TLC draws in viewers by offering a glimpse into the lives of unusual people. There are the Duggars, Freaky Eaters, Hoarding: Buried Alive, The Little Couple, the saving-obsessed ladies of Extreme Couponing, and, of course, the makeup-spackled youngsters of Toddlers & Tiaras. But last night, All-American Muslim premiered, and the the program seemed to focus on how normal the residents of Dearborn, MI are. We were introduced to five (very) different families, and the only thing they have in common is religion.
In addition to airing footage of the families at home, the producers sat different groups of family members down on couches and had them discuss various issues. In the clip above, two different camps offer views about women wearing the hijab. Some families adhere to the Islamic obligation of a woman covering her hair and being modest. Others believe wearing a scarf is a choice. And though Nawal Aoude wears a hijab, she says, "I'm just like every other girl! I like to do my hair."
We also met blonde-haired tight clothing enthusiast Nina Bazzy, who says, "Another Muslim might say I'm not Muslim enough." She is a party planner who wants to open a club. Her business partner — a man — doesn't think it is a good idea. "You're a girl," he says. "You have other things to do, you have your family… A woman, she's not going to handle a club." A conversation that could happen between any two people, of any religion — but that exposes the patriarchal architecture of Islam. Still, it's great that Nina was cast, since she doesn't fit the mold of what many people think a Muslim looks like. (Another man on the show, Mike Jaafar, is a cop. An officer in his department says, "I didn't even know Mike was a Muslim.")
The Zaban family is part of the show, but the camera mostly focuses on Coach Zaban, who's in charge of a predominantly Muslim football team at Fordson High School. The students have games and practices scheduled even during Ramadan — meaning they have to fast all day and then play football. Intense. It was heartbreaking to hear that other schools make fun of them for being Muslim and call them "towelheads" and "camel jockeys."
Last, but not least: Shadia Amen, a Muslim woman with tattoos and piercings, married Jeff McDermott, an Irish Catholic guy so in love he converted to Islam before the wedding. His mother cried and did not attend the conversion ceremony, but she was at the wedding. And she had a great attitude about the whole thing, saying that times change and "people evolve." Also at the wedding: Irish hard shoe dancing, followed by belly dancing.
When I first heard about the show, I had mixed feelings: throwing Muslims into a freakshow lineup is odd; Islam is not like having a house full of old newspapers and dead kittens. On the other hand, the network does offer other programming focusing on how families work — from Little People, Big World to Kate Plus 8 and Sister Wives. The problem is, showing us how normal and ordinary these Muslim families are might be good PR for Islam, but it is not good television. There's a sick thrill in watching spectacles — from the strutting and pouting on Toddlers & Tiaras to the stockpiles of Extreme Couponing. There is also deep satisfaction to be found in documentary filmmaking — a nuanced, well-crafted true story is one of the most moving artforms in the world. So far (and yes, it's only been one episode) All-American Muslim is neither transfixing freakshow nor compelling cinéma vérité. It flirts with mediocrity. That said, the show is positioned as light edutainment. So if just one American tunes in and rethinks how they feel about Muslims, isn't it all worth it?