BY STEPHANIE COSBY, News Editor
“Clearly this show, All-American Muslim, has touched off a dialogue, a debate, a discussion,” moderator and Wayne State Professor Saeed Khan began at Tuesday night’s panel discussion on TLC’s much talked about, Dearborn-based show.
The show’s creator and co-executive producer Mike Mosallam, professors Hani Bawardi and Sally Howell, and UM-Dearborn students Aayat Ali and Suhaib Al-Hanooti spoke on the panel to students, faculty, staff, community members, and a handful of the cast members.
Mosallam, a current Los Angeles resident born and raised in Dearborn, explained that he got the idea for the show on Sept. 12, 2001. In the wake of 9/11, with misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims flying around, he wanted “a collection of stories that turned archetypes and stereotypes on their heads.” “If you take a group…and you assign them attributes and that’s the only picture you paint, all you have is misunderstanding,” he said.
The idea came to fruition in February 2011, when he landed in a pitch meeting with TLC executives through a friend he had worked with on the Middle Eastern show “On the Road in America.” TLC had been seeking a “Muslim companion” to their show “Sister Wives” that chronicles the lives of a polygamous, Mormon family, but had been unable to make connections in the Dearborn community.
Mosallam suggested families he had known his whole life that “might be good on television.” He noted that working on this project with friends was difficult. “There’s a delicate balance between trying to create a television show and worrying about what will happen to them,” he said.
Responding to general community-wide criticism that the show did not showcase a wide variety of Arabs or Muslims, Mosallam stated that the show “is not a documentary called ‘How To Be A Muslim’… it’s not ALL American Muslims… the premise was to tell the story of five families from a concentrated community with unique lifestyles and approaches to the religion.”
Student Aayat Ali echoed this sentiment. “Not all Muslims are the same… Each Muslim practices their faith differently just as every Christian practices their faith differently,” she said. Ali urged the audience to “look at the way each of us are different and understand that this is what makes us a community.”
Professor Hani Bawardi touched upon the attack by the Florida Family Association (FFA) and the subsequent Lowe’s advertisement fiasco. Bawardi shared that, according to the IRS, the FFA is essentially a “one man operation.” Speaking on the FFA’s effect, Bawardi said, “It’s not that they have a large following. It’s because most people are quiet that they have such a loud voice. Bigotry in language… thrives because of silence.”
Student Suhaib Al-Hanooti pointed out that the community’s response to the FFA and Lowe’s had been strong, however, noting the Allen Park Lowe’s protest in particular. Al-Hanooti also focused on the positive impact the show had had on the Muslim-Arab community.
“Islamophobia comes from people not being aware of what Islam is,” Al-Hanooti said. This show allowed people to learn about a religion and a people they knew little to nothing about. He compared this minority-to-majority boundary-breaking to the Cosby Show’s impact on the African-American community and spoke of friends feeling more comfortable at school and in their community now that others are more aware of their culture.
Professor Sally Howell reiterated how revolutionary it is to see “everyday Muslims living their everyday lives, navigating ordinary concerns.” She felt that some of the community uproar came from the “trauma” of a minority being exposed to the mainstream and the desire to showcase only the most exemplary, representative members.
Howell later joked that a friend had been surprised by how “boring” the show was, in the sense that it depicted such ordinary life events like weddings and having children. Both Howell and Mosallam agreed that “in this context, boring is historical” because Muslim-Arabs have not been portrayed this way in the mainstream before. “That was kind of the point,” Mosallam noted.
Mosallam is unsure, but hopeful that there will be a second season of the show soon, and he urged the community to keep talking regardless. “This is not a definite representation of our larger community…it is the beginning of mainstreaming our voices and stories. If somebody has a different story, you can and should tell it.”