x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

TV show All-American Muslim aims to demonstrate average life

The controversial reality show All-American Muslim is proving to be a fairly mundane depiction.

A scene from the TV show All-American Muslim: Nader and Nawal are a newlywed couple with their first baby on the way. Courtesy TLC
A scene from the TV show All-American Muslim: Nader and Nawal are a newlywed couple with their first baby on the way. Courtesy TLC

As the first wholesome episode of All-American Muslim draws to a close, the dramatic music is cued and a whirlwind preview of the second episode launches: is Nawal's baby in danger? Does Jeff regret his conversion to Islam? Is Nina going to open a nightclub in Dearborn, against everyone's advice?

The new reality series about the lives of a group of Muslim Americans in Dearborn, Michigan, is working hard to balance two opposing objectives - it has to be dramatic enough to draw in viewers, and boring enough to prove its central thesis: that the country's Muslims are just plain old Starbucks-drinking folk too.

"It's just a show about five different families living their lives, who happen to be Muslim," says Shadia Amen, the pierced and tattooed newlywed who calls herself the family rebel. "It's something that my family's been working on all our lives - trying to engage people outside our community to get a look into our community and realise that we're just like everyone else."

This sentiment is repeated by the show's stars and television network alike: a reality show is a legitimate, modern way to break down the social tensions that persist in post-September 11 America.

When the show debuted on the American channel TLC in mid-November, more than 1.7 million people tuned in, curious to see what the cable network famous for Toddlers & Tiaras, a show about the children's beauty pageant circuit, had cooked up this time. But at the end of a happy hour about interfaith marriages, sharing household duties, and the pros and cons of wearing the hijab, viewers knew one thing: This was no Muslim version of Jersey Shore.

All-American Muslim follows the lives of a large cast of characters who include a high school football coach, a deputy sheriff and an aspiring nightclub owner. The show cuts regularly to staged scenes of them sitting together discussing how they interpret their faith. The tone came as something of a surprise, after months of hype, including full-page promotional ads placed in People magazine with the tagline "One Nation, Under Suspicion".

Reality shows can go wrong, Amen admits with a laugh. But she's happy with her decision to participate in this one.

"There's no cat-fights," she says. "It's just life."

The low-key tone of the show is OK with Wajahat Ali, a Muslim-American playwright who has watched the series unfold. He's happy to see a show about Muslims that doesn't revolve around terrorism, racial profiling or extremism.

"It's refreshingly bland and ordinary," Ali says. "I'm perfectly fine with this being the trail-blazer."

But the kind and gentle nature of the show did nothing to dissuade an Islamophobic "Boycott TLC" Facebook page that has been active since the show was announced. Another blog, Bare Naked Islam, is calling for a larger boycott, targeting corporations that have any ties at all to the show, including Wal-Mart, Clinique and NBC News.

Against this backdrop of persistent ignorance, it's hard not to root for All-American Muslim and its teachable moments - even when they seem forced. But that doesn't mean everyone is onboard, even within America's Muslim community.

A recurring critique of the show is that its scope is too narrow. The participants all reside in the Detroit suburb, and most are Lebanese Shia.

"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," writes the Iranian-American journalist Sohrab Ahmari on Tablet. "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."

Another comment board complaint is that the stars are not proper representatives of Islam. A joke making the rounds is that the bottle-blonde Nina Bazzy, a businesswoman intent on opening a nightclub, looks like she belongs in a Real Housewives series instead.

"I was very excited about this show but after the first episode I am now very disappointed," one critic writes. "This is Muslims gone wild. We need to showcase Islam as the Prophet would like to see it. Charity work, Dawa, etc."

But back in Dearborn, Nader and Nawal Aoude, who are expecting their first child in the series, say they're getting overwhelmingly positive feedback.

"We're very happy with the outcome," Nader says. "We have a lot of support from the community."

The couple adds that the show has generated new dialogue in the city about what it means to be Muslim American. The critics don't bother them.

"We knew what we signed up for. We knew some people were going to label us," Nawal says. "So we're not really that affected by it."

The show is an eight-part series, and TLC has not yet said whether there's a second season in store - though Shadia for one says she's game.

Ali suggests a second season could actually showcase another Muslim community, elsewhere in the US But for his season, he'll keep tuning in to Dearborn. "It's a real human drama," he says. "I'm critical of the hyper-criticism."