x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

New reality TV show All-American Muslim courts controversy

Five Muslim families in Michigan have opened their lives to a reality TV programme, but whether it will offer a fair view or devolve into stereotypes remains to be seen.

Suehaila and Bilal attend Shadia's wedding from the television show All-American Muslim
Suehaila and Bilal attend Shadia's wedding from the television show All-American Muslim
America, meet Nader and Nawal. They're suburban newlyweds, preparing for the arrival of their first child. And, in full view of a television crew, they're trying to find a balance between their American life and Muslim roots.

Lights, camera, controversy.

This November, American Muslims will become the country's latest reality TV stars with the debut of All-American Muslim on TLC, a popular cable network. The show will follow the daily lives of five families in Dearborn, Michigan, a Detroit suburb that, because of its high ratio of Muslims in the population, has been called the Islamic capital of the United States.

Amy Winter, TLC's general manager, touts the series as "inviting viewers into a world they might not otherwise experience". The show's participants are filmed at home and at work, honouring customs and celebrating weddings, and dealing with the conflicts that arise inside and outside of their community.

The concept, however, is already creating controversy, with the predictable media scepticism, "boycott TLC" Facebook page, and cranky commenters.

"Whenever it casts unfavourable light on Muslims, it will be called racist; whenever it makes Americans look discriminatory, it will be called propaganda," wrote one commenter, on the US site TheWeek.com.

Reality TV isn't the most sophisticated of mediums, and as most critics pointed out, TLC is a network that has delivered shows including Toddlers & Tiaras and Freaky Eaters. Should it attempt to tackle a subject as complex and misunderstood as Islam?

Absolutely, said some of the cast members, when they faced the US TV media at a press conference last week.

"People fear what they don't know," says the series' Mike Jaafar, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "This show is based on everyday Americans, which we are. I'm not from Mars."

For their part, advocates believe that a mainstream reality show might just be the key to winning the hearts and minds of Americans.

"The more stories we can get out there, the better," said Deana Nasser, of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.

Nasser works as a consultant, reading and evaluating TV scripts that depict Muslims. She is excited about All-American Muslim because it is the first show about the ordinary lives of American Muslims to make it to air.

"The reality of the matter is most people get their information from television and the popular media," Nasser said. "If the American public really just knew what the experiences and the struggles were of Muslim Americans, I don't think there would be as much misunderstanding. I think they could relate a lot."

A reality show may not be a traditional teaching mechanism, but Janice Freij, curator at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, is embracing it. She noted that All-American Muslim shares the same central message with the museum: that Muslims, like Christians, can interpret their faith in different ways. This point is illustrated on the show by the sisters Suehaila and Shadia. While Suehaila is active in the Muslim community and prays five times a day, Shadia is covered in tattoos and engaged to a Catholic of Irish descent.

While Freij is optimistic that the show will help the museum's mission, she does worry All-American Muslim might lose its way.

"It's reality TV," she says. "And usually reality TV shows try to make things as juicy as possible. I'm afraid that things might get distorted or skewed a little bit, just in order to spice things up."

That does seem to be the trend.

Beginning with the premiere of Jersey Shore in late 2009, America has developed a seemingly insatiable appetite for ethnic reality shows. The more outrageous, the better. Jersey Shore follows the hard-partying lives of eight Italian Americans and is already in its fourth season. But the average Italian-American isn't thrilled with the final product, which stereotypes them as super-loud, super-vain and prone to violence and sexual indiscretion. Last month, the American clothing giant Abercrombie & Fitch offered to pay one of Jersey Shore's most obnoxious cast members to stop wearing its brand. That's hardly winning American hearts and minds.

Nevertheless, the show's sky-high ratings produced the spin-off K-Shore, which features Asian Americans living in Los Angeles's Koreatown. The New York Times has dubbed Lifetime's Russian Dolls, launched last month to follow a family of immigrants to Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, "borscht-and-bling". And the Bravo network's next project is Shahs of Sunset, which will focus on the lavish lifestyles of LA's Iranian-Americans.

Sensational? Sure. But Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University in New York, says that's just the entertainment business.

"The first rule of these things is try to maximise audience, make lots of money and get renewed," he said. "You do that however you have to."

Thompson cites TLC's Jon & Kate Plus 8 as an example. It started off as a cute parenting show about a mum and dad raising their eight children, and ended up zeroing in on the drama between the parents. The 2009 episode in which Jon and Kate announced their separation drew an audience of 10.6 million people.

But that doesn't mean the high-minded idea behind All-American Muslim is doomed. Thompson also recalls another reality show, Amish in the City, that early critics assumed would exploit and mock America's Amish population. When it was actually broadcast, it was one of the "sweetest, kindest and gentlest" reality TV shows Thompson can recall.

If All-American Muslim does have its sensational moments, Dawud Walid asks, "so what"? He is the executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations in Michigan, the state where the series is based.

"If the episodes do show some drama in the lives of Muslims, like reality shows covering people of other faiths, that would just be reality. Muslim families have drama just like all other families. That doesn't bother me."

The biggest problem facing Muslim Americans is acceptance, Wallid says. He believes the show will give the American public a better sense of what it actually means to be Muslim.

"The misconceptions about American Muslims may be more widespread now than shortly after 9/11," he adds.

America's persistent association of Muslims with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is what prompted Wajahat Ali to pen Domestic Crusaders, a screenplay depicting an ordinary Muslim family living in post-9/11 America.

"Unfortunately, it seems that most of the narratives that have emerged have been framed around the lens of national security, terrorism, religious extremism and violence," Ali said. "We really haven't had exposure in American media to the nuances. To the overwhelming boring ordinariness of Muslim Americans."

This is why he is encouraged by the All-American Muslim concept. What better way to remove the exotic lens than with a reality show, something he calls "as American as apple pie"?

"Reality TV is not the most sophisticated medium of choice. But it is a very popular and influential medium, that for better or worse exists," Ali said. "At the end of the day, Muslim Americans need to be humanised."

The sentiment was reflected in a comment by cast member Shadia Amen-McDermott at last week's press conference.

"This isn't about politics," she said. "It's about the joys of celebrations, weddings, the birth of a child, momentous moments in life that people can relate to."