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.