Before I begin, I must disclose my general disdain for reality television. I think this phenomenon is part of a generalized “dumbing down” of America. I’ll even go so far as to say that I lose a bit of respect for those who watch Jersey Shore, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, etc.
But, when I heard about TLC’s All-American Muslim, I was naturally intrigued. It was a clear violation of the rule that Muslims can only be portrayed in American media as terrorist villains or, occasionally, as the token Muslim helping “the good guys” against the Evil Muslim Terrorists. The idea of depicting what real Muslims are like–instead of the caricature in the media–is something I support.
Indeed, there is probably nothing more important in the battle against Islamophobia than humanizing Muslims and making them relatable, which this television show just might do (or at least help in doing so). Katie Couric argued that a “Muslim Cosby Show” would be a great idea: just as it helped many white Americans see that black Americans weren’t all that different from them, so too could a show about American Muslim families help other Americans realize that they aren’t all that different from each other.
JihadWatch’s Robert Spencer and other Islamophobes absolutely hate that idea. That’s why Spencer grumbled that “[t]he point of the show is to depict Muslims as ordinary folks just like you and me who are subjected to unjust suspicion.”
How DARE the show depict Muslims as ordinary folks! Doesn’t TLC know that Muslims are not ordinary at all, that they eat infidel babies for breakfast, shoot jihad laser beams from their eyes, and fart 100% pure radioactive Sharia?
TLC’s much-ballyhooed All-American Muslim reality show makes its agenda clear in its opening sequences: shots of a hijabbed girl roller-skating, Muslims dancing at a wedding, an American flag waving proudly in the breeze, and newspaper clippings proclaiming “4 in 10 Americans ‘suspicious’ of Muslims,” “Outrage at Ground Zero ‘Mosque,’” and “Muslims Brace for Backlash.” The point of the show is to depict Muslims as ordinary folks just like you and me who are subjected to unjust suspicion.
And so we meet one zaftig girl who loves to have fun and go to clubs, and who is in the process of getting married. Another young woman, provocatively dressed by Muslim standards, is trying to open up a club of her own. A young hijab-wearing wife shares the joy of her pregnancy with her loving husband. They’re balancing the demands of faith and family with life’s daily pressures, just like most Americans. So why—the show implies—are non-Muslim Americans so mean to them?
Yet it is noteworthy that both the woman who is getting married and the one who is trying to open a club acknowledge that they are not all that religious. And that is the problem at the heart of All-American Muslim. The Muslims it depicts are for the most part undoubtedly harmless, completely uninterested in jihad and Islamic supremacism…
But Americans aren’t suspicious of Muslims who are trying to get married, open clubs, and play football. Americans are suspicious of Muslims who are trying to blow up American buildings, subvert American freedoms, and assert the primacy of Islamic law over American law.
Robert Spencer is upset that All-American Muslim didn’t portray a family of terrorist Muslims–perhaps they could have named them the Al-Kablams. Here is where Spencer lives in his Islamophobe fantasy: he imagines that American Muslim families are “jihadis” and Islamic supremacists who want to “blow up American buildings, subvert American freedoms, and assert the primacy of Islamic law over American law.”
If Jersey Shore were really about Italian-Americans (as some incorrectly thought it was), do you think it would be justified to demand that the show include a mafioso family in it? Does a reality show about Catholic families in America need to include a family led by a child-molesting priest? Would a reality television show about Mexican-American families be “misleading” if it didn’t include at least one family of illegals? Would a show about Russian or Chinese-Americans be incomplete if it didn’t include at least one family of radical communists? Is a show about black Americans incomplete if it doesn’t include a family of ex-cons?
What utter nonsense.
This would be like arguing that the Cosby Show was misleading white America, since it showed “harmless blacks,” and not the ones “who are trying to rob, rape, and kill whites,” which was a prevailing stereotype of the time. The entire purpose of the Cosby Show–and now All-American Muslim–is to counter stereotypes. So why on earth would All-American Muslim include a terrorist family? Why does anyone take Robert Spencer’s nonsense seriously?
