e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu

11/15/2011

What's Wrong with All-American Muslim?

TLC's new reality tv show revolves around a group of Muslims who live in Dearborn, Michigan, where I happen to teach. Aside from making money without having to pay writers and actors, TLC seems to want to offer honest, interesting portrayals of Muslims to counter the predictable, ugly stereotypes the media often reproduces. The producers managed to find representatives of the community who practice the religion differently, but have so far missed lots of opportunities.

Let's start with "the community." The group the show seeks to represent is somewhat ambiguous. American Muslims in general? Not exactly, because the show is in many way *about* Dearborn and its unique dynamics. And the show seems to focus, implicitly at least, on Arab Muslims in order to engage with the cultural-religious-ethnic enclave here. That's fine; certainly the program has no obligations to represent the totality of American Islam. Indeed, looking at the intersections of religion, culture, and ethnicity could be really interesting. So, then, why do the show's personalities all seem so homogenous? Most of the stars are Shi'a from South Lebanon, which in some ways makes sense because that particular group is so prevalent, visible, and active in Dearborn. Seems like a missed opportunity, though, given the Yemeni, Palestinian, and Iraqi Muslims who live here too. All the characters seem very upwardly mobile, too. If you want to engage with religious, cultural, and ethnic intersections, broaden the scope.

The program also doesn't provide much context. Maybe this will happen in later episodes. So far, the show hasn't told us anything about Dearborn's history. No mention of the city's history of racism and segregation ("Keep Dearborn Clean"), for instance. Maybe the reality tv genre simply can't make room for this kind of context, but why not show the city's evolution from segregated white community to ethnic enclave? Likewise, aside from high school football players mentioning briefly the racist taunts of opposing teams, there was no mention of post-9/11 Islamaphobia. The show doesn't have to "go negative" per se, but barely mentioning this seems to me like missing context. Perhaps the show wants to tread lightly in order to connect to as wide an audience as possible, but, sheesh, if the show is about honest representations, than tell the truth.

Somewhat related to the context or lack thereof, how come there was no mention whatsoever of the old country? I don't think I heard the words "immigrant," "Lebanon," or certainly "South Lebanon" during the whole episode, aside from one woman saying that her husband "comes from the same village." If the show is exploring cultural identity and how religion and ethnicity intersect, than surely this will eventually come up. Given South Lebanon's especially contentious relationship with Israel, will mentioning context more explicitly be acceptable? Will anyone say something like, "My family comes from Bint Jbeil"? And is that desirable? I'm speaking as an outsider--neither Arab nor Muslim--so my perspective is necessarily limited.

Also, speaking of shout-outs, how about a mention of U of M Dearborn?