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Dearborn in the USA

The new TLC reality show All-American Muslim doesn’t do enough to display the theological and intellectual diversity of Islam in the U.S.

Sohrab Ahmari
November 14, 2011
A scene from All-American Muslim.(Adam Rose/Discovery Communications LLC)
A scene from All-American Muslim.(Adam Rose/Discovery Communications LLC)

If you’ve recently started a new job or embarked on a graduate degree, chances are you’ve had to engage in some sort of cultural-sharing exercise designed to promote diversity and inclusion. You know the drill: Sitting in a circle, each person tells his or her story—or, to use the proper nomenclature, offers his or her narrative. Participants from “subaltern” backgrounds are expected to tell stories of repression and exclusion; those who come from the “dominant culture,” meanwhile, must “unpack” their own privileges and wicked biases in front of the group.

Over the years, I’ve had to sit through many such sessions, be it at Teach For America, where new recruits are required to complete a grueling regimen of diversity training, or during my first year at law school. It didn’t take me long to realize that, as a Shia-born Iranian-American in the post-Sept.11 era, I have anecdotes aplenty that, told correctly, can place me right in the sweet spot of the race-gender-class matrix. I could recount how on that dreadful September day a high-school classmate of mine in rural northern Utah yelled out, “Hey, Sohrab, I heard your people bombed New York!” Or I could mention how I’ve learned to preemptively take the tension out of the room when I sense that my Iranian background might be an issue. (“I come from the heart of the axis of evil,” I say.)

In some ways, All-American Muslim, TLC’s new reality-TV show documenting the lives of five families in the Arab enclave of Dearborn, Mich., is this culture-sharing exercise writ large. As the title suggests, the show aims to expose a broad audience to the day-to-day lives of American Muslims who, while assimilated into the culture, must nevertheless balance the various aspects of their identities. The cast of characters includes Fouad, the (literally) all-American coach of the local high-school football team; Jeff, an Irish Catholic preparing to convert to Islam, and Shadia, the heavily tattooed, self-described Muslim redneck engaged to him; Samira, Shadia’s sister, and her husband Ali, who struggle with infertility; Nina, the strong-willed wedding planner who dresses far too provocatively for Dearborn and is fed up with the town’s parochialism; Nawal, the hijab-clad, pregnant newlywed, and her Homer Simpson-esque husband, Nader; and Mike, a policeman, and his wife, Angela, a marketing executive in the auto industry.

The show’s central conceit lies in its use of standard-issue reality-television tropes to frame a community that many viewers might otherwise consider alien. The interplay between the familiar plot developments, musical cues, and confessional interviews—how will Jeff’s mom react to his conversion to Islam? Stay tuned to find out!—and the insular world of American Islam helps normalize the community.

The show deserves praise for capturing at least some of the internal debates within Western Islam, including those on marriage and conversion, head-covering, drinking, and sexuality. “If a girl is going to wear a scarf or a hijab, it is a choice that I think every Muslim woman has the right to make and does make,” Angela, the marketing executive, dressed in a tight-fitting skirt and knee-high boots, argues at one point. Nina, the spunky blond wedding planner, agrees: “Nobody can tell that I’m Muslim. I don’t wear hijab and I don’t wear a T-shirt that says, ‘I am Muslim.’ ” The more devout Nawal—who reminded me of a character straight out of the daytime Islamic guidance shows I had to endure as a child in Iran—clearly doesn’t approve of Angela and Nina opting out. “What about the people that were born into [Islam]?” she asks during a group discussion about Jeff’s conversion. “They don’t have to do it right?” Her sarcastic question is clearly directed at the liberal Nina, suggesting that she is insufficiently pious. Nina shoots her a piercing look in response.

Such exchanges reflect the very lively—and very real—tensions within American Islam, and bringing them to the cultural foreground is a valuable contribution. But the show does not go nearly far enough in terms of exposing American-Muslims’ ethnic, theological, and intellectual diversity. For one thing, most of the show’s characters are Lebanese Shia. And just as The Real Housewives of D.C. intercuts the ladies’ drama with shots of the Capitol and the White House, so does All-American Muslim establish its setting by repeatedly cutting to the Islamic Center of America, a Shi’ite place of worship—in effect implying that the mega-mosque is American Islam’s capital. The clerics who advise the characters on doctrinal matters, too, are invariably Shi’ite.

One could easily forgive this narrow sectarian snapshot of Islam in the United States were it not for the fact that Dearborn is also home to large numbers of Sunni-Arab Muslims. That All-American Muslim eschews showing these divisions could be chalked up to the nature of the medium: Explaining Islam’s centuries-old schisms on a reality TV show is not an easy task. It is nevertheless a troubling move, one that reinforces the notion of a monolithic Islam. (This sort of cultural whitewashing and oversimplification has been a misstep in the work of the Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan—who, along with filmmaker Mahyad Tousi, cofounded Boomgen Studios, which is helping to promote All-American Muslim. Earlier this year, Aslan published Tablet and Pen, a massive anthology of 20th-century Mideast literature that deliberately omitted Jewish authors and modern Israeli literature. (Tablet Magazine’s Adam Kirsch took him to task for this startling omission.)

More troubling still is the show’s overemphasis on theological matters and its overly deferential editorial attitude toward the Shia clerical class. Consider a painful scene in the second episode in which the hitherto unveiled Samira visits two imams seeking spiritual advice on her inability to get pregnant. “Of course there is no physical link between hijab and pregnancy,” the more senior cleric explains. “But according to Islam, when you have hijab … God will cooperate more with you.” The junior cleric chimes in: “So, that’s the goodness of the faith—the spirit and the body and the brain functioning together.”

If these men were, say, Catholic priests, the editors surely would have mocked them endlessly, Luis Buñuel-style. Instead, a soothing melody is heard as the superstitious hokum spills forth from these fonts of clerical wisdom. (Samira, we later learn, cannot afford in vitro fertilization. And since artificial insemination has been prohibited for her by clerical edict, she returns to the hijab in the hope of conceiving a baby.)

All-American Muslim’s drama is set against the larger backdrop of a supposedly rabid, anti-Muslim American culture. Indeed, the show seems to have been conceived as a reaction to rising Islamophobia in the United States “[We’re called] ‘towelheads,’ ” Shadia says in the pilot’s opening sequence. “They say we’re Muslim, we’re barbaric, we’re terrorists,” her brother complains. Later, we see news footage of far-right protesters howling “Muhammad was a pedophile!” at Muslims attending a business conference in Dearborn.

Yet put into a proper perspective, such grievances form less than half the picture. Indeed, perhaps despite itself, All-American Muslim showcases the many ways in which the American experience has allowed Muslims to thrive—a testament to a heritage of religious freedom that has liberated Muslims as never before. In Dearborn, New York, Los Angeles, and beyond, generations of American Muslims—from the pious to the secular-minded—have found safe and open spaces in which to explore and shape their own identities in ways that would be unthinkable for their counterparts trapped in the repressive pressure-cookers of the Mideast.

CORRECTION, Nov. 15: Reza Aslan and Mahyad Tousi’s Boomgen Studios is working on marketing for All-American Muslim. It did not develop or produce the show, as this article initially suggested. The error has been corrected.

Sohrab Ahmari is the assistant books editor at The Wall Street Journal and co-editor of Arab Spring Dreams, an anthology of essays by young Mideast reformers.

Sohrab Ahmari is the assistant books editor at The Wall Street Journal and co-editor of Arab Spring Dreams, an anthology of essays by young Mideast reformers.