The fact that All-American Muslim chose to include characters who were not very religious had Robert Spencer in quite the tizzy. Interesting, some American Muslim viewers were also taken aback by this. However, AltMuslim.com’s Tuqa Nusairat gave an appropriate response to this criticism, saying:
Let’s stop assuming that Muslims do not drink, have tattoos, or own clubs. If you were somehow shocked by the scenes on this episode, it simply indicates your lack of intermingling with a representative sample of American Muslims.
Only a very small percentage of American Muslims are observant. (The exact percentage is hotly debated, but there is no question that they are in the minority.) And only a fraction of those who are religious wear the headscarf (hijab). Therefore, one could even say that the observant Muslim population is over-represented in All-American Muslim.
This is another reason, among the many, that Islamophobic fear-mongers are wildly off the mark when they portray the American Muslim population as a threat to American democracy. If only a fraction of Muslim women even wear the headscarf in America, what percentage of American Muslims do you think want to overthrow American democracy to replace it with Taliban-style Sharia? (Answer: 0.000000001%)
This is not to buy into Robert Spencer’s false dichotomy between Good, Nominal Muslims on the one hand, and Bad, Observant Muslims on the other. Spencer writes:
[T]here are people who are very knowledgeable about its doctrines and serious about putting them into practice, and others who don’t know and don’t care about what their religion teaches but still identify themselves as members of it, and every gradation in between. It would never happen for obvious reasons, but All-American Muslim would be much more interesting if it tracked one of its secular, attractive nominal Muslims as he decided to get more serious about his faith, and ended up participating in jihad activity or Islamic supremacist efforts to demonize and marginalize those who resist that activity.
He assumes that religious observance would necessitate participation in terrorism and Islamic supremacism. In fact, as I noted above, many of the actors are observant: they reconcile their faith with modernity–and set themselves to being productive citizens; there is no contradiction for them, and millions of others, between being religious and being a good citizen. In fact, they see the two things going hand-in-hand. And Robert Spencer et al. absolutely hate that.
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Elsewhere in the same diatribe, Robert Spencer says:
All-American Muslim addresses nothing of that supremacist ideology, although at times it makes an appearance despite the producers’ best efforts. The woman who is getting married is marrying a Roman Catholic, who converts to Islam in order to marry her. Her father insists on the conversion as a condition of the wedding, and at one point we are told in passing that while a Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, a Muslim woman is not free to marry a non-Muslim man.
There are two issues here: (1) an alleged double standard between Muslim men and women with regard to marrying non-Muslims, and (2) a supposed supremacist attitude that demands that Muslims can only marry fellow Muslims.
Despite the fact that it wasn’t discussed in the first episode of the show (perhaps it will be in future episodes), there exists an alternative opinion with regard to Muslim women marrying non-Muslims, a view grounded in the Quran no less. This dissenting, reformist opinion is expressed by the Islamic intellectual Khaled Abou El Fadl, who allows Muslim men and women to marry non-Muslims.
The traditional opinion uses verse 2:221 of the Quran to completely prohibit Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims (see, for instance, this ultra-conservative Islamic website):
And do not give your women in marriage to idolaters until they believe: a believing slave is certainly better than an idolater, even though he may please you. Such people call you to the Fire, while God calls you to the Garden and forgiveness by His leave.
Yet, the first half of the verse, addressed to the men, is conveniently left out (in bold):
Do not marry idolatresses until they believe: a believing slave woman is certainly better than an idolatress, even though she may please you. And do not give your women in marriage to idolaters until they believe: a believing slave is certainly better than an idolater, even though he may please you. Such people call you to the Fire, while God calls you to the Garden and forgiveness by His leave.
It’s the exact same restriction upon Muslim men. The Quran says in another verse (5:5):
Today all good things have been made lawful for you. The food of the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) is lawful for you as your food is lawful for them. So are chaste, believing, women as well as chaste women of the people who were given the Scripture before you (Jews and Christians), as long as you have given them their bride-gifts and married them, not taking them as lovers or secret mistresses.
