Ali Calls 'All-American Muslim' A Welcome Relief

TLC's new reality show, All-American Muslim follows five Muslim-American families. It aims to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes about the religion. In a recent piece in The Guardian, Wajahat Ali writes that TLC's portrayal is a "welcome relief from the usual tawdry caricatures of Muslims."

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Ten years after 9/11, a new reality TV show, called "All-American Muslim," tackles stereotypes by following five families in Dearborn, Michigan. They focus on a cop, an expectant mother, a bride, an entrepreneur and a football coach.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "ALL-AMERICAN MUSLIM")

FOUAD ZABAN: The most important things in my life, after Islam, are my family - and coaching football at Fordson High School.

UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #1: Our school, we're 95 percent Muslim.

UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #2: When we play teams away from Dearborn, they start calling us names.

UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #3: You f-in(ph) Arabs, terrorists.

UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #4: You're the A-rabs, camel jockeys.

UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #3: And that just makes us believe 100 percent harder.

CONAN: Fouad Zaban is the head coach of the Fordson High School football team in Dearborn. The families on the show share the same religion and national origin, but lead different lives. We'd like to hear from Muslim Americans. If you've seen the show, does "All-American Muslim" reflect your experience? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Wajahat Ali joins us now from a studio in Berkeley, California. He's a playwright, a lawyer and a commentator who wrote a piece on the show earlier this month, for The Guardian. And it's nice to have you back.

WAJAHAT ALI: How's it going? Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Good. What did you make of the program?

ALI: I think it's refreshingly bland. It's honest, it's real, it's human. And it's nice to see a show where Muslims aren't terrorists, taxi cab drivers or potential terrorists, you know? They're just people.

CONAN: Refreshingly bland - it's not exactly "Jersey Shore," is it?

ALI: Thankfully no, but I do believe, you know, the fact that Muslims have their own reality TV show means, you know, the Muslim agenda is successful. We're taking over America, right? Last year, we put a tiara on the head of Miss USA, Rima Fakih. Yesterday, a Pakistani man bought the Jacksonville Jaguars, and now our own reality TV show.

So, next year, maybe peanut butter and jelly will be replaced by falafel and hummus. But for now, we have our own Shadia, the tattooed, redneck, Arab-American country music aficionado, who's married to an Irish dude. Maybe she'll emerge as the Muslim-American Snooki, and we've officially made it in pop culture America.

CONAN: Yet, clearly, some of the subjects discussed are sex, premarital and post. There are all kinds of discussions about conservative dress - the hijab or not; all kinds of questions about whether it's appropriate for, as you mentioned, the Irish dude to convert to Islam, and what it means to do so.

ALI: Yeah. I mean, it's - you know, it's basically life. It's life of Americans who happen to be Muslims, who happen to be Arab; you know, navigating both their day-to-day life, their relationships and also, how they live and coincide with their religion - which is, you know, not so sensational or unique, if you think about it. If you just step aside for a moment and look at that - look at this, you know, it's oh, it's just a bunch of Americans who are living their lives.

And I think why it's so fascinating for so many people is because number one, 62 percent of Americans say they don't know a Muslim, according to last year's Time magazine poll. And secondly, what we've learned is, most Americans say they have a negative perception of Islam and Muslims based on what they see on the media.

So what you do see is, you know, a terrorist stereotype. What you don't see is, you know, an educated, intelligent American-born Muslim woman who voluntarily chooses to wear the hijab. And even though she wears the hijab, she's opinionated, she works, she practices her Islam and, you know, she talks back to her husband.

And to all Muslim- American families, this is very normal. But to most American viewers, who have been force-fed an image of Osama bin Laden as the representative of 1.5 billion people, this is very eye-opening. And I think for that reason alone, you know, to give a fresh, unique perspective into the lives of five families who are American Muslim and Arab, this is very insightful and unique.

CONAN: The first episode of the season is called "How to Marry a Muslim." Shadia, a member of the Amen - Amen family, wants to marry the non-Muslim man named Jeff, a Roman Catholic. This is something her father and her brother struggle with.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "ALL-AMERICAN MUSLIM")

BILAL AMEN: So you're feeling that if he doesn't convert - or what?

MOHSEN AMEN: My daughter is born Muslim. If he wants marriage with my blessing, to marry a Muslim you have to convert.

BILAL AMEN: His family is Irish Catholic. What if they have a problem with it? You're not going to like it.

MOHSEN AMEN: I've been - I'm not his family. That's something he has to deal with.

CONAN: And this relationship and its evolution is a theme through, I guess, the first three episodes that we've seen.

ALI: Yeah. It's a very engaging storyline. And I think - you know, I went to an all-boys Catholic high school. And I can tell you that, you know, if this was to happen, you know, in my own - my - Catholic family, my friends who are Catholic, you know, if their daughter - if their - someone wants to marry a Muslim, this would be a topic of discussion. This would be a serious discussion. And I think this is - the show tackles it in a very honest way. These are just people living their lives.

