'All-American Muslim' Carves Path To TLC

A new reality TV show debuting Sunday aims to shed light on a group of Americans who often feel misunderstood as they juggle nationality and faith. All-American Muslim focuses on five families in Dearborn, Mich., which is of the most established and largest communities of Muslim Americans in the U.S. Suehaila Amen, who's featured on the show, speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And today we want to tell you about a new reality show that debuts this Sunday that aims to shed light on a faith community that often feels itself misunderstood, especially in the wake of 9/11. TLC's "All-American Muslim" series focuses on one of the largest and most established communities of American Muslims in the U.S. That's in Dearborn, Michigan. All the characters in this series may be Muslim-American but it soon becomes clear that even within the same family they each lead distinct lives and have different opinions. One of the families featured is the Amens, a well-established local couple with four adult children, who observe their faith in different ways.

Suehaila Amen is the eldest daughter and she's with us now to tell us a little bit more about "All-American Muslim." Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

SUEHAILA AMEN: Thank you for having me with you.

MARTIN: So why did you all decide to take part in this series? And I really want to know what those behind-the-scenes conversations were before you all decided to agree. Or maybe there wasn't.

SUEHAILA AMEN: You know, for the most part, there was a consensus that this was something that we would, you know, be interested in doing, knowing that we were going to be able to work with a network like TLC that has very strong reputation in the world of media. And it was important for us to be able to tell our story in our own voice, as opposed to having somebody else try to tell it for us.

MARTIN: Were you worried at all that it might be "Jersey Shore," you know, trying to - well, you're not "Jersey Shore" because you're obviously very modest. Very lovely, by the way.

SUEHAILA AMEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Beautiful. For those who - obviously, nobody can see you but me, but you have a very beautiful outfit and a lovely hijab, which is kind of sparkly.

SUEHAILA AMEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: But were you at all worried that it would turn into "Jersey Shore," that there would be, like, craziness happening, that...

SUEHAILA AMEN: No.

MARTIN: ...would not reflect well?

SUEHAILA AMEN: It never gets to the point where it's raunchy in any way.

MARTIN: It's not raunchy, but it's definitely interesting and there's definitely some tensions there or tensions - and I don't mean that in a trivial way, but there are some real discussions about real things. One of those real things is the whole question of people marrying outside the faith or people converting to the faith.

The first episode focuses on your sister, Shadia, who met Jeff, who was an Irish Catholic, who converted to Islam to marry her while she was working in a bar. And you have a very different kind of view of it. You don't drink alcohol. Right? You wear a hijab. Your sister, Shadia, who has dyed red hair and tattoos - let's just play a short clip of her talking to somebody she meets while tailgating and she asks if her family came with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "ALL-AMERICAN MUSLIM")

SHADIA AMEN: My family doesn't like country music. We're slowly recruiting them, but...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But is it like a - is it, like, a cultural thing or...

SHADIA AMEN: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...is it just because they don't like it?

SHADIA AMEN: No. You know what? My brother's gone to concerts before. He actually got me into country music and he's really, really religious.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sometimes, people stereotype.

SHADIA AMEN: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And as soon as somebody walks in the neighborhood and has a different color than what your skin is, all of a sudden, oh, my God, they're going to bomb my house. No, they're not.

SHADIA AMEN: Always. And that's why I love looking the way that I do because people meet me, they get to know me, they - oh, you're cool. Where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's your family think about that?

SHADIA AMEN: Nothing. They call me redneck.

MARTIN: OK. Well, okay. I didn't hear that. They're calling you - her redneck. But there is a real moment here where - because Jeff is converting. And one of the things that was interesting was the conversation within the family where one of the sisters - was it you who asks, well, how would you feel if one of your kids came home and said, oh, by the way, I'm becoming a nun?

SUEHAILA AMEN: Yeah. I think that was me that said that. You know, I think it's important that people realize that these are questions that come up in every faith and every culture and every community. And the beautiful thing about our family is that they embraced Jeff wholeheartedly when Shadia first brought him to the family and introduced him to us. It was never an issue of - is he going to convert? It was something that gradually came about. And Jeff is a wonderful young man and I think what mattered most to the family was that he was treating Shadia right and he respected the family and our culture and he was so interested in learning more about it.

