When does it not pay to be Muslim?

Here's a revolutionary concept: how about a TV character happens to be a Muslim and the plot revolve

So Lowe's, the US-based chain of retail home improvement and appliance stores, has decided to pull its advertising from the reality TV show All-American Muslim. Most of us aren't stupefied with shock. Its not like we don't know anti-Muslim bigotry is now acceptable beyond the ranks of Tea Party conventions, but for it to be just so blatant still has a sting to it. Who could have predicted that a TV show portraying the lives of five ordinary Muslim families could produce this tornado in a tea cup. For many Muslims, it confirmed what we'd all secretly been hoping was just acute paranoia: that just being Muslim these days is a political issue.

Following pressure from the stormy Florida Family Association, which referred to the TLC (The Learning Channel) show as "propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda's clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values," Lowe's decided it was not commercially viable to be associated with anything related to Muslims. Even pretty normal ones, apparently.

But it was their seemingly innocuous statement which got my knickers in a twist:

Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lightning rod for many of those views.

(sound of screeching record)

You what?

"This topic" is, in fact, the lives of regular Muslims. You know the ones -- the guy who drives your bus, the woman who treated your sick child, your neighbour, your colleague at work. People have strong "political and societal views" about these folk? On what basis exactly might that be?

For those who haven't caught the series -- and you're missing out if you have -- the genius of the show is its decision to showcase the true range of what it means to be a Muslim, even within this small snap-shot of the Muslim community, in the form of its Arab-American variant. From sassy hijab wearing Nawal, to peroxide blonde aspiring nightclub owner Bazzy, via Mike Jaffar, the deputy chief sheriff, through to the all-American high school football coach Fouad, the show is the first honest representation of what regular Muslims are like. Which is just like the rest of us, it would seem. Or to quote Debbie Almontaser: All-American muslim is as American "as apple galette: different crust on the outside, same gooey filling".

So the suggestion that Nawal's preparation for her baby's birth, or Fouad's management of his team's fasting during Ramadan, or scenes of Shadia hanging out at a country music concert because she's a muslim and she likes country music -- is somehow something people have "strong political views" about, needs to be outed for the downright bigotry it is.

Recent research at Cambridge University looking at the overarchingly negative portrayal of Muslims in the media concludes that "Muslims deserve a better press than they have been given in the past decade". The problems is that when Muslims do get a fair portrayal, even that is apparently political.

But let's give credit where credit is due. At least the US media actually has a show portraying the lives of regular Muslims.

In the UK, the most recent portrayals include the most cringe-worthy and facile plots, from secret gay lovers (one imaginatively called "Christian"!) on Eastenders, to the tyrannical Pakistani father who beats his English wife in West is West. The writer Yasmin Alibhai Brown rightly asks:

Where is the soulful, female Muslim singer, the wily, kebab-millionaire, the two-timing Pakistani cricketer, the Arab heartthrob? They do all exist, but these roles are not written into scripts.

Oh sure, if you're nutty, fanatical and cantankerous, the channels will be more than happy to feature your disjointed rant -- but the reality is regular Muslims are plain absent from British screens. I have yet to see a woman in a headscarf on any mainstream film or programme where her identity was not reduced to a caricatured plot about Islam being dangerous/oppressive/threatening. In fact, the bulk of daytime TV seems to be spin offs of 24 all set in Iraqistan where a veiled Muslim women is being beaten, forced into something, or somehow degraded by a freakishly long-bearded generic Arab shouting "Allahu akbar".

Here's a revolutionary concept: how about she just happens to be a Muslim and the plot revolves around, say, her job within a busy hospital A&E? It worked for ER! Despite Muslims being statistically overrepresented in the medical profession, it took until 2011 for Casualty to introduce us to the peripheral character of Omar Nasri -- not a doctor, but a paramedic.

Muslim actor friends of mine often joke that they seem to have had a lot more employment after 9/11 -- the question is, playing who, or what? Most of them have gained notoriety playing terrorists from the North of England. They cringe as they tell me these are the only parts on offer. A Somali actor friend recently made the difficult decision to turn down the part of a Somali pirate in a Tom Hanks feature film, on the grounds that he didn't want to add to the negative portrayal of Somalis.

And I did say actors -- not actresses -- as the parts which feature Muslim women rarely tend to be played by Muslim women. This is partly to do with the fact that few Muslim women are to be found in the acting industry, or the media more broadly. The struggle any budding Muslim actress might face reminded me of a statement by Asian American broadcaster, Jan Yanihero, featured in the documentary Miss-Representation. Recounting growing up in America, she stated that she never saw anyone on TV who looked like her and so never imagined it possible that she could work in the media. Preceding her testimonial were the profound words of Marie Wilson, the founding president of the White House Project: "you can't be what you can't see."

While the issue of female visibility in the media has thankfully got some attention (apparently saturation point is around 33 per cent visibility), I often note how rarely Muslim women are called upon to contribute to mainstream discussions; even when, as in the Arab revolutions, they are frontline activists in the struggle for change. In a recent Guardian article, Chitra Nagarajan is quoted as saying, on the topic of the absence of women -- particularly black and ethnic-minority women -- from current affairs programmes:

When I was doing my count, it was the early months of the year, when revolutions were happening in the Middle East and north Africa, but very rarely did you actually see a woman from any of those countries speak.

You occasionally saw the men speak, but never the women, which I think ties into the whole idea of black women's vulnerability and invisibility. So black women never speak for themselves - other people speak for them, and over their heads - when it comes to their rights. And the image you see of them is as weak, vulnerable and not being really important agents for change.

Muslim women so very seldom speak for themselves; I don't recall the last British Muslim woman I saw on Newsnight or BBC Question Time. Deliberate policy or not (and I'll venture it is a not), young Muslim women often ask me whether it is even feasible for them to seek a career in the media. It is difficult to be optimistic when I have no concrete examples to show them.