And the five families that are in the show are, you know, it's a nice, diverse - if you will - cross-section of people in America. And I think the show kind of tackles the sensitive issue without sensationalism. And I give credit to TLC for not taking the "Jersey Shore" route. And, you know, what we see here are just human people, you know, human beings with their human emotions - very real, very honest - you know, tackling the sensitive issue of, you know, here their daughter is Arab-American and Muslim, and she's marrying a man who's Irish Catholic.

And the brother is saying listen, is he converting for the right reasons? And for him, the right reason is, you know, for the faith. For Shadia, the daughter, she's like, well, I love him, and this is important to me. And he says he's converting for me, and that's enough. And this is a discussion that takes place throughout the show.

CONAN: And neither of them, by the way, tremendously observant on either side.

ALI: Yeah. No. She - neither of them - well, she calls herself the rebel of the family, not too observant. But it's a strong part of her identity. And her husband, the Irish-American man, you know, he's a really likable character, and you kind of give him credit for trying to fast during Ramadan. There's - I think in the second episode, the guy tries to fast and it just wipes him out. And he's like, listen, I can't do this. And I thought that was very honest.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. We're talking with Wajahat Ali, a playwright, attorney and commentator who wrote "The Reality of the 'All-American Muslim' Reality TV Show," which appeared this month in The Guardian, the British newspaper. And we'll start with Susan(ph). Susan, with us from Manchester in Michigan.

SUSAN: Hi. My comment on the show is, as an American Muslim, this is a show about Lebanese Muslims in Dearborn. I'm an American convert to Islam. And when I go to the masjid or the mosque in my area in Ann Arbor, I don't see this as a cross-section of Muslims. I see this as a very small proportion of Muslims. Arab-American Muslims are only 10 percent - or Arabs as Muslims are 10 percent. There are no African-American Muslims in this show, or Muslims from other countries. And I don't see their stories as very relevant to what I see as Muslim Americans in other areas.

CONAN: Wajahat Ali, that's one of the things you raised in your piece.

SUSAN: And I think it's also...

ALI: Right. I mean, the criticism with the community is basically that, you know, when you're a marginalized group such as Muslim Americans, you don't have your voice out there. You want to use your one, rare opportunity in the mainstream media to tell all the stories, right, to show all the representations. But it's never going to happen that way. These are just five families. Yes, they happen to be Lebanese Shia and from Dearborn Michigan...

SUSAN: I know. But to say that they're all-American Muslims and have - for many people to say this is a representation of Islam - I think it's misleading. A lot of people ask me in public, is this how you guys are? I say, well, not really. This is mostly just Lebanese Muslims in Dearborn. And a lot of people think this is what all Muslims are like, or this is representation of American Muslims when truly, we're so diverse. You know, to see a family that's African-American or Indian or Pakistani or like us, white Americans in a small town, would be much more ...

CONAN: Well, Susan, can you appreciate the difficulties of the producers who were trying to get in one, small area and focus on five families, pretty much who know each other and are grouped around a single - you can do a Muslim representation; it's hard to do the Muslim representation.

SUSAN: I know. I just think it's so narrow. And honestly, the very small proportion of Muslims and taking all of them in that group that it was almost like - I don't know, in a way, I think it might have been exploitive of what they wanted to show - showing things that I would never see in my community, like situations with people running nightclubs and stuff.

CONAN: Right.

SUSAN: Yeah.

CONAN: Well, one of the women in the - I forget her name - but wants to open a nightclub, and dresses provocatively for an American Muslim. And that becomes another issue in the show. Just - explaining it, Wajahat Ali.

ALI: Basically look, it's just - it's five families, it's five stories, right? And soon, more avenues will open up to tell other stories reflecting a tremendous diversity of the, you know, the human experience, the human Muslim-American experience. But shows like this help make that reality possible. They give it, you know, a small window. And what happens with our community, specifically, when it comes to - when - most, you know, ethnic communities or immigrant communities or marginalized communities, you know, we want avatars of perfection.

So we're like, how can they show that lady open up a nightclub? You know, that's not what a (foreign language spoken) Muslim woman does. Well, Muslims do all sorts of stuff. You know, she opens up a nightclub, and you won't. So when it's time to tell your story, you know...

SUSAN: I'm not saying that diverse Muslim opinions are important. I just think it's not very representative of - in general, of the modern-day Muslim society in America...

CONAN: OK.

SUSAN: ...meaning the All-American Muslim thing. I would definitely look at it as the Lebanese-Arab Muslim show.

CONAN: All right, the title being a problem. Thanks, Susan, very much for the phone call. Let's see if we could go next, and this is Abdul Hakim(ph), calling us from Ann Arbor.

ABDUL HAKIM: Yes. Good afternoon, gentlemen. And I have to agree with Susan in her analysis of that show. What is - the brother from California is forgetting that Islam is not a religion that you could divide and pick and choose. Islam is a way of life. So if you are a Muslim, you're not going to open a nightclub. You cannot call yourself a Muslim, and still sell alcohol and dress provoc - not in a Muslim dress.

Islam is a way of life, and if we need to represent Islam in America, it has to be the (technical difficulty) is the 75 percent of the Islam what Islam is all about. It's not about the Lebanese Muslim who chooses the way they dress or chooses to drink alcohol (technical difficulty) chooses to dress any way they want. Islam has a dress code. Islam has - this is what all Muslims agree on. The fundamental of Islam is (technical difficulty) very specific.

