In the realm of reality series, shows like “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and “Jersey Shore” tend to thrive. After all, watching grown women party like they’re still in high school is far more entertaining than watching scenes of Muslims bow in prayer. But when TLC’s new reality show, “All-American Muslim,” premiered earlier this month, almost two million viewers stayed in to watch it, causing a storm of opinionated blog posts and tweets to surface on the web. In Canada meanwhile, some of us failed to comprehend why there was, and still is, so much hype surrounding the show.
The cast of “All-American Muslim” is comprised mostly of Lebanese Arabs of Shiite origins living in Dearborn, Michigan. Naturally, the show has been sensationalized in order to appeal to viewers in the West—in addition to a few who wear the hijab, cast members include a Muslim woman aspiring to open a nightclub, and another who wears mini-skirts, sports red streaked hair, and complains when her wedding veil covers her tattoos; women chosen no doubt, to fight stereotypes of the all too familiar image of the Muslim woman who is oppressed, depressed and dependent on her husband for just about everything.
Many Americans, Islamophobic activist Pamela Geller included, feel that the show is deceiving, as it does not show the “true,” “radical” nature of the religion, with the types of characters who would hijack airplanes, strap bombs to their chests and marry girls a quarter of their ages. But the majority of viewers in Canada are not unaccustomed to seeing the different and diverse faces of Islam, nor is “All-American Muslim” the first show produced to depict Islamic life in the West. CBC’s “Little Mosque on the Prairie” has been airing since 2007, and takes a comical approach to portraying a fictional Muslim community in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.
“The show has done a ton to combat Islamophobia in Canada,” says Anthony Farrell, Canadian writer for “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” Farrell believes viewers who do not have much knowledge about Islam are able to connect with the characters and their relationships with one another through comedy. “Humour is the great equalizer—the first step to getting over our differences is embracing our similarities,” he says.
But according to Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of “Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State,” “Little Mosque on the Prairie” is not at all funny. “Why depict a preacher as a bumbling idiot?” he asks. Fatah believes that it caters to people who laugh at Islam and is a dishonest portrayal of the Muslim community, while “All-American Muslim” is only an honest portrayal of an Arab community living in Dearborn, and isn’t representative of the majority of Muslim America. “In the U.S., there’s some sort of Islamo-patriotism that says you have to befriend these types of shows,” he says.
Somali-Canadian student Habone, 17, feels that the cast of “All-American Muslim” are hard to relate to. “They’re either very conservative or extremely liberal. But most of us Muslims are in between,” she says. Habone suggests that a reality show may not be the best approach to portraying Islam in a positive light in the West, and believes the responsibility instead lies with the news outlets that repeatedly broadcast negative images of the religion. “The media seems to focus only on wars and protests when reporting about Islam,” says Rasul Somji, dubbed “Canada’s first Muslim comedian.” He believes that the reality series is a step forward, as it gives normal human faces to Islam. “The fact that we don’t often show Islam through this kind of view is exactly why people look at us as aliens,” he says.
Given the plethora of articles on the web comparing the show to other reality series, it may sound cliche to draw similarities between “All-American Muslim” and "Jersey Shore.” But after contacting “All-American Muslim” cast member Bilal “Billy” Amen through twitter and receiving a direct message from him saying that he’ll be in Toronto for New Year’s Eve with his “good friend Karl Wolf,” I couldn’t help but feel weary and remember when notorious “Jersey Shore” star Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino made an appearance at Faces Nightclub in Toronto this past September. Granted, being on a reality show automatically makes one an overnight celebrity, but why would Amen celebrate the New Year in Toronto? Could he perhaps have more of a fan following in Canada, than in America? Frankly, I can’t imagine an “All-American Muslim” star being the main attraction at any club in Vegas or New York City.
Somji, who has been on tour with famed Indo-Canadian comedian Russell Peters in both Canada and America, has noted a great difference in attitudes towards Islam. Canadians seem to be more in tune with the normalness of Muslims, and more familiar with the various cultures and communities of the religion and Farrell, who currently lives in Los Angeles, says that a reality show about Muslims wouldn’t be such a big deal had it been filmed and produced in Canada. “America is another story,” he says. “The sad fact is that many Americans still tie the word ‘Muslim’ to ‘terror.’”
Perhaps what it comes down to is the fact that extremist terrorists chose to fly hijacked planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 in the name of Islam. Had their target been the CN tower instead, I’m sure the situation would be quite different.