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)
“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.