By Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Center for Interreligious Understanding, N.J., with co-authors: The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York City; Professor Marshall Breger, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. and former Reagan White House liaison to the Jewish community; and Suhail A. Khan, Buxton Initiative, Washington, D.C.
We don't normally look to reality TV to teach lessons of faith and religious freedom. But one TV program is doing just that. On an upcoming segment this Sunday, commemorating the 9/11 tragedy, the audience meets real-life first responder Mike, who speaks of the bond of loyalty he shares with his fellow first responders and his heartfelt sense of loss for those who heroically gave their lives on 9/11. With his wife Angela and their three children watching on with pride, Mike and his fellow heroes in uniform carry an American flag during the pre-game ceremony at Detroit's Tiger Stadium.
The support expressed for Mike by his colleagues is poignant because Mike's last name is Jaafar, an Arabic name. Mike is one of the real-life characters on TLC's All American Muslim, the reality TV show that has come under recent attack. Islamophobic extremists seem to have forgotten the values on which this country was founded, and that dismays us.
The show is filmed in Dearborn, Mich., where there is a large American Arab and Muslim population. It has the power to introduce viewers to the lives of five American Muslim families. In addition to Mike and Angela Jaafar, there are sisters in a complicated relationship, a party planner, a high school football coach and newlyweds. The families may share the same faith but even a cursory peek into their everyday lives by means of reality TV, challenges viewers to rethink many commonly held stereotypes about American Muslims and Islam. American Muslims are busy struggling to raise their families, go to work, pay the bills and achieve the American Dream. In short, they are just like us.
Sadly, like those who opposed the building of Jewish synagogues in New York City in the '30s, racial integration in the '50s and a Catholic president in the '60s, a small cadre of hate groups is now opposing this television show because they allege the show "humanized Muslims in America" and is "propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law." Having not succeeded in scaring off enough advertisers (two have pulled ads), they are now also trying to drive off the show's audience and destroy the viability of this critically acclaimed program by killing its ratings.
What terrible thing will happen if these hate groups fail and people continue to watch? Important segments of the American reality TV audience will get a valuable, stereotype-stopping window into people alleged to be "different" from themselves. The audience would then know not to do what they are being told: to fear, to mistrust, to denigrate them.
In another scene, Shadia Amen-McDermott and her brother, Bilal Amen, travel to Lower Manhattan in New York City to visit Ground Zero, pay their respects and to get tattoos from their favorite tattoo artist, Ami James (this is, after all, a reality TV show). As American Muslims of Lebanese decent, Shadia and Bilal initially are apprehensive about their encounter with Ami James, because James is an Israeli Jew who served in the military during the action in Lebanon. Their fears quickly subside once Shadia, Bilal and James are able to discuss their backgrounds openly. They lament that it took leaving their countries of origin and coming to the United States for them to become friends.
But that should be no surprise for us as a nation of immigrants. Many of us, and our forebears, came here looking for a better life. Then, and now once again, we find segments of our country discounting this crucial fact about the United States. Generations of Americans of every race, ethnicity and faith have forged a unity -- a United States -- based on individual liberty and religious freedom. They brought to life the motto "E. Pluribus Unum" -- From Many, One Nation -- as does All American Muslim. It illustrates the vibrancy of our shared American heritage. That heritage is not some lofty goal -- it is who we are as Americans.
We are community leaders from the three Abrahamic faiths who are not usually brought together by reality TV. But this show has ignited an exceptionally valuable conversation. So, rather than tune-out in protest, as Americans, it's time to tune-in.