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TLC's All-American Muslim wraps a revolutionary story in reality TV clothing



all-american-muslim.jpgAt first, TLC’s All-American Muslim sounded like a TV critic’s worst nightmare:

It’s the story of five Arab-American families’ struggle to reconcile Muslim faith with life in modern, post-9/11 America. But it’s told as an unscripted, so-called “reality TV” show from the network which also brought you Kate Plus 8 and My Strange Addiction.

Still, look past the contrived drama and ham-fisted editing, and All-American Muslim emerges as something singularly revealing:

The new face of the minority culture’s struggle in America.

Once upon a time, when immigrants came to the United States, they often couldn’t wait to shed their native culture and assimilate into the great American melting pot.

But in modern times, there is a new goal; to retain the things which make your heritage special, while insisting on acceptance as Americans on your own terms.

On All-American Muslim, that means the daughters of the Amen family cover the gamut. Wild child Shadia Amen refuses to wear the traditional hijab headscarf, wears purple streaks in her hair and admits she’s a “hillbilly at heart” who loves going to tailgate parties where alcohol is served.

But she also agrees with father Mohsen’s insistence that her fiancée Jeff, the son of a longtime Irish Catholic family, convert to Islam before they can marry. In next week’s episode, viewers will see her needle Jeff for his inability to stick with the sunup to sundown Ramadan fast (she has little sympathy, it seems, for a man who left his family’s religion behind to be with her.)

all-american-muslim-tlc2.jpgAnother sister, Samira Fawaz, stopped wearing her hijab after the 9/11 attacks. But her failure to conceive a child has led her to don it again, concerned that God is punishing her. A friend, party planner Nina Brazzy, wears her hair blonde and her dresses tight – like a Real Housewife of Arab descent – dreaming of owning her own nightclub and transcending the limited role allowed for women in her family’s culture.

They all live in Dearborn, Mich. a town viewers are told houses the largest mosque in the U.S. and the largest population of Arab Muslims outside the Middle East. See a CNN interview on the show here.

There are basically three struggles playing out here: the effort to adapt strict religious codes to modern life (they laugh about eating at Red Lobster despite Islamic rules against being in places where alcohol is served); the struggle to retain their ethnic and religious culture in a country where every immigrant is pressured to assimilate and the challenge of overcoming Islamophobia in post-9/11 America.

all-american-muslim-tlc.jpgOn the surface, it’s a story of how Muslims are Just Like Us. But below the surface is a different tale: The way each couple chooses what is most important to them about their religion and culture, working hard to reconcile that with life in modern America.

When Samira decides to wear the hijab, for example, she realizes she must also take down photos around her home from her days without the headscarf – only other women and males who are blood relatives can see her without it, now. Earlier, an imam had told her she could only use artificial insemination with her husband’s sperm and her own eggs – otherwise, under his interpretation of Islamic law, any child would be descended from the donors.

It’s a powerful, sometimes subtle message delivered in the language most young TV viewers understand; the same storytelling rhythms as Jersey Shore and the Real Housewives series.

But that’s also the problem. Reality TV shows are often manipulative and misleading; rare is the experienced viewer who will admit they trust everything they see in them.

I have always said reality TV productions’ biggest problem is that they rarely admit their own presence. We never see how producers set up scenarios or what camera people do to capture images; if a supposedly true-to-life series won’t show how its cameras and producers affect the environment, how can you trust any scene they present?

For example, there is a scene in All-American Muslim where a couple waits 15 minutes to be seated in a restaurant outside Dearborn, upset that the hostess seems to be discriminating against them.

But we never see anyone ask management what is going on or what the staffer is doing. The couple is there with a camera crew; could there have been another reason why the hostess was skittish? Or was she selected to wait on the couple because her reaction might create drama?

Regardless, All-American Muslim easily achieves its primary goal; making us all think twice about issues of assimilation, religion and culture.
The only question left for TLC, is whether viewers of Sister Wives and Say Yes to the Dress will show up for something a little more challenging.

All-American Muslim debuted at 10 p.m. Sunday and airs weekly.

[Last modified: Friday, November 11, 2011 4:41pm]


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