When the first season of the TV show All-American Muslim aired, everyone had something to say. Some applauded TLC for diversifying. Some condemned TLC for the same thing. Some companies (oh, hi Lowe’s!) pulled commercials out.
The Muslim community itself was torn. One part felt happy that cable television was showing Muslims in a positive light. The other said the show didn’t represent them, and that it was the fault of the families who weren’t, in their opinion, representation of real Muslims.
As the first reality TV show to center on Muslims, All-American Muslim (AAM) created a lot of buzz when plans for it were first announced. It centered on five Arab Muslim families living in Dearborn, Michigan: the Amens, the Bazzis, the Aoudes, the Jaafars and the Zabans.
Muslim Girl caught up with some of the women from AAM to find out what they’re doing now. In this first installment, we talk to Suehaila Amen, who talks about the show and the backlash it received.
Muslim Girl: What did you expect to gain from doing the show?
Suehaila Amen: As someone who understands the impact of changing perceptions and dispelling stereotypes, we saw All-American Muslim as an opportunity to educate non-Muslims about Islam, our culture, and the Dearborn community. Our desire was to change the way people looked at our city, faith, and traditions by welcoming them into our lives and showing them the reality of American Muslim families.
MG: Were there ever times when a scene was developed by the producers?
S.A.: We cannot speak for other families, but for us, we did not have any scripted scenes. There were moments where we would be filming and may have made a comment about something where they would ask us to elaborate, or go back to a topic and get us to re-visit something. They did this to keep us focused and on track with a conversation. As for a scene to be developed, we cannot really say that happened. I mean, they were following our daily lives, unless there was a specific event they followed, wanting to get a desired outcome from a scene. For the majority of filming, we were just going about our daily routine and addressing subjects we would normally discuss or deal with.
MG: How did you react to negative comments from the Muslim community, online and offline?
S.A.: I was disappointed that Muslims reacted so negatively. This was an historical moment in cable television, as All-American Muslim was the FIRST-EVER show to positively highlight the lives of American Muslims in a reality series. I don’t know what people were expecting. There is not one perfect mold for a Muslim, and though we see our faith as being perfect, Muslims are not. We are all flawed and have our issues, and do our best to practice our faith, and adhere to laws and customs. Muslims were upset that we were Lebanese, Shia, and all from Dearborn. Instead of seeing this as a stepping stone for future reality TV opportunities, there was disrespect towards cast members who are liberal, and even towards those who were moderate and conservative. Sadly, the lack of following our Islamic faith and customs showed when other Muslims would judge and disrespect others.
MG: Would you do a second season?
S.A.: We feel that having a second season would have been beneficial for us to continue our stories and share our lives. The production team had high hopes for the show, and many in the crew felt that there was definitely going to be a second season. According to TLC, the decision to cancel the show was based on low ratings, though many of us believe it was due to the backlash received because of showing Muslims in a positive light.
MG: Being reality TV, did you ever feel there was a time that a situation was misrepresented?
S.A.: I can only speak for our family, and I don’t believe we were misrepresented at all. The show clearly captured our silly, serious, and loving sides, and we felt it was a great representation of who we are. I recall there being one scene where the image was edited to make it look like someone got up from the table upset, when it didn’t happen in that context, but it was nothing major, and that’s the chance you take when working with these types of programs. You film for hours and months and have no idea what or how it will be edited to show to the world.
MG: Many commenters from the Muslim community felt that the families selected were not good representatives of Islam. How did you feel about that?
S.A.: It was unfortunate that there were Muslims who could not see beyond the boundaries they place themselves in, and take the show for what it was: The first time for Muslims to be highlighted in a positive manner on cable television. We were given an opportunity to humanize a community that was targeted and negatively portrayed in media. At the end of the day, their opinions were sad to hear, but didn’t matter to us, as we were focused on changing global perceptions of our community. We are all Muslims, and if someone is not happy with the reality of who we are, then they’re free to have their opinion, and we are free to live our lives without worrying about their concerns. Like I said earlier, there is no perfect mold for Muslims. Globally, people adhere to faith differently, and no one is perfect. What mattered to us is that we showed the reality of our lives, whether people agree with the levels of adherence or not, it is the reality; not everyone is a practicing or devout believer, and there are people who are liberal, moderate, conservative and non-practicing. I don’t believe it’s right for people to show a twisted version of who we are to pretend that everyone is perfect; we are flawed and human…there is nothing wrong with that. We leave the judging to the Almighty, and feel we did a fantastic job.
MG: How were you initially approached for the show? Was anyone hesitant? Were you worried about safety?
S.A.: Mike Mosallam, a Dearborn native living in LA and working in entertainment, had been filming several of us to pitch a show to other networks. He heard TLC had a high priority project to do on Muslims, got a contact, secured a meeting, and it went from there. They had been interviewing people around the country and found our group to be the most interesting. They came here at the end of May to do in-person interviews, heard that my sister Shadia and Jeff were getting married, and by early June, we had a contract. By the end of June we were filming so they could capture the July 3 wedding.
Many of us were hesitant as it is hard to trust media and believe that they will show your community in the best light. We were on board knowing our close friend, Mike, was the one vouching for the integrity of the production efforts, and even more comfortable knowing BoomGen Studios was consulting and Mike was on the production team to ensure editing did not portray us negatively.
We began worrying about safety while traveling, as there was so much anti-Muslim backlash that we were concerned with how people would react to seeing us publicly. Thankfully, other than some verbal comments, we never faced threatening concerns.
MG: What criticism did you have to face after the TV show aired, and how did you deal with it?
S.A.: There was a lot of backlash. Hate from Right-wing groups came in abundance; hate letters, threats, social media trolls, etc. The hate-mongers blogging nonsense about our families, trying to demonize us and incite fear was expected, but still appalling. We expected that from the ignorant people in society. I believe our actions and true colors shown on All-American Muslim, and that we proved these people wrong. Sadly, the voices of hate and bigotry are loud in this country, and some companies were weak enough to succumb to the pressure, and align themselves with hate instead of the American values and principles we possess. The people who tried to ridicule normal families going about their daily lives ended up looking like fools, not us. We sat back and enjoyed watching the circus, because we knew we were doing the right thing. We stayed strong, kept our messages positive, and engaged others in meaningful dialogue to help them see the reality of the American Muslim community.
Stay tuned to hear more follow up from the All-American Muslim cast members.