Clearly, the first verse (2:221) prohibits marriage to idolaters only, not to all non-Muslims. In fact, throughout the Quran, the “People of the Book” (which includes Jews and Christians) are referred to separately from “idolaters,” an indication that these two groups are not simply interchangeable.
The reformist argument goes: since the exact same word is used for women–in the very same verse, no less–it seems that the Quran is only prohibiting Muslim women from marrying idolaters, not all non-Muslims–it is certainly not referring to Jews and Christians (such as Jeff). Based on this understanding, Muslims are allowed to marry Muslims or non-Muslims, so long as they are chaste.
There are much wider implications to this discussion, including the way different ideological groups within the Islamic community…
1) …choose to emphasize or de-emphasize traditional views.
2) …choose to emphasize or de-emphasize “ijma.”
3) …view the religious texts: do they view the Quran with “fresh eyes” or do they only read the Quran “through” ancient commentaries? Also, is it really true that the stricter, more conservative views are “more authentic” and are more closely grounded in Quranic evidence?
4) …view non-Muslims: are they all idolaters? Or can non-Muslims enter Paradise?
5) …view women and patriarchy.
These and other issues I plan on discussing in greater detail in the future. They are very important to understand if one truly wants to understand the American Muslim community and Islam in general. This understanding and depth of knowledge is needed to tackle Islamophobia as well, and it is critical in order to counter the myths spread by Robert Spencer and co.
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Robert Spencer then says:
Left unanswered in the show is the question of what might have happened if the couple had decided to get married in the Roman Catholic Church, or to leave Islam at some later date. No doubt this non-observant woman’s Muslim relatives would have been less solicitous in that event.
So too are many devout Catholic parents “less solicitous” when their children wish to marry outside the faith. In fact, the Catholic Church blocks all marriages to non-Christians, calling it a “disparity of cult.” One must seek a special exemption from a bishop to conduct such a marriage; the bishop’s job is to try to get the non-Christian partner to agree that the children will be raised Catholic. Is this then a reflection of the supremacist attitude of Catholicism?
How would Robert Spencer himself react if his son or daughter wanted to marry a Muslim? We all know how “solicitous” he’d be feeling.
Certainly, many Protestant Christian groups, especially Evangelicals, insist on only dating and marrying fellow believers. Many outright forbid marriage outside the faith, citing the Biblical verse 2 Corinthians 6:14:
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?
Two of the three major branches of Judaism (Orthodox and Conservative) similarly forbid Jews from marrying non-Jews.
But, remember, when Muslims say that they should only marry fellow believers, that’s a proof of inherent Islamic supremacism!
The lady–in this case, Robert Spencer–doth protest too much, methinks.
Also, it should be pointed out that there is no indication that Shadia is fearful for her life should she choose to marry a non-Muslim. A reasonable assumption is that her father would be upset with her, stop speaking to her for some time, and/or not attend the wedding. Only in Spencer’s mind would it be reasonable to assume that he is going to “honor kill” her. Considering that the total number of Muslim honor killings in the United States can be counted on the hand, why should the show depict that as representative of the millions of American Muslim families?
In fact, Shadia’s father already knows that his daughter is dating Jeff; she even kisses Jeff in front of him. Shadia’s father also knows that she has tattoos and drinks alcohol, among other “un-Islamic” things. He hasn’t killed her yet. In fact, he is loving towards her.
Even though the father’s demand–that Jeff convert to Islam if he wants to marry Shadia–is completely unreasonable, it should be noted that really the father is asking for Jeff to make a token, fake conversion–one that he probably knows is not considered valid in Islam. Contrary to what was depicted on the show, conversion to Islam does not require just saying a simple sentence and presto! Rather, Islam stresses that conversion starts in the heart; without conviction, the conversion meant nothing.
Similarly, Robert Spencer whines elsewhere:
There are many women in the show who are wearing hijabs and many who are not, but we are not allowed to see what might happen if one of the hijab-wearing women decides to take it off. Such conflicts would not serve The Learning Channel’s agenda.
