“Me, the Muslim Next Door” – What Muslim Reality Shows Should Be

One of the main criticisms of TLC’s All American Muslim was that the show’s characters were representative of only a small part of the American Muslim community.  If you felt that way, then a great antidote is “Me, the Muslim Next Door,” a web documentary produced for Radio Canada International.  Filmed in Montreal and Toronto in both English and French, “Me the Muslim Next Door” is over two hours of audio, video, and still photography, broken up into 4-6 minute segments, with each of the show’s participants having several segments.  These segments took place in the participants’ personal landscapes – at home, on the street, with their families.

Dania and her father. Image via "Me, the Muslim Next Door."

“Me, the Muslim Next Door” is cast like a cross between the United Nations and a Benetton ad. I love it.  We have:

  • Eduardo, a Brazilian convert who, by his own admission, used to hate Muslims;
  • Dania, whose father is Eritrean and whose mother is a convert from  Quebec;
  • Mehdi, a Moroccan married to Laila from Afghanistan; they met on Facebook;
  • Suad, whose mother is Syrian and whose father is part Palestinian, part Bosnian and, to add some fun to the mix, her husband Karim is part Finnish, part Egyptian;
  • Rizwan, of South Asian background, who lives in Toronto and takes us to his neighbourhood masjid.

One of my recurring problems with Muslims in the media is that we are often portrayed answering the same questions in the same ways. Every show has something about polygamy or hijab or “fitting in.” We either go on tape with platitudes (“oh but you can only be polygamous if you afford it, isn’t it great that widows can be taken care of”), with statements designed to shock the middle classes (“jihad is ok for the kuffar!”), or with instant fatwas about how our religion says things in black and white (“Islam says music is BAD”).

These topics show up in the “Me the Muslim Next Door”, but the  “personal landscape” format of the videos allows a fresh, personal light without bringing down the level of the discourse.

Laila. Image via "Me, the Muslim Next Door."

Mehdi and Laila, a mixed Sunni-Shia couple, explain that for them, the most important part of Islam is at the level of the shahada. If you say the shahada, you’re ok, and sectarian or other differences don’t matter.  That spoke to me. Jamila, part of a large family, explains why she stays close to her parents – because they made sacrifices for her when she was a child, so she will make sacrifices for them as an adult. Suad and Karim had a marriage semi-arranged by their MSA, “but” played the piano at their wedding. And Dania’s 23rd birthday party was alcohol-free. She mentions alcohol – that she has never had it, but doesn’t see what it could bring to an already good time. These are people and situations I can relate to and the type of Muslims I want people to see when they ask me about my religion. The show’s participants leave out “Islam says this” and instead talk about these topics in the terms of personal choices they have made in their private lives.

As a francophone Louisianian who lived and studied in Canada, I absolutely LOVED seeing normal Muslim people I could relate to in their living rooms talking about their families, hopes, jobs and dreams. I found my place more in this show than I did in “All-American Muslim.” The difference is that the goal of “Me, the Muslim Next Door” isn’t sensational. It nails the fine line between “educating the mass market” and giving Muslim viewers characters who are different enough to be interesting yet similar enough for all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to find common ground.

  • http://www.yasminraoufi.blogspot.com Yasmin

    Very interesting post! I’m really looking forward to seeing this web documentary!

  • Azra

    I loved your review, Nicole! It sounds like the makers of the film hit the nail on the head by highlighting the ‘personal landscape.’ Do you think this show would resonate w/American viewers?

    Also, do you know if this is available to watch online?

    • http://rcinet.ca/memuslim Hector

      To watch Me, the Muslim Next Door go to http://www.rcinet.ca/memuslim.

    • fatima

      Salam Azra,

      I am a Muslim convert in the US and I think this show would definitely be enjoyed here. I am going to let everyone I can know about it!

  • http://aagjedoeken.wordpress.com/ Mieke

    I agree with Yasmin. Sounds very interesting. Thank you for this blogpost.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Great post! I wonder if the reason why this show sounds more interesting and appealing is because it’s on the web. I think that gives its producers much more freedom to explore various aspects of Muslims’ lives and reveal new and interesting perspectives that educate rather than titillate, which is unlike what shows on “old media” format tend to do. The only downside to web-based shows is the difficulty of reaching a wider audience and of helping the show’s creators turn a profit. But I think a show with a solid story and built-in audience is more important that one with a fickle audience and story made for cheap laughs.

    • fatima

      I agree! I think if we all post it to twitter, facebook, or other social media a lot of people will be able to see it who might not otherwise. It’s great that, being on the web, they don’t have to worry about ratings and if the show will continue to air.
      Salam aleykom!!

  • Ijtihad

    Assalamu ‘alekum to you all. Thank you so much Nicole for highlighting this amazing webdocumentary. Definitely, most definitely the best work I’ve ever seen on the topic.

    I did forward it to all of my friends, all the more so that it’s available both in English and in French – I’m French myself. This, in itself, is invaluable, because language is so often an obstacle to the dissemination of ideas, especially in the area of inclusive Islam and related matters. And it gets so frustrating whenever you cannot share knowledge only because of language. Most of the literature from/on inclusive Islam still remains in English, and to date, most French still don’t have a good command of any language but their own (but that’s another story…).

    About the webdoc itself, I was pretty surprised to hear the story of Suad, who explains how much harassment she’s been facing since wearing hijab. I was under the impression that this particular kind of Islamophobia did not occur on a systemic basis both in the US and in Canada, but was more or less of a French specificity instead. Not that it did not exist at all, but that it was not as widespread, and not as socially condoned and politically initiated as it is back here.

    I also very much appreciated that the angle was not to have these Muslims’ discourse fit in to predetermined categories, as we always see it elsewhere, i.e.: “I’ve heard that Islam says this or that, what is your position?” The people portrayed are treated as individuals who happen to be Muslim, and they get to define themselves and their Islam in their own categories and paradigms.

    That’s the reason I was more skeptical at first with the “One last point” scenes, which precisely take one big loaded word (such as hijab, jihad etc.) and has the person respond to it. But I did like the way women in particular seem to not even consider the “media politics” of these words and have their own definition of it instead, based solely on what they believe and experience in their daily lives.

    Last but not least, it is most appreciated that women get to speak for themselves, regardless of how they dress, and with little emphasis put on this particular aspect!