The retailer Lowe’s has come under fire for its decision to pull advertising from TLC’s All-American Muslim, apparently in response to a small fringe organization that claimed the program didn’t show enough people being as hateful as them. There is a petition, that I am glad to see is doing very well, to encourage people to speak out against this stupidity. We even have Russell Simmons coming out against Lowes’ decision, and I think it’s an important marker that this is not a “Muslim” issue, but a free speech issue.
However, I think we need to look at how we got to this point. In their statement, Lowe’s says, “We based our decision to pull the advertising on this research after hearing the concerns we received through emails, calls, through social media and in news reports.” So, did this fringe Christianist group, the Florida Family Association, really manage to dominate the media narrative through politically correct surrogates who would not acknowledge FFA’s sinister anti-First Amendment agenda? Amazingly not. It seems that the greatest critics of the show have been other Muslims.
I think there are valid critiques one can make of the show. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer made some wonderful observations here on RD, but she also recognized the limitations of the genre, and more importantly, offered constructive suggestions. Zeba Iqbal built on the theme, and talked about the fact that this is reality TV, and is not “gospel.” In other venues, I have written about the fact that this is a great opportunity.
That’s what many individuals with a bully pulpit fail to realize, that it is an opportunity. Instead of building up, they focus on tearing down. Wajahat Ali writes about some of the criticism from the American Muslim community, and on a radio segment gets callers who miss what he is attempting to say. The biggest complaint is that the show is not representative of their experience. Fantastic. Top Chef is not representative of my life, but I don’t complain they are not Americans. I am not Arab, but I am Shi’ah, but a different Shi’ah than the ones on the show. I love it. They are my neighbors and friends, because we all have similar stories. I don’t want them to represent me, I want them to represent themselves, and we can talk about the diversity in the American Muslim community.
What many of these criticizers, not critics, fail to realize is that actions have consequences. I would love to see a second season of All-American Muslim (AAM) that comes to Jackson Heights in Queens to do South Asian Muslims, or to Chicago to cover African-American Muslims. So, what these criticizers did is to create a narrative that even Muslims don’t believe that this show represents Muslims. There was no positive or constructive criticism, just complaints that the critics themselves weren’t on TV. It takes work and effort to build up and represent a community. Instead of putting in that effort, it was easier for the criticizers to say it was a bad show. I wonder how many of these individuals put the same time and effort in writing their representatives about the National Defense Authorization Act.
I am no stranger to taking contrarian opinions in the American Muslim community, coming out against the way Park51 was being developed, or opposed to recognizing Eid holidays in the NYC public school system. However, these were positions that offered alternatives and were meant to affect change and create debate. I am happy I was able to create a conversation around P51 that I think has made the project stronger. I’m glad there was a stronger debate around Eid holidays. What the criticizers of AAM failed to do was understand that their actions have consequences. Their vitriol helped legitimize Lowes’ decision. We have serious disagreements in the community. Let’s take them seriously, but let’s not do it in a way that hurts more than it helps.
BoomGen Studios is doing a lot of publicity for AAM. They approached me to review a screener and get my opinion. I shared my concern that this was too minute a slice of life, but they spoke about the limitations of the art form and had a discussion with me about expanding the vision. The company is co-founded by Reza Aslan, who has done a great deal of popular work in representing the American Muslim community well.
The interaction I had with the folks from BoomGen is the model we should have. Communication and discussion should be the norm, not the exception. Even when this controversy first started developing, Sheila Musaji was even and tempered in her call to action—there was no knee-jerk, reactionary demand. Words and actions have consequences, and the criticizers of AAM need to realize what they have enabled.