Here again he assumes that the women on the show are forced to wear hijab by their families. This shows Spencer’s unfamiliarity with American Muslim community. One can bet that there are other women in the same family who don’t don the hijab–and nothing happens to them. In fact, it has been a phenomenon that younger American Muslim women don the hijab of their own accord, often against their parent’s wishes. In any case, there is no reason at all to assume that anything at all would happen to them if they chose to take it off. Such considerations would not serve JihadWatch’s agenda.
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Robert Spencer concludes with a sentence that makes clear his views endorsing collective guilt and punishment:
[A]ll that All-American Muslim gives us is a denunciation of “Islamophobia” featuring Muslims who could never have conceivably inspired any suspicion of Islam in the first place.
Spencer seems to be of the opinion that Radical Muslims are the ones to blame, not Islamophobia, for the suspicion the Muslims in All-American Muslim must deal with. Can you imagine how quickly a person would be dubbed a racist if they were to say something outlandish like “black criminals, not white racists, are responsible for racism against the black community”?
Insert any race or religion for “Muslims” and Spencer’s bigotry becomes clear. His beef with All-American Muslim is an argument steeped in Islamophobia, which the show may help to counteract–and that’s why it is only natural that people like Robert Spencer would steadfastly oppose it. The Islamophobes can’t stomach Americans viewing American Muslims as “ordinary folks just like you and me.” And that’s reason enough to support the show, at least in my book.
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Aman Ali, co-creator of 30 Mosques in 30 Days, offered some legitimate criticism of All-American Muslim. The show failed to show the ethnic diversity within the American Muslim community: all the Muslims in the show are Arab-Americans. This reinforces the myth that all Muslims are Arabs, and all Arabs are Muslims. In fact, “[o]nly about 12 percent of Muslims worldwide are Arabs”, and in the United States only 1 in 4 Muslims is of Arab ethnicity.
All-American Muslim didn’t bother to include any characters from the Asian and black communities, even though these two groups make up a greater percentage of the American Muslim population. Writes Ali:
Brilliant! What better way to show the mainstream public an insight into how multicultural and intellectually diverse Islam’s followers are… with a show focusing on just Arabs (20 percent of the world’s Muslim population) who follow the Shia sect of Islam (about 10 percent of the world’s Muslim population).
The show, which premiered over the weekend, presents itself as a glimpse into the American Muslim community but ignores an overwhelming majority of the cultures that comprise it. South Asians like my parents, who came from India, make up one of the largest group of Muslim immigrants in the United States.
That doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that the show makes no reference to African-American Muslims, another huge American Muslim group. Many of the black slaves that built the foundation of this country with blood, sweat and tears were Muslim.
And Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Dave Chappelle and Lupe Fiasco are all American Muslims, too. Hell, Detroit is right next to Dearborn. All the producers had to do was turn around and they’d find one of the most active African-American Muslim communities in the country.
AltMuslim.com’s Tuqa Nusairat countered by saying:
The “reality” is that “Jersey Shore” doesn’t represent Italians in NJ, “Sister Wives” doesn’t represent all Mormons, “Kate Plus Eight” doesn’t represent all families of multiples, so why would would we expect this show to represent all American Muslims?
The problem with Nusairat’s retort is that Italians did and do criticize Jersey Shore for not being representative of their community. They were certainly justified in doing so, even though the show was not called All-American Italians. Similarly, Mormons did and do criticize Sister Wives, because they feel that it is not representative of their faith community. (And I’ll be honest: I’ve never heard of Kate Plus Eight so no comment there.)
Jersey Shore was a poor choice for Nusairat to have relied on to make her argument. However, I agree with her article overall and share her optimistic opinion with regard to the show, which is a refreshing change from the same-old Muslim as Terrorist role that Robert Spencer insists upon. Since people today don’t like reading, the best way to counter Islamophobia and reach the average Joe is not through the long and intricate articles I write, but through the boob tube. All-American Muslim is a step in the right direction.