Some Thoughts on “All-American Muslim” and Lowe’s
Most of my television watching comes on DVDs months after the fact, so I haven’t seen “All-American Muslim.” Nor have I ever shopped at Lowe’s. (I have, however, bought many plane tickets through Kayak, which has now revealed itself to be as weak as Lowe’s, for half the flak.)
But I’ve been following the controversy, in which Lowe’s, Kayak, and possibly other companies stopped advertising on TLC’s “All-American Muslim” after complaints from the little known Florida Family Association, some flame-throwing blogs, and piqued customers. The complaint, in essence, was that the show, which follows five varied, fairly ordinary Muslim families in the Detroit area, is dangerous because it fails to also depict extremist Islam, thus lulling us into complacency. (The irony is that the “Islamic believers” the Florida Family Association claims we ought to fear are also the most likely to agree with its stance against homosexuality and pornography.)
Lowe’s has maintained it wanted to avoid a political or social conflict. Given the Association’s stated mission of defending, protecting and promoting “traditional, biblical values” (determined, apparently, by Internet polling of its members, who cited Islam as their number-one fear), the home-improvement chain has squarely taken sides in a religious one.
My novel, The Submission, deals with somewhat similar territory. In it, an American Muslim wins an anonymous competition to design a 9/11-like memorial, only to find his right to proceed questioned as critics and supporters alike attempt to discern what “kind” of Muslim he is — how bona his American fides are, to mutilate the Latin. The reaction in some quarters to “All-American Muslim” — the assertion that it’s “propaganda” because it doesn’t show the dangerous Muslims — doesn’t entirely surprise me: early on, a reader approached me to make the same complaint about The Submission. She was, by coincidence, also from the Detroit area. It took a long, circuitous evasive conversation to ascertain her beef: none of my Muslim characters were of the Al Qaeda persuasion, and therefore the novel couldn’t possibly be authentic. It wasn’t a “true” picture of Islam. Putting aside whether fiction is required to provide a “true” picture of anything –– it’s not — why is her version of Islam “truer” than mine?
But this is where we are ten years after 9/11: the hijackers dead, the cloud of suspicion they unleashed still hanging over American Muslims. Which is why, to my surprise, I find myself torn about “All-American Muslim” — not the content, which I can’t judge, but the concept. The show sounds like a commendable, even entertaining effort to disperse that cloud of suspicion — to present Muslims as “normal,” as fully American — yet I wonder if it inadvertently fuels the fire it seeks to dampen. The title “All-American Muslim” implies there is another kind, or at least accepts that there is a question about Muslims’ Americanness. Sometimes to entertain a question is also to answer it. It is hard for me to imagine a show today called “All-American Jew,” or “All-American Christian,” or even “All-American Evangelical.” A show called “All-American Black” or Chinese or Hispanic would be considered condescending, even insulting — to suggest they needed that label affixed, that they could be otherwise.
The show is being congratulated for, in the words of Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press, demonstrating “that the lives of Muslim Americans are pretty much like the lives of non-Muslim Americans.” Was there doubt? What, exactly, are the lives of non-Muslim Americans like, anyway? When a TLC executive tells The Washington Post, “It was important to provide people with this experience, so they could form their own opinions,” what is he suggesting we form opinions about?
What should concern Muslims and non-Muslims alike is not just Lowe’s cravenness, but the momentum the effort to estrange Muslim-Americans, to make us question their American-ness, has gained, rather than lost, in the past decade. As much as Lowe’s response, perhaps the show also points to that. During an interview this year, I was asked if I thought Muslims would “ever” be assimilated into America. The question shocked me: Muslims, who began coming to America in significant numbers since the 1960s, have been assimilated for decades. Before 9/11 – before the last few years, in truth, when the campaign against even “peaceful” Muslims for their supposed allegiance to Sharia gained momentum —no one would have thought to question it.
The Florida Family Association took exception to a Muslim law enforcement official stating, on the show: “I really am American. No ifs, ands, and buts about it.”
Shouldn’t we all take exception, of a different kind, to any American having to provide that reassurance?