This is a guest post from author Arsalan Iftikhar.
Network news anchor Katie Couric once declared that “bigotry expressed against Muslims in this country was one of the most disturbing stories to surface” in the last few years. At the time, Couric was referring to the proposed Park51 Islamic Center in lower Manhattan (sinisterly referred to as the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ by right-wing opponents), which generated national media attention around the country. “Maybe we need a Muslim version of ‘The Cosby Show,’” Couric continued to say. “I know that sounds crazy, but ‘The Cosby Show’ did so much to change attitudes about African Americans in this country, and I think sometimes people are afraid of what they do not understand.”
Anti-Muslim sentiment in this country has continued to rise since Couric’s comments. A 2010 Washington Post-ABC News public opinion poll found that “roughly half the country (49 percent) holds an unfavorable view of Islam, compared with 37 percent who have a favorable view.” That is a 10% rise from a similar poll taken in October 2002, just a little more than a year removed from the attacks of 9/11. Just this September, a CBS News Poll found that one-in-three think American Muslims are more sympathetic to terrorists than other Americans.
So when TLC’s new reality series “All-American Muslim” recently premiered to over 1.7 million viewers this month, many cultural observers saw it as a positive paradigm shift in our post-9/11 America. Highlighting the diverse lives of several Arab-American families in Dearborn, Michigan (a city with the highest concentration of Arab Muslims in the US), the reality series exposes and humanizes the lives of one small cross-section of the Muslim community to an American public that is largely unfamiliar with Islam. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the majority of TLC viewers have likely never met a single Muslim in their entire life.
A recent episode featured high school football coach Fouad Zaban’s trip to the White House for a Muslim holiday dinner hosted by President Obama; as well as the birth of a child to Nader and Nawal Aoude- a Muslim couple with a modern approach to gender roles and parenting- and on Nina Bazzy, a blonde-haired fashionista trying to open a local nightclub.
Earlier episodes revolved around the wedding preparations of Shadia Amen, a single mom of Lebanese descent who is a self-proclaimed tattooed ‘rebel,’ and her fiancé, Jeff McDermott, a nice Irish Catholic guy from the south side of Chicago. Jeff converts to Islam in order to marry Shadia and the series follows his sometimes bumpy path as a recent Muslim convert.
Obviously one reality show cannot depict the diversity of the entire Muslim community; a Gallup poll found that only about 18 percent of Muslims are of Arab descent, while 35 percent are African-Americans and 18 percent are South Asian (in any case, the majority of Arab Americans are Christian). What’s more, filming a reality show about Muslims in Dearborn is the cultural equivalent of filming a show about Chinese-Americans in San Francisco’s Chinatown. All of this is to say that there is an obvious and necessary gap between the on-the-ground ‘reality’ of the American Muslim landscape and the TLC show’s portrayal of the Muslim community. That has frustrated many Muslim Americans around the country, some of whom have posted their criticisms of the show on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
But these views are short-sighted. With anti-Muslim sentiment at all-time highs in this country, any effort to humanize Muslims, no matter how narrow the scope, should be supported by the general public.
Let us not forget that ‘The Cosby Show’ was not the first television show to bring African-American life into the mainstream in the 1980s. It was James and Florida Evans from ‘Good Times,’ and George and Weezy from ‘The Jeffersons’ who first introduced into our cultural zeitgeist the African American experience (or at least one layer of it) in the 1970s, eventually paving the way for Claire and Heathcliff Huxtable to grace our television airwaves.
Similarly, TLC’s ‘All-American Muslim’ may not be representative of the lives of all American Muslims (it would be impossible to do so), but it can be a societal stepping stone to advancing our national conversation about Islam in America today. By depicting the lives of ‘regular’ Muslim families, their struggles, their successes, and their unique paths toward the American Dream, the show not only dispels certain misconceptions about Muslims, it bridges the gap of ignorance that has been exacerbated by unfair portrayals of Muslims in the media for the last ten years. More importantly, as the first network television show to ever focus an entire series on our American Muslim community – one that does not simply revolve around terrorism – it will help advance our national conversation in a positive direction.
That is something that all Americans should be able to get behind.
Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer and author of the book Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era.