After the first day, the new TLC show ‘All-American Muslim’ raised quite a few Muslim hackles in my social circle. Among other things, some were offended by its focus on liberal Arab Muslims. ‘What about the rest of us?’ some religious Muslims asked. ‘Why do we have to be assimilated, almost-Whites for us to be on TV? Why can’t our exemplary Muslim lives [er] be represented so we can show how we can be normal AND religious?’
Many Muslims’ desire to have good Muslims (not in Mahmood Mamdani’s sense of moderate, palatable, liberal Westerners who eat falafel) represented on TV was frustrated. Many like myself simply desired a diversity of images; in the case of minority groups, images are few and far between, and most such images are politicized.
Representation is fraught with complexity. Who represents? The bellydancer or the hijabi physician? The Pakistani college student or the Somali taxi-driver? The beer-drinking football fan or the mosque imam? And who is the audience? Liberal secular America, with its fears of all forms of religiosity? For such, their fears might be assuaged by Muslims who behave almost entirely like them.
Perhaps the audience is the right-wing person who donates to Church missions to Muslim lands, fervently believing that the presence of Muslims in America (rather than among the audience of international missions) is a cancer, an offense to the Christian character of the American nation. For such, neither positive nor neutral form of representation or visibility will be either acceptable or palatable. Representation of religious Muslims (whatever that is) will be infuriating, and representation of irreligious Muslims (whatever that is) will be perceived as an insidious attempt at normalizing Muslims.
Then the Facebook page calling for a boycott of TLC was born. And now, under pressure of such organizations as the Florida Family Association, Lowes has pulled its advertising from the show. “All-American Muslim is propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values,” the Florida Family Association claimed, also saying “The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.”
Essentializing, it appears, is a desire shared by both Islamophobes who want bad Muslims in the show and some religious Muslims who want only good, observant Muslims represented. Both sides wish to represent Muslims in a specific way. Since there is no such thing as ‘reality’ in Reality TV, the choices are important. The Florida Family Association would prefer TLC to feature Muslim hijackers in training, or Muslims on death row for rape and murder (preferably for honor killing) – extraordinary rather than ‘ordinary folks,’ Muslims who threaten American values of liberty. Perhaps the opposition of ‘All-American Muslim’ would like to feature a dark, bearded Muslim father with a strong accent, who mandates black veils for his wife (wives?) and daughters, and will not permit his family to drink or to date.
But I wonder where the right-wing Christian organizations would ally themselves on the issue of sexual freedom. Perhaps a Muslim father who forbade his wife from getting an abortion on her seventh pregnancy? Would that help or hinder the cause of representing really bad Muslims? Or would it unnecessarily complicate the picture and cause confusion?
Images are inherently confusing. They never really do what we want them to do.
The ubiquity of visual technologies and our ability to share images globally has rendered the gaze central to our religious and political lives and identities. How people are represented in entertainment media galvanizes individuals, organizations, churches, mosques, corporations, and large quantities of monies. At the heart of most religion, however, is the Divine – the human being alone with God. This aloneness is an uneasy bedfellow, embroiled in an unwilling orgy with our anxieties – indeed, our obsessions – with showing, representing, seeing, preventing-from-showing, adamantly-not-seeing or preventing-from-seeing in the media.