Reality Check

Sandwiched in TLC’s fall schedule between Toddlers & Tiaras and Sister Wives, is a new reality series named, All-American Muslim. The show follows the lives of five Muslim families living in Dearborn, Michigan, and will premiere its eight-part stretch November 13.

All-American Muslim does not fall into the trend of other reality shows: It does not profile rich socialites or rambunctious 20-something libertines. Instead, it tries its hand at a new, more dangerous formula: using religion as a basis for entertainment. In today’s volatile sociopolitical environment, All-American Muslim treads new and murky ground by attempting to “explain” a very diverse community of Muslim American citizens and the religious doctrine they follow— all in a one-hour timeslot. The cameras document its families as they face new stages and challenges in their lives. In an eventful premiere episode, both a wedding and a conversion take place.

Many Muslims in America today face an onslaught of Islamophobia through the media, illegal surveillance by law enforcement, and unabashed discrimination in schools and the workplace. In an era in which women lose their jobs because they wear the hijab and FBI informants infiltrate mosques, Muslim Americans are struggling to defend their constitutional rights as American citizens. All-American Muslim ignores those political undertones and steers clear of touting civil liberties. In this case, the reality show medium may prove to be counterproductive. As it is, the show’s participants carry the heavy burden of trying to prove that Islam is compatible with American values. During one conversation, Nawal, a pregnant newlywed, and Nina, a businesswoman working to open a nightclub, discuss the taboo of marrying outside of Islam, without much to rely on beyond anecdotal evidence. For better or worse, their personal conversation will make a lasting impression about Islam on viewers. A Muslim Cosby Show might have been better than a documentary-style series at providing a different perspective on a community that is often vilified. Through a fictional narrative, a storyline could promote understanding without running the risk of alienating real-life Muslims.

Characters in the show also set an alarming precedent by using “Arab” and “Muslim” interchangeably. All of the families that were filmed were of Arab descent, and the show was shot in Dearborn, dubbed the “Arab Capital of America.” Yet, the largest ethnic group of Muslim Americans is South Asian, with Arabs and African Americans tying for second. Neither South Asian nor African American Muslims are featured on the show. In reality, the Muslim American experience in Dearborn, where Arab Muslims make up one-third of the population, might be categorically different than the Muslim American experience in, say, Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The former is home to the largest mosque in America supported by a long-established Muslim community. The latter is home to a virulent group of citizens who opposed Muslims throughout last year in their efforts to build a mosque.

The show’s ambition to provide an encompassing portrayal of an entire faith community takes it into risky territory. Promos for the series feature The Islamic Center of America, the country’s largest mosque, which is of Shia denomination. But Shia Muslims make up roughly just 20 percent of the Muslim population in the U.S. While a segment of Islam is portrayed on the screen, a show about ethnicity or culture, along the lines of Jersey Shore, might have been a more apt premise for the series. Through its effort to normalize a community and promote tolerance, All-American Muslim could end up exoticizing Islam.

Despite the hate-filled comments that already sully the All-American Muslim Facebook page, some Muslims and friends of Muslims fiercely defend the show, its intent, and their faith. Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said, "It'll give us a taste of the lives of Muslim-Americans in both their aspirations and concerns. I think the show will be good and humanizing for the Muslim community of Dearborn.” Muslim Americans should be wary of the probable trade-off, however. Intense spotlight rarely comes without intense scrutiny and humanizing could come at the cost of being patronized. Maybe it is important for the American public to see how normal Muslims are, but maybe Muslims should question why they have to prove it.