Between the Detroit Arab- American Study and TLC’s All American Muslims

TLC's All- American Muslim

Study based on the DAAS survey



Sunday was the debut of the much- awaited TLC show All American Muslims. Five Arab American Muslim families from the Detroit area were chosen for a reality show. Much has been written on the show and most of it is positive. This is good. There is national and international interest in Arab Americans and Muslim Americans- an interest that can be traced to the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent mix of curiosity, paranoia, suspicion and enmity displayed toward Arab and Muslim Americans, in part due to the fact that the community “looked” like the enemy. The show was supposed to stimulate conversations and challenge the negative stereotypes about the Muslim American community.
No spelling bee queen, no Snooki
Blessed are those who do not expect too much for they shall not be disappointed. It’s good to keep this saying in mind when thinking of anything in life, this show included. This is reality TV. Some of the comments that I have seen online made by Arab and Muslim Americans are humorous- and to some extent troubling. One mother said that she wants to raise her children as good Muslims and she thought that exposing her kids to the show would help her do the job! Seriously? I wonder how many Italian Americans are encouraging their kids to embrace their Italian roots by watching Jersey Shore’s Chilean Snooki?
Ordinary Lives
The media hype over the show made some think it is a documentary or some scientific and rigorous representation of American “good Muslims”- those who are fully compliant with all the demands of the faith. I understand why some would have that impression. But it’s important to keep things in perspective. It’s TLC, the Teaching and learning Channel, but it’s not the Harvard Channel, Public TV or CNN for that matter. It’s a show about some interesting and likable members of the community. One key lesson one takes from the show is that the community is ordinary and includes a diverse group of people with varying degrees of religiosity and compliance with cultural norms and expectations. In that sense the show is an accurate representation of Muslim Americans. But if one is worried about their daughter’s future just because Nina Bazzi wants to open a club or Shadia Amen marries from outside the community I suggest that these parents need a reality check, not reality TV. If you are expecting a reality show to teach your children how to be Arab Americans or Muslim Americans then I suggest that Shadia Amen and Nina Bazzi are the least of your worries. Seek counseling.
A Part of Reality
Some say reality TV has “nothing” to do with reality. Not true. Reality TV is part of reality- but not “reality”. It is entertainment. The TLC show is not a documentary on Arab Americans or Muslim Americans. This is not a scientific study of Muslim Americans. The five families are not a representative sample of Muslim Americans or Arab Americans. The majority of Arab Americans are Christian and the majority of Muslim Americans are South Asian and African Americans. Some have loudly protested the fact that the show does not represent the Muslim community accurately. Some thought that some individuals have scandalized the community with their comments or dress. This is an interesting and mildly comical response from a Muslim community that has been seen nationally in the dim light of a Muslim man who tried to blow up an airline with hundreds of innocent human beings in it over Detroit and became known as the “underwear bomber.” Ten years after 9/11 and after all the mainstream media stories and scholarly studies we find that when many Americans think of Muslims they think of the “underwear bomber” and the 9/11 hijackers. Given this reality, Nina Bazzi’s reality TV comments are welcome entertainment- even fresh and enlightening.
The Detroit Arab American Study
Those interested in Arab Americans, Muslim Americans and the Detroit Arab and Muslim American community can access a number of scholarly studies on the community. How many are aware of or remember the Detroit Arab American Study (DAAS)? How many Americans, or Muslim and Arab Americans, have read the scholarly studies on our community? It would be great if there was a documentary on DAAS where its findings are presented and explained. The book Citizenship and Crisis –Arab Detroit After 9/11 by the Detroit Arab American Study Team presents findings based on DAAS. It’s a rigorous empirical study. Those interested in the community could go and read the book and the other studies that used the same dataset. In Chapter one Wayne baker and Andrew Shyrock write: “This book intervenes in the post-9/11 process of normalization, slowing it down to enable careful analysis and clear understanding. Through a careful analysis of systematic data collected on these communities and on the general population in the same region, we hope to make two contributions. First, we aim to insert accurate, objective information into the vigorous and often misinformed public discourse about Arab Americans. Our topics include basic demographic patterns, the 9/11 backlash, attitudes about civil liberties, social identities, religion and religious practices, values, social capital, political beliefs, and attitudes about US foreign policy.” And describing the Detroit Arab American community they write: “If Arab Detroit appears culturally distinctive to members of the larger American society, it seems even more peculiar in comparison to the Arab world. The broad range of lifestyles, national backgrounds, and levels of assimilation found among Detroit’s Arab and Arabic speaking population make it a difficult community to represent, both intellectually and politically.”
A Welcome Contribution
Reality TV has its clear and serious limitations in dealing with serious topics. But the other ways of dealing with serious topics also have their limitations. News articles and scholarly studies also have their limitations. A survey is a snapshot of reality that might not necessarily apply before or after. News stories also have their limitations. Go read mainstream articles and see whom they interview and quote when they write about the community and you will come up with a handful of names. Is that an accurate representation of the community? All American Muslims is a welcome contribution to the body of knowledge on Arab and Muslim Americans. The clear shortcomings on accuracy and representation are trumped by the positive message and the wide reach.


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