CONAN: And Abdul Hakim, your phone line is betraying you, but I think we get your point. And we'll get a response from Wajahat Ali.

ALI: What's so funny is that within the show itself, there's comments reflecting his position, right? There are several members of this lady's family and community that say, you know, how can you, as a Muslim-American woman, open up a nightclub? And you know, it's reflective of life, right? And what I was saying is look, when it comes to Muslim-American representation, a lot of people from our communities want all of our representations to be avatars of perfection, right? And number two, they say never air our dirty laundry. That's the immigrant code. Every ethnic community in America knows that, right?

So anytime you get a shot at mainstream TV or mainstream movies, always show the best representation of us. So - and that's a representation, by the way, Neal, that I can say that has never existed nor ever will exist. There's no such thing as the quote- unquote, perfect Muslim. You know, human beings are flawed. And what the show does, I think, is it shows a cross-section of personalities who claim to be Muslim.

So you have this lady who, you know, is opening up a nightclub. There is dissention within the community, which is showed - which is reflected on the show, and then you also have, you know, very, quote-unquote, traditional practicing Muslim women who voluntarily choose to wear the hijab, who take issue with her decision to open up the nightclub. So you get a nice gamut, a good representation of personalities within the community - as we can clearly see even in this engaging, lively, back and forth with the callers.

CONAN: With the callers, yes. Wajahat Ali is with us. We're talking about TLC's reality show "All-American Muslim." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's go next to Maggie(ph), a caller from Dearborn.

MAGGIE: Hi, Neal. Thank you so much for taking my call. I teach political science at Henry Ford Community College, in the heart of Dearborn, and the majority of the students in my classes are of Muslim background. And what I've been hearing from them is they are concerned about - again - the lack of diversity shown. They feel that the show has sort of chosen very westernized Muslims, as opposed to more conservative ones that they feel are reflective of the community.

CONAN: American Muslims.

MAGGIE: Yes.

CONAN: Yes. Well, again, Wajahat Ali, the depiction is what it is.

ALI: Yeah, it's - that's why I keep saying that it's almost a thankless role for anyone to depict Muslims in the mainstream right now. You can't please people within the communities themselves who, I think, want an unrealistic portrayal of - what I call the avatar of perfection. Or, they need to see their representation, right? So they say like, listen, if that Muslim-American character does not represent me, it ceases being authentic and valid. And I think the - what we have to do instead is say, listen, that is just one story, or some stories, of people who claim to be American Muslim, and I have to respect that space and let them be.

And, you know, these types of shows, they will allow, hopefully, more avenues for more stories reflecting the diversity of experience to be exposed to the mainstream. And I think, you know, people are just getting a little bit fed up - which makes sense, because there's such a lack of representation. But it's a process, and I think we should kind of respect the fact that TLC took a gamble on this, especially in the fact that they have had such increasing wave of antagonism by what I call the Islamophobia Network.

And allegedly, Neal - I don't know if you know this - but some advertisers have pulled ads and caved in to, you know, bigotry. I have heard that Home Depot, Sweet'N Low and Wal-Mart have pulled ads based on the negative feedback they've gotten from professional hatemongers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: According to a company spokesperson, Home Depot bought commercial time on the TLC network, but not for any specific program. A Home Depot commercial did air during an episode of "All-American Muslim," but Home Depot was not a sponsor and did not have any advertising scheduled for future episodes. The other companies Ali mentioned did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.]

So, I mean, there's tremendous backlash, and we're living in a very volatile time. But I think the show does do something very positive here by at least giving five narratives of five families who claim to be American Muslim and Arab. And it isn't perfect, and isn't representative of the tremendous diversity - both ethnic, religious, cultural and socioeconomic diversity - of Muslim Americans, but it is a positive start.

CONAN: We don't - Maggie, thanks very much for the phone call. We don't know about the - whether that's accurate about those places pulling their ads, but we'll check on it and get back to you in our next Letters column to see if that's, indeed, what's happened. If so - well, we'll find out what happened. And are you - this is a one-shot series. Are you looking forward to another one?

ALI: Yeah, definitely. I mean, maybe in season two, what they can do, if this is the format they've chosen - right, being so specific - instead of just targeting Lebanese Shia family, you know, it'd be really nice to see, for season two, you know, to focus on the Afghan-American community in Fremont, California. Or season three, go on - the African-American community in the East Coast, right? Just do different cross-sections like that. And mainly, you know, keep it honest. Keep it real, keep it human. Make the characters engaging and honest, and don't traffic in stereotypes and sensationalism. And I think in this day and age, it's a positive start.

CONAN: Wajahat Ali, thanks very much for your time.

ALI: Thanks so much for inviting me. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Wajahat Ali, a playwright, lawyer and commentator, lead writer of the report "Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America." That's produced with the Center for American Progress.

You can find a link to his Guardian piece, "The Reality of the 'All-American Muslim' Reality TV Show," at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. The show itself airs Sundays on TLC at 10 p.m., 9 Central. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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