All the more so when, as the Cambridge study confirms, so-called "moderate Muslims" -- those who might get air-time -- often are praised in a way which implies they are good because they aren't fully Muslim. So how can young Muslims aspire to be engaged in an industry which reflects back to them the idea that to be accepted, you must compromise your identity?

Muslims who just get on with their lives aren't seen as newsworthy, and when the focus is on a violent subset of the Muslim community, there is the danger that the majority suffer guilt by association. The proof is in the pudding. What's actually politically contentious in All-American Muslim is its potential to dispel some of the hysteria built up around the Muslim community and show us up, warts and all -- as regular people, with regular problems.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist, currently undertaking a Phd in Oriental Studies at Oxford. Her blog can be found here.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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Westminster terror: Parliament hit by deadly attack

The Met Police is treating the events in Westminster as a "terrorist incident". 

A terrorist attack outside Parliament in Westminster has left four dead, plus the attacker, and injured at least 40 others. 

Police shot dead a man who attacked officers in front of the parliament building in London, after a grey 4x4 mowed down more than a dozen people on Westminster Bridge.

At least two people died on the bridge, and a number of others were seriously hurt, according to the BBC. The victims are understood to include a group of French teenagers. 

Journalists at the scene saw a police officer being stabbed outside Parliament, who was later confirmed to have died. His name was confirmed late on Wednesday night as Keith Palmer, 48.

The assailant was shot by other officers, and is also dead. The Met Police confirmed they are treating the events as a "terrorist incident". There was one assailant, whose identity is known to the police but has not yet been released. 

Theresa May gave a statement outside Number 10 after chairing a COBRA committee. "The terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our Capital City, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech," she said.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has tweeted his thanks for the "tremendous bravery" of the emergency services. 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also released a short statement. He said: "Reports suggest the ongoing incident in Westminster this afternoon is extremely serious. Our thoughts are with the victims of this horrific attack, their families and friends. The police and security staff have taken swift action to ensure the safety of the public, MPs and staff, and we are grateful to them."

After the incident this afternoon, journalists shared footage of injured people in the street, and pictures of a car which crashed into the railings outside Big Ben. After the shots rang out, Parliament was placed under lockdown, with the main rooms including the Commons Chamber and the tearoom sealed off. The streets around Parliament were also cordoned off and Westminster Tube station was closed. 

Those caught up in the incident include visitors to Parliament, such as schoolchildren, who spent the afternoon trapped alongside politicians and political journalists. Hours after the incident, the security services began evacuating MPs and others trapped inside Parliament in small groups. 

The MP Richard Benyon tweeted: "We are locked in Chamber of House of Commons." Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner tweeted: "I'm inside Parliament and me and my staff are safe."

The MP Jo Stevens was one of the first to confirm reports that a police officer had been attacked. She tweeted: "We've just been told a police officer here has been stabbed & the assailant shot."

George Eaton, the New Statesman politics editor, was in the building. He has written about his experience here:

From the window of the parliamentary Press Gallery, I have just seen police shoot a man who charged at officers while carrying what appeared to be a knife. A large crowd was seen fleeing the man before he entered the parliamentary estate. After several officers evaded him he was swiftly shot by armed police. Ministers have been evacuated and journalists ordered to remain at their desks.   

According to The Telegraph, foreign minister Tobias Ellwood, a former soldier, tried to resucitate the police officer who later died. Meanwhile another MP, Mary Creagh, who was going into Westminster to vote, managed to persuade the Westminster tube staff to shut down the station and prevent tourists from wandering on to the scene of the attack. 

A helicopter, ambulances and paramedics soon crowded the scene. There were reports of many badly injured victims. However, one woman was pulled from the River Thames alive.

MPs trapped inside the building shared messages of sympathy for the victims on Westminster Bridge, and in defence of democracy. The Labour MP Jon Trickett has tweeted that "democracy will not be intimidated". MPs in the Chamber stood up to witness the removal of the mace, the symbol of Parliamentary democracy, which symbolises that Parliament is adjourned. 

Brendan Cox, the widower of the late, murdered MP Jo Cox, has tweeted: "Whoever has attacked our parliament for whatever motive will not succeed in dividing us. All of my thoughts with those injured."

Hillary Benn, the Labour MP, has released a video from inside Parliament conveying a message from MPs to the families of the victims.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron has also expressed his sympathy. 

While many MPs praised the security services, they also seemed stunned by the surreal scenes inside Parliament, where counter-terrorism police led evacuations. 

Those trapped inside Parliament included 40 children visiting on a school trip, and a group of boxers, according to the Press Association's Laura Harding. The teachers tried to distract the children by leading them in song and giving them lessons about Parliament. 

In Scotland, the debate over whether to have a second independence referendum initially continued, despite the news, amid bolstered security. After pressure from Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, the session was later suspended. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that her "thoughts are with everyone in and around Westminster". The Welsh Assembly also suspended proceedings. 

A spokesman for New Scotland Yard, the police headquarters, said: "There is an ongoing investigation led by the counter-terrorism command and we would ask anybody who has images or film of the incident to pass it onto police. We know there are a number of casualties, including police officers, but at this stage we cannot confirm numbers or the nature of these injuries."

Three students from a high school from Concarneau, Britanny, were among the people hurt on the bridge, according to French local newspaper Le Telegramme (translated by my colleague Pauline). They were walking when the car hit them, and are understood to be in a critical condition. 

The French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has also tweeted his solidarity with the UK and the victims, saying: "Solidarity with our British friends, terribly hit, our full support to the French high schoolers who are hurt, to their families and schoolmates."

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.