"All-American Muslim" controversy: A litmus test

"All-American Muslim" controversy: A litmus test December 21, 2011
Taking a stand

Talk to anyone in the Muslim-American community, and they are bound to give you a different take on TLC’s new, and now controversial show “All-American Muslim.” Some say that the show hits the nail right on the head in its portrayal of the entire spectrum of Muslims – from ultra-liberal, to moderate to orthodox. Conversely, many criticize the show as not being representative of the American Muslim community, as it only depicts one geographical area, and only Muslims from a narrow background, i.e. the Lebanese-American community in Dearborn, MI. And while I certainly see both sides of the argument, I have still watched each episode, as there are still good takeaways and positive portrayals of everyday Muslims, no matter how religious, or non religious they are.

No matter what your view on the show may be, the Muslim community now has a call to action, and this will definitely serve as a litmus test for the community. There is no doubt that we are living in a time of great challenge and turmoil as Muslims in America. Although we are 10 years past the attacks of 9/11, the level of Islamophobia in the US is at its highest and most well established level. The Learning Channel took a bold step by introducing a show that featured Muslims, living a normal middle-class, well-entrenched American life. As soon as the show launched, it was met with fierce opposition, including a protest campaign launched by the right-wing fringe group Florida Family Association, which reached out to every advertiser that aired during “All-American Muslim” and asked them to drop their ads. Shockingly, one major advertiser, Lowe’s, buckled to this pressure. Although the Florida Family Association is exultant, claiming that most advertisers have not renewed their ads, it is more likely that most non-renewals were due to business-based decisions rather than hate and intolerance. In the case of Lowe’s, however, it is clear that the hardware giant acted irrationally in the face of pressure, and as a result greatly damaged its standing as a corporate citizen.

So now that the facts are in front of us, what is the Muslim community going to do? With the rise in anti-Islam sentiment, we have seen a dichotomy in the community; on one hand we have seen a great increase in grassroots and organized activism on behalf of Muslim-American rights. On the other side, there remains a disturbing amount of apathy. Many think the best way to react to a hostile environment is to ride the situation out, and that it will all pass. Will ignoring these issues be the best course of action for Muslims as well as nation in the long term? The answer is no. For those who think that groups like the Florida Family Association are just a flash in the pan, it’s time to think again.

Racism has manifested itself in many eras and in many different ways throughout history. There were times when racism was institutionalized, as in the case of the post-slavery and Jim Crow era toward African Americans. There have been times where the racism or anti-religious sentiment has hovered beneath the surface – as in the case of attitudes toward Catholics – throughout much of America’s history. As we zoom out and examine the timeline of this relatively young country’s history, there has been a relatively unbroken chain of racism or religious discrimination that has manifested in some way, shape or form. There has always been small, yet vocal minorities who have latched onto these movements and who have attempted to fear-monger against a perceived outsider group. This has shifted at one point or another from Catholics, to African-Americans, to Jews, to Asians. The focus is now squarely upon Muslims. When multi-billion dollar firms such as Lowe’s are allowed to make moves such as this without comment, the threat of institutionalized racism becomes that much more of a reality.

Those at the Florida Family Association hide behind a false sense of morality, trying to build a connection to what they perceive as “traditional American values.” In the course of their faulty logic, they completely ignore the rights that all religions (including Muslims specifically) have been given under the First Amendment of the Constitution that they claim to cling to so dearly. The reality is that Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, as well as the Founding Fathers in general, were much more sophisticated in their worldview and more accepting of all peoples, centuries before there was any television or Internet. Past precedent shows us that these hate groups would have likely been on the side of segregation and the marginalization of the aforementioned race and religious groups, had they been present during those times. We must ask ourselves if we are truly at a crossroads when it comes to how Islam is perceived moving forward in the US.

Along with the rising clout of Florida Family Association and similar groups, we also must examine the rise in acceptance of Islamophobia in the political sphere. Look no further than the Republican presidential debates to highlight the reality that the extreme right-wing is an incubator for anti-Muslim sentiment. Today, the leading GOP candidate is likely the one that has the strongest Islamophobic credentials: Newt Gingrich. He often speaks at and panders to so-called values-based voters, a genre which the Florida Family Association belongs. Gingrich has produced and released a fear-mongering, anti-Islam film, “America at Risk,” that has been distributed widely throughout the ultra-right wing community. He recently referred to the Palestinian people as invented – an ugly, disturbing epithet that has become a common talking point in right-wing circles. What is disturbing is the possibility that this discredited, Islamophobic fraudster may just become the Republican nominee for the President of the United States of America.

Many consider Newt to simply be an opportunist – he changes his political positions as the wind blows. But the wind is blowing against the Muslims right now, so what happens if he becomes President, when money and influence stream from many quarters? The same can be said about Lowe’s and their recent missteps. Is this the first step in corporate America legitimizing the fear and hatred of Muslims? With Lowe’s in their pocket, groups such as the Florida Family Association will likely gain political and monetary clout in their campaign to demonize Muslims. We must now ask ourselves: how are we going to change this depressing, seemingly never ending tide of ill-will toward the Muslim community?

The answer is simple: If we sit back and do nothing, we lose. If we continue to ride this thing out, and wait for someone else to write a letter, or for someone else to call, or for someone else to boycott Lowe’s, then chances are that nobody will. We have great organizations that work for our civil rights on a day to day basis, but they can only do so much. All of us can do a small part to contribute to this cause – whether it is writing a letter to Lowe’s executives, calling them to express your dissatisfaction, or to just shop elsewhere in an act of conscientious objection.

As a community, it is our duty to keep this momentum alive, and at the very least, familiarize ourselves and our networks with the nuances of this issue, and the larger Islamophobia issue that we face today. History teaches us a wide array of lessons. Racism didn’t end with the passing of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960’s. Many held onto their deep seated hatred until they realized that it was socially unacceptable to continue to espouse such views – and with time, they slowly faded away. We have seen first-hand the emergence of the anti-Muslim movement. If we allow those who harbor hate to continue to gain traction in this cause, it not only jeopardizes the Muslim-American way of life, but it will also erode at the freedoms and values that make this a great nation.

Imraan Siddiqi is an entrepreneur, writer and MBA from Arizona State University. He writes the blog Stop Islamophobia Now!, and has been published in the Dallas Morning News, The Oregonian, Counterpunch, SuhaibWebb.com, along with other media outlets. If you want to take action, you can contact Lowe’s by calling (800) 445-6937 or emailing karen.s.cobb@lowes.com, Robert.A.Niblock@lowes.com, Thomas.J.Lamb@lowes.com, or execustservice@lowes.com.

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