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U.S. Muslims get their turn at reality TV

November 11, 2011

Washington

From rich housewives to hoarders to the Kardashian clan, practically every kind of family has received the reality TV treatment ― except for American Muslims.

That changes Nov. 13 with the premiere of TLC’s “All-American Muslim.” Advertised with the tagline “One Nation, Under Suspicion,” the eight-part series aims to be an antidote to Islamophobia, documenting five Muslim families in Dearborn, Mich., home to one of the nation’s largest Muslim communities.

“This is something that hasn’t been done before in the way we're doing it,” said show producer Alon Orstein, TLC’s vice president of production and development for the East Coast.

“We felt like (American Muslims) hadn’t been profiled in a way where you really get to know regular, everyday folks, their daily challenges, their life experiences.”

The Discovery Communications network developed the concept late last year, partnering with Los Angeles-based Shed Media U.S. (the production company behind “The Real Housewives of New York City”) and Mike Mosallam, a Dearborn native, Muslim and director of film initiatives for Michigan’s Wayne County.

Amy Winter, TLC’s general manager, said the show follows a network tradition of showcasing households outside the norm ― from Kate Gosselin and her eight church-going kids to the polygamy-practicing Browns from “Sister Wives.”

There are 2.6 million Muslims in the U.S., according to Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, though that only constitutes 0.8 percent of the population.

Despite the familiar formula, TLC arguably hasn’t tapped into such a hot source of political discord before. The 9/11 terrorist attacks cast a sudden ― and often harsh ― spotlight on Islam in America, and Muslim groups say anti-Muslim prejudice remains a problem. A September report by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute found that 47 percent of Americans feel Islam and American values are incompatible.

“God willing (the show) will play a better role in educating our fellow Americans,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Any representations that humanize us will have some benefit, I hope."   

The show’s real-life “cast” features people from diverse lifestyles and viewpoints. One family, the Amens, includes hijab-wearing conservatives and a tattooed woman engaged to an Irish Catholic.

Also featured are a party planner who wants to open her own nightclub despite reservations from a traditionalist male business partner, and a high school football coach who changes his team’s practice schedule to the middle of the night to accommodate the holy month of Ramadan.

All five families in the show are of Arab descent ― a choice that Orstein said was deliberate so the show could focus on a microcosm within Dearborn where all the families intersect. Walid, however, thinks the decision was shortsighted.

“That segment of the community is not the sole representative of American Muslim life,” he said, citing the African-American Muslim community that the show neglects.

Wajahat Ali, an attorney and playwright in Fremont, Calif., who has written about Muslim issues for the Huffington Post and The Guardian, has seen the first two episodes of the show and is also concerned that the families in the show will come to represent all Muslims to the general public.

But Ali said the series is nonetheless a good introduction for viewers who know little about the religion, or the way it is practiced by U.S. Muslims. Ali and writer Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, have just completed a second draft of a TV pilot about an American Muslim cop that HBO is considering.

“American TV is now focusing on Muslim American families that have nothing to do with terrorism or violent extremism or taxis,” Ali said. “Reality TV seems to be the cultural currency of modern culture. ... The fact that we are introduced to Muslim American families as the protagonists of a reality TV show, that in itself is pretty profound and important in this day and age.”

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