MARTIN: Well, wait, wait, wait. I'm sorry. I have to stop you because I actually did watch the episode. Your father does not exactly take that point of view, that he only cared that he treated her right. He does care very deeply that...

SUEHAILA AMEN: When they were dating - no, he did. His first concern was, are you going to be good to my daughter? Yes. You know, I think in every faith, a person would have that issue, just as - you know, you'll see Jeff's mom has that issue - with dealing with your child converting to another faith.

For my father, though, Shadia may not be as conservative as he may wish her to be or embrace the faith as strongly, to him, it is important that the people are married and have the same faith so that, when you have children, you're not fighting those battles that really do come up. And I think a lot of people who get into those inter-religious marriages without thinking about the future and how they're going to raise their kids - those are issues you definitely will face.

MARTIN: Now, I have to say that there are - there was one tidbit that I picked up that I thought was interesting. As they're preparing for the wedding, some of the women who don't wear a hijab are at the beauty salon getting their hair done and getting all duded up. You are getting your hijab, like, specially wrapped. That was a beauty tip that I was not aware of. I didn't realize that. That's a thing, like you can - what do you call that? A wrapper?

SUEHAILA AMEN: They have hijab salons that style your hijab, that actually will create these beautiful designs. Mine was actually very simply done compared to other scarf designs that you'll see. And it's something that, you know, people came up to - be able to have that and take that enjoyment in, you know, getting all dolled up for something special.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking about "All-American Muslim." It's a new reality series on TLC that follows the lives of five Muslim American families in Dearborn, Michigan. I'm joined by one of the family members featured, Suehaila Amen.

The program is premiering on Sunday, so I don't know how many people have seen it online, but already, there have been some critical comments in the blogosphere from people who say that this is politically correct, that it's - I don't know if I can use this term - a whitewash. That, in essence, it doesn't address the things about Islam that people really are troubled by, like plural marriage, like the role of women in the faith or even as it's practiced, not so much in the religion, but in the culture. Particularly, the worldwide culture. How would you respond to that?

SUEHAILA AMEN: You know, unfortunately, I think people tend to look at only what the media is giving you and, when you're looking at remote rural areas in the Middle East, you're not really getting what Islam is all about. Because at the end of the day, Islam is something that many embrace, of every color, culture, race.

MARTIN: I have to just push you on this point, and I don't mean to be obnoxious about it, but this piece is, in part, a reaction to 9/11 in the sense of feeling that your faith community has been cast in a negative light. That's not the media, that's behavior. That is the actions of individuals who claimed that their behavior was in the name of Islam. And the criticism of those who admittedly have not seen the series yet, but their argument is, why isn't that a discussion? Why isn't this behavior by a minority of people part of the conversation?

SUEHAILA AMEN: This isn't a show about politics. This is a show about reality. This is a show about people living their lives. American citizens who live in this country, have grown in this country, been born and raised here, for the most part, and are flourishing and developing in this nation, embracing the values that this great nation was founded upon.

MARTIN: Was it fun?

SUEHAILA AMEN: It was. It was a good time. It was interesting because a lot of us are connected, whether professionally or personally. The families all are familiar with one another, so it was nice to see this coming together, in a sense, where it brought everybody even closer.

MARTIN: Were you all scared, at all, that maybe letting the cameras in would open up some can of worms that you weren't prepared for?

SUEHAILA AMEN: You know, I have to honestly say that was something that we have no qualms about at all. We have a very strong family bond. I think I can say that for the rest of the families, as well. We all have a very strong connection with our families and that's something that cannot be severed.

MARTIN: Suehaila Amen is one of the family members featured in "All-American Muslim," an eight episode series which premieres on TLC this Sunday. She was kind enough to join us in our studio here in Washington, D.C.

Suehaila, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SUEHAILA AMEN: Thank you for having me with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, when we think of hot spots for women's fashion, Iraq and Jordan probably don't leap to mind, but our next guest aims to change that.

HANA SADIQ: I have to teach the woman how to be feminine and sensual as they were before.

MARTIN: Designer Hana Sadiq on marrying Arab culture and high fashion. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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