The Learning Channel (TLC) recently aired the new reality television program, All-American Muslim, amid a great deal of buzz both within and outside the Muslim American community. Set in Dearborn, Michigan, a city that is well-known for its large Muslim and Arab populations, the series focuses on American-born Muslims and aims to answer the question: “What is it like to be Muslim in America?”

America’s Muslim population is diverse in ethnicity, class and religious expression. Attending a Friday prayer or better yet, an Eid celebration showcases this diversity at its best — Turkish Americans next to Bosnian Americans, next to Bangladeshi, Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Pakistani, Palestinian and African Americans — the list goes on. There are those who attend mosque regularly and others who show up to socialize during the holidays.

While TLC does not claim to represent all Muslim Americans, by focusing only on American Shia Muslims of Lebanese descent living in Detroit, and with a title that claims to speak on behalf of the “All-American Muslim,” the series certainly raises the question of whether it represents the experience of Muslim Americans in general.

The choice of those Americans featured in the show reflects a desire by the producers to represent many of the issues that Muslim Americans face, such as navigating family and religious pressures when it comes to interfaith marriage, or the pros and cons of wearing the hijab (headscarf).

TLC did an excellent job of portraying equal numbers of Muslim women who wear headscarves and those who don’t — a distinction that the average American may be oblivious to. However, their choice to use Arabs for the cast has frustrated many Muslim Americans because it perpetuates the misconception that Arab is synonymous with Muslim. Many Americans may continue to miss the point that there are considerable Arab Christian and Jewish populations on the one hand, and that in fact only about a third of Muslim Americans are Arab, on the other.

Regardless of the question of representation, the cast of the show certainly makes for good entertainment value. With some strong, dynamic female characters, viewers get a closer look at the oft-misconstrued role of women in Islam. The leading women include business owners and housewives, women in headscarves, and others with tattoos.

Chances are that many readers are as sceptical as I am about reality television. Research shows that reality television is not to be trusted — from casting to editing, there are many ways to shape the final product and manipulate viewers’ perceptions. But what is promising is that Muslim Americans are starting to be featured in all types of television programming — from reality television, to comedies, to the Food Network.

Perhaps this is the beginning of a new trend in the media. Perhaps giving greater, and more positive, exposure to Muslim Americans will foster a deeper understanding of how diverse a community it is and the many different roles Muslims play within American society.

I am growing tired of saying this every time I notice a fresh approach toward Muslims in American media, but I will say it again: this is a start. All-American Muslim does at least succeed in scratching the surface of a wide range of subcultures within the Muslim American community.

It succeeds in portraying the diversity in Muslim communities beyond the image of the veiled versus unveiled woman. It includes Muslims who both drink and sell alcohol (something that is prohibited in Islam) and those who do not, and portrays those who pray five times a day and those who do not.

If the producers of the show can manage to engage the community in constructive conversations about some of the issues our community has not yet resolved — such as how some Muslims identify themselves as Muslim, though they do not practice or go to the mosque — that in itself would be an achievement.

The show is a potential gateway for Americans to see the stunning diversity within a faith that is often portrayed negatively in the media. Here, viewers perceive Muslims wanting the very same things that most families around the world want: for their children to grow up and be productive citizens and find good partners who make them happy, and simply to do right by each other and by their faith.

Marwa HelalMarwa Helal is a non-fiction writer and journalist. She is co-founder and creative and editorial director of FEN Magazine, a magazine dedicated to covering Arab American art and artists.

A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on November 29, 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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I can see your perspective in regards to TLC giving into the idea that Arabs = Muslims and making the two almost interchangeable terms, however I don't know if you've checked out last nights episode but they introduced a Lebanese Christian on the show. I would say anything as of yet, let's wait and see what the remaining four episodes have in store for us. Perhaps they will introduce more ethnic groups in the community of Dearborn. 

However great article! And I agree, the show is doing a great job in showing religious diversity from the liberal to the devout! Also the show is unveiling and humanizing the Muslims to the Non Muslim Western World

Thanks for the article!  Any chance that On Being is going to do a feature about the show.  I personally love the show.  Last night, almost brought me to tears twice with a new baby.  I've never seen a call to prayer and it was absolutely beautiful.

Then Suehaila's story, really touched me because I am going through the same and I'm not even Muslim.  It's lonely to be successful without a person to share it with.

Marwa, thank you for perspective.

From a Buddhist standpoint, it is interesting to see all the dialogue surrounding the show.  The show seems to definitely reflect many points of views which points in the direction of where things need to be modified. 

I am a little concerned though by some of the negative things I have been seeing.  Just the other day, I got a note from who will host a discussion about the show with Robert Spencer who I have heard speak quite negatively about Muslims in general.  I find it really fascinating how so many people are defining others on what is the correct view of "Islam"  Isn't faith a personal journey?

I do not watch TV but being from Michigan this show was featured in our paper. I felt good to see that such a show was being offered and filmed in Dearborn. Yes, it is true about the Muslim=Arab when there is a mosque not far away where you would find muslims of mutiethnic backgrounds, so perhaps this idea should  be introduced into the show via a meeting with non arab muslims. I did catch some of the CBC series called Little Mosque on the Prairie as my library had a dvd collection of the series and I found it quite entertaining and informative for a WASP female.