Where cable’s TLC is usually the Learning Channel that teaches us ordinary people, when placed in front of TV cameras for long periods of time, can become extremely freakish (Jon and Kate Plus 8; Toddlers and Tiaras), its new series, All-American Muslim, is determined to assure its audience that Muslims are ordinary, non-extremist Americans. That such a need even exists suggests a problem that the show is disinclined to address.
This eight-week series, which premiered on Sunday night, gave us five families living in Dearborn, Michigan, which has, we were told, the country’s largest Arab-American population. One story-line designed to hook TLC’s regular viewers follows Shadia, a tattooed and pierced young Muslim woman (“I’m a redneck at heart”) who’s preparing to marry a nice, happily clueless, Roman Catholic young man, Jeff. He converts to Islam to please her family. The premiere’s most wincingly comic scenes involved Jeff’s haltingly, phonetically sounded-out recitation of his Arabic conversion pledge. Witnessing the derisive smiles and giggles of Shadia’s family and their imam was uncomfortable viewing, unless you had decided to buy into the idea that it’s always safe to laugh at the awkward white guy in any TV scenario.
In other reality-TV storylines, Foaud, the Arab-American high-school football coach, counseled his padded charges on how to survive football season during the fasting period of Ramadan. And the person everyone, both viewer and participants alike, were meant to feel most ambivalent about was Nina Bazzy, a real go-getter wedding planner who wants to start up her own nightclub, a business venture met with dismay and disapproval by her fellow Muslims – at no point was the condescension thicker among her colleagues and family than when the platinum-blonde-dyed Nina discussed her wild-and-crazy dreams.
In the two episodes I’ve seen, there is little talk about politics or terrorism – oh, unless you count a group of Evangelical Christians who stage a protest chanting things like, “Mohammed is a pedophile.” Ye gods… But for the most part, All-American Muslim centers on explaining customs and beliefs, and how the people the producers have selected follow or ignore their religions dictums. You get the feeling that to directly address the fears that have arisen about some all-American Muslims in the post 9/11 era would mar the mostly positive vibe this series wants to send out.
Did you watch All-American Muslim, and would you watch it again?