An All American Muslim Reaction to TLC's "All American Muslim"
TLC’s All American Muslim, a new eight-part series about American Muslims living in Dearborn, Michigan, debuts November 13 at 10p.m. ET and it is so much more than just another reality TV show.
Unlike the manufactured plot lines of traditional reality television shows centered on housewives or twenty somethings from Jersey, All American Muslim is as much documentary as it is a view into the nuance of how Muslim communities in the United States negotiate religious and national identity.
Image Credit: TLC
At its best, television can deliver intellectual diversity and cultural awareness into our living rooms, offering an intimate doorway into disparate communities. These secondary experiences can foster understanding and even respect for the subtle and unique differences in what we may otherwise perceive as a heterogeneous American experience. In this sense, All American Muslim is definitely good television.
Tracking the lives of several members of an extended Lebanese American family living in Dearborn, home to the largest mosque in America and the largest concentration of Muslims in the world outside of the Middle East, this series promotes an idea that many Muslim Americans have been trying to communicate post 9/11: No two Muslims are alike.
Diversity of practice becomes visually indisputable on the show, for example, when traditionally attractive golden haired event planner Nina, whose newest goal includes opening a night club, sits across a couch from fashionably modest Nawal who, along with her husband, is busy preparing to welcome the couple’s first child into the world. Both women are Muslim, but differ greatly in appearance and life purpose.
All American Muslim is an excellent first step towards teaching Americans about the diversity of Islamic practice in America and about the concept that “being Muslim” and “being American” are not necessarily oppositional. As a Muslim myself, though, and one who is also “all American,” there are aspects of the show that rest uneasy with me. I am concerned that non-Muslims may walk away from this show believing that they have experienced American Islam in its entirety as a result of watching the show. Though the people profiled carefully delineate that they are “Arab American Muslims,” I am curious about the weight that will be assigned to the “Arab” identifier by a largely non-Muslim audience.
For those of us that “speak Muslim,” the identifier of national origin is key in analyzing religious experience and practice. Islam is a religion and not a culture in and of itself. There are some who might dispute that, but evidence around the world indicates that religious practice varies from nation to nation. While Islam historically impacted the geography and culture of lands where it spread, it also bears the imprints of practices and values that predated its introduction.
As the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, for example, my definition of modesty, feminism or conservatism might vary significantly from a Lebanese American Muslim even though we are both “all American Muslims”. In the end, an eight-part series about Lebanese American Muslims cannot begin to convey the dichotomies of multiculturalism and religious practice inherent in understanding the term “American Muslim.”
Furthermore, I'm slightly disappointed by the adherence to the traditional perspective that assigns the hijab, or headscarf, a central role in any presentation of women in the Muslim community. The show focuses a great deal on women and their relationship with the hijab, and I suppose this is natural given that much of the non-Muslim world views the hijab topic as one that is quite literally shrouded in mystery.
A significant aspect of the show, for example, revolves around three sisters and their varied approaches to physical appearance. Souheila wears the hijab, Shadia not only does not wear the hijab but wears mini skirts, and Sameera decides to wear the hijab so that she might garner more favor from God regarding her infertility issues. Even though I started wearing a hijab myself about six months ago, I am exhausted by the inclusion of this character in every discussion regarding women’s relationships with God. I have come to realize that if Islam were a movie, Muslim women would play a peripheral character while top billing would go to their hijabs.
Most Muslim feminists agree that the context in which Muslim women have been discussed over the past one hundred years overemphasizes the priority of clothing. This overemphasis distracts from far more pressing matters that revolve around political, social, familial and religious disenfranchisement. My frustration with the show on this matter runs especially deep since I, and many other Muslims, don’t imbue the hijab with equal degrees of importance. It seems that focusing on it to this extent underscores an existing stereotype instead of broadening understanding about it.
If the upside of television is its ability to expose large audiences to previously inaccessible information, the downside is that viewers can assume they don’t need to self-educate when the program is over. All American Muslim provides an interesting look at the often symbiotic relationship of religious tradition and Americanism, but in the end, it's up to Americans to take charge of filling in the gaps and further understanding the world and the people in it.
Culture, Diversity & Dialogue in America: www.Native-Born.com
A Jew and a Muslim Walk into a Podcast: www.HeyThatsMyHummus.com