By Samina Ali
I swear I heard an audible sigh of relief from one distinct group of viewers as The Learning Channel aired the season finale of All-American Muslim on Sunday evening.
Anyone following the controversy surrounding this show might assume I'm speaking of the Florida Family Association, which claimed this reality series following the everyday lives of five Muslim American families in Dearborn, MI was deeply dangerous because it didn't depict Muslims as they really are, jihadists.
The FAA made a valiant effort to shelve the show by convincing companies to pull their advertisements. Lowes did just that and inadvertently tarnished its reputation, drew a boycott and lost customers all the while bringing the show more attention than it likely would have received otherwise, rallying stars like Jon Stewart, Russell Simmons and Dave Eggers to its defense.
Behind this drama, however, is an important group who's all too happy to be rid of this show yet whose voice has been drowned out by this commotion: American Muslims.
Weeks before leading Islamophobes organized a campaign against the series, more than a few Muslim Americans were already denouncing the show.
Now, wait a minute. What could American Muslims possibly have against a show that is undoubtedly the best PR they've gotten since 9/11?
As much as the show is helping to debunk stereotypes by giving a glimpse into the intimate lives of Americans who practice Islam -- a valuable contribution during a time when 60% of Americans say they don't know a Muslim and anti-Muslim hate crime is at an all time high -- the show doesn't entirely play nice with the Muslim community.
In other words, even as the show is confirming that not all Muslims are anti-American extremists it's simultaneously revealing this religious group's true intolerance.
In an earlier article (see "The True Threat Brewing Inside American-Muslim Communities: Women") I've addressed how the show tackles age old ideologies that infantilize women. In that piece, I'm critical of the men for holding the women back, whether it's from dictating what they wear to limiting their ambitions. Despite my focus on the men stars, I end by saying that men and women both need to rid themselves of these entrenched patriarchal beliefs.
In tonight's season finale, that point couldn't have rung stronger.
In the show, the adult children of the Amen family gather at the parents' house for a potluck dinner. One of the three daughters, Suehaila, is a 32-year-old judicial executive who's forced to live in her mom and dad's house for one simple reason: she's unmarried. Sick of being held back, she announces over dinner that she'd like to pursue her ambitions in D.C. and finally move out.
"Well, that's just not going to happen," comes the response. Not from Suehaila's brother, Bilal, who pleasantly surprised me by supporting his sister. Rather, this disappointing response comes from a more dangerous source: Suehaila's mother, Lila.
That Lila would hold her own daughter back (and tell herself it's out of love) shows how women do each other in by becoming the foot soldiers who enforce the very beliefs that are meant to undermine them.
That All-American Muslim boldly addresses women's (mis)treatment isn't the only reason, however, that members of this community condemn this show. The main contention revolves around an issue that the show is actually silent on.
American Muslims have complained the title All-American Muslim is misleading because the show focuses on one religious, ethnic community (Lebanese Shia in Dearborn) and some have even flat out denied that the stars are in fact true Muslims.
Not true Muslims -- doesn't that complaint sound oddly familiar?
The sad fact is, for all the PR talk by Muslim Americans that the Muslim community is too diverse to be stereotyped, encompassing many different world regions and cultures and races, many Muslims define a "true Muslim" in a monolithic way.
This means that although the cast of All-American Muslim sincerely practice their faith by fasting during Ramadan, reciting the call of prayer into a newborn's ear, some wearing the hijab while others refraining from shaking hands with the opposite sex, they are still easily dismissed as heretics because of one simple fact: they are Shia.
Only between 10-15% of Muslims follow the Shia sect of Islam while the majority are Sunni. Their minority status has led to them being persecuted in many Arab countries from Iraq to Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda is as intolerant of Shias as they are of Christians and Jews. Islamicweb.com comes out and states, "Shi'ism is a totally different religion than Islam."
In tonight's season finale, the famous tattoo artist, Ami James, tells Bilal Amen, who travels to New York to see him, that it's sad that "we have to leave our country to become friends." James is an Israeli Jew who served in the military during the action in Lebanon.
That James can forget his past and extend friendship to a Muslim of Lebanese descent merely highlights the depth of intolerance displayed by so many American Muslims who've denounced their own fellow Muslims and damned this show.
What's further disturbing is that not once do the stars come out and mention their particular sect. That the show remains silent about the Shia cast is actually a clear statement that this minority group is in fact "all Muslim."
Still, the question must be asked. What gave it away? One detail in one episode. The black robe worn by the imam who marries Shadia Amen to Jeff McDermott in the season opener, which resembles that of Shia clerics.
If you missed it, don't feel foolish. So did I. I was caught up in the storyline, wondering if McDermott was converting for the right reasons and hoping the marriage would survive despite the couple's differences.
That's exactly the value of All-American Muslim. The show deftly walks a tightrope: it entertains even as it introduces viewers to a misunderstood group of Americans. And as it's debunking stereotypes, the show holds American Muslims accountable for the offenses they do commit.
Now that's worth another season (or two) of airtime.
Writer and Muslim woman activist Samina Ali is the author of the award-winning novel Madras on Rainy Days. Visit Samina on Red Room, where you can read her blog and buy her book.
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