video courtesy of TLC
For much of "All-American Muslim," the successful and controversial show on TLC, the focus has been on five families in Dearborn, Michigan and their lives as Muslims. Their interactions with the non-Islamic parts of the community are often reduced to superficial sound bites. The next episode however, set to air on January 2nd, uses the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as a framework to demonstrate that their American identity is as important to them as their religious identity. If viewers have not yet been convinced that this show is about being American as much as it is about being Muslim, this episode clinches it. The characters' words and actions constantly speak to their deep sense of patriotism.
Clichéd? Perhaps. Hyped up for the camera? Perhaps. But what saves the episode from the saccharineness of an afterschool special is that these emotions also feel so genuine. When Mike Jaafar, the deputy sheriff of Dearborn, talks to the camera with tears in his eyes about colleagues he knew who never came back from the Twin Towers, only the most hard-hearted among us could not choke up along with him.
For those who do not traffic in the bigotry of anti-Muslim rhetoric, the emphasis placed on the very Americaness of the Muslims it portrays perhaps comes across as too heavy-handed. Yet it can be easy to forget the prejudices of some who insist on the 'otherness' of Muslim Americans while watching this episode. One only has to look to the furor over Lowes' pulling their ads during the airing of the show to see the obstacles that remain. All of the characters on the show struggle with how to react and respond to the hatred or suspicion they feel they face for simply being Muslim in a post-9/11 America. None of them has figured out how to effectively address those who seek to drive a wedge between Muslims and their American identity. Even the very act of commemorating an event that affected them as deeply as any other American is fraught with tension. For Lila Amen, to remember 9/11 with others in Dearborn, both Muslim and non-Islamic, demonstrates a show of unity as a nation whereas for her adult children, Bilal and Shadia, the day is simply one more reminder that Lila's vision of a united country is a long way from being achieved.
Yet amidst all the pessimism, the power of interfaith relationships was the rare bright spot in the episode. The expressions of greatest hope and optimism were expressed following instances when people of different faiths reached out to positively engage with them. Whether it was at a 9/11 interfaith religious service or the friendship between Jaafar and his non-Muslim colleagues on the police force, the importance and strength of interfaith relations became the core message. But nowhere did this message have a greater impact than on Bilal and Shadia.
After Lila chided them for not observing 9/11, her two children decide to create their own commemoration and visit Ground Zero. But it was not their trip to the rubble of the World Trade Center site, but rather a visit to a tattoo parlor run by Israeli tattoo artist Ami James that finally offered them a fresh perspective. Despite their concerns, Bilal and Shadia realized that meeting a Jew and an Israeli for the first time, did not have to be a disaster. Instead, they unexpectedly found common ground. Even more importantly, they discovered that by sharing each others' stories, they began to understand that each group has their tales of discrimination and prejudice they must face. In that encounter, they saw that personal connections that can help remove the defenses that they, and others, too often carry around with them. For a brief moment, they found the sense of unity that their mother wanted for them.
When not being criticized by fringe Conservatives for only showing "normal" Muslims, All American Muslim is also criticized for being boring. It's true that the show lacks the schadenfreude of other TLC reality shows. Instead of showing how one shouldn't behave, it offers a how-to primer on how to behave. These five families represent a typical American life: career, kids, marriage, and celebrating religious and cultural traditions. They are our neighbors, our friends, our peers. Many are willing, as this episode vividly shows, to defend others in the line of duty, to speak with sadness, but without rancor, about the pain they feel as outcasts in their own country, and to adjust their mindset based on new experiences. Unfortunately, too many choose to ignore what they have to tell us. The problem lies not with them, but with us. We were all strangers once in this country and their story is our story. They are willing to step outside their Muslim bubble, to engage with the larger community, and insist on embracing their dual American and Muslim identities. The hard question remains: are the rest of us as brave?