Feeling isolated and overwhelmed with her caretaking duties, a new mom struggles with post-partum depression. Another couple wrestles with the painful decision to give up a beloved pet when the wife's allergies become too severe. A woman in a third family experiences work-family conflicts when she is unable to pick up her kids from their first day at school.
An ordinary episode in just another voyeuristic reality television show, right? Apparently not, according to the Florida Family Association, which urged advertisers to boycott the show, All-American Muslim. In their words, "this program is attempting to manipulate Americans into ignoring the threat of jihad and to influence them to believe that being concerned about the jihad threat would somehow victimize these nice people in this show." The implication is that by depicting some Muslims as human beings, even proud American citizens, we might forget the looming threat of terrorism everywhere. Because when they're not cheering on the local football team or working out at the gym, surely these Muslims of Dearborn, Michigan are also raising money to send a cousin to an al-Qaeda training camp or figuring out the best locations to plant a bomb in the Detroit Metro Airport.
The problem is not that groups like Florida Family Association want us to be alert to the signs of jihad,but that most Americans have no idea what the signs of jihad might look like. With a basic ignorance of the everyday lives of Muslims, Americans are more likely to view all symbols of Muslim life with fear, suspicion, and hatred: things like headscarves and mosques, for example. As blogger Spencer Ackerman wrote, in criticizing FBI training materials (since pulled) that urged FBI employees to be suspicious of devout Muslims, "Focusing on the religious behavior of American citizens instead of proven indicators of criminal activity like stockpiling guns or using shady financing makes it more likely that the FBI will miss the real warning signs of terrorism."
More disturbing than the Florida Family Association's hateful campaign, however, is the decision of major retailer Lowe's to pull its advertising from the program. In justifying their decision, a Lowe's spokesperson said, "Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lightning rod for many of those views. As a result we did pull our advertising." It is clear that All-American Muslim has become a lightning rod for intolerance, and by pulling its ads, Lowe's has aligned itself with attempts to exclude and marginalize American Muslims. And there is a danger in this for the retail giant's bottom line, since American Muslims have a purchasing power of more than $12 billion.
In a growing backlash, a petition calling for other companies to defend American values against bigotry and publicly denounce the move to pull advertising has already gathered more than 30,000 signatures. Adding political weight to this is Senator Ted Lieu of California's statement decrying Lowe's decision as "un-American" and "naked religious bigotry." Along with other public figures, including rap impresario Russell Simmons, Lieu has also raised the threat of a boycott, and possibly legislative action.
Reality TV programmers have increasingly combed America's subcultures to gain the attention of viewers. Little people. Exterminators. Preschool beauty pageants. But amid the sea of lousy reality TV programming that has come to dominate the television landscape, All-American Muslim sheds light on a population Americans should learn more about, not to be lulled into a false sense that there is no more terrorism, but to see that Muslims themselves are much more diverse than we think. Because in addition to meeting the devout, hijab-wearing Suehalia and Samira, we also meet their sister, tattooed, outspoken special education worker Shadia. Potential nightclub entrepreneur Nina, with her Shakira-like blonde mane and tight clothes, also shatters our stereotypes about Muslims.
If the example of history has been any indication (think Japanese internment campus in the United States during World War II), demonizing an entire population in our midst can only foster further hatred and misunderstanding. By highlighting the everyday problems American Muslims face, TLC's pioneering new show goes a long way toward finding common ground and fostering cultural understanding.
Follow Rachel Newcomb on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rachelnewcomb