muslim and I must say that I did like the show because it is entertaining, but I was deeply disappointed with it at the same time. I feel that the show was indeed narrow in its depiction of the Muslim community because it only portrayed Lebanese Shia Muslims. I think the whole point of this reality show is to inform Americans what American Muslim people are really like and how can this be done justly when only a minority is represented? There is a huge difference between the way Sunni and Shia people practice Islam and the average American wouldn’t know this. The show would have been a lot better if they also included some Sunni Muslim families; that would have been more accurate and balanced. Some people here are saying that most non-Muslim-Americans know that all Muslims are not Arabs; I find this sadly not true! In some American communities, there are no Muslims, and so how can they know this, especially when the media often portrays Muslims only as Arabs. Racism is a product of ignorance and so it is our duty as Muslims to enlighten those who need it, after all it is our Islamic duty to spread truth. After 9/11 Islam is being put under the microscope, we need to take representing Islam and Muslims seriously!

    Some things that really bothered me about the show was Nina’s desire to open a club/bar and how everyone was telling her she can’t do it because she is a woman, has a family to look after, and a reputation to consider. They all fail to tell her that it is haraam to run a club/bar whether you are a woman or a man! Drinking and the mixing of sexes is clearly forbidden in Islam and to even take a small part in it (i.e. serving alcohol but not drinking it yourself) is forbidden because it perpetuates these haraam acts. The show often mixes cultural rules with Islamic rules without making those distinctions, which does no justice for the viewing audience. For instance, when Suhailya wanted to leave Dearborn to further her career, her parents were totally non-supportive of it, as if it is haraam. Yet, her sister said in the show that she was dating, and even living with Jeff before they got married and her parents still maintained a good relationship with her despite this! What a load of hypocrisy!

    I just hope that if they make another season of All American Muslim that they fix the casting problem and try to solve the problems/concerns some of us have, Insha’Allah.

  13. I have to say the best word for my seeing this program was “what?” I only heard about it recently and I couldn’t believe what i was watching. It should have been called All American Arabs…for real!

    I am Sunni and living in the UK and I don’t want to judge because i went to the states for like 3 weeks once and I felt it was a place which my deen would be effected so i dunno about a lifetime there…Alhamdulilah I’m where i am..and i hope all you Muslims can flee if that is your reality…