Sugarcoating Islam doesn’t cut it for audiences.
Several weeks ago All-American Muslim debuted on TLC to a storm of publicity and high ratings, but the publicity has vanished and the ratings are dribbling away. The series had premiered to a 1.7 rating, but last Sunday's episode had dropped to a 1.1 rating. The television ratings for this week aren't in yet, but the news for TLC and the producers of All-American Muslim isn't likely to be any better.
All-American Muslim had originally finished ahead of the terrorism drama Homeland which airs in the same timeslot, but last week Homeland finished ahead of it, and not because its ratings had improved. Homeland had lost viewers, but All-American Muslim had lost even more viewers making it by far the lowest rated show on TLC Sunday nights. Worse still its 18-49 demographic had been cut in half, which put it way at the bottom of the ratings pile and that made it a bad bargain for the advertisers who stuck it out with the controversial series only to be rewarded with a Halal turkey.
Despite being fictional Homeland is in some ways a truer depiction of the All-American Muslim and of the captive American audiences who yearn to identify with Muslims, much like Nicholas Brody, the enigmatic figure at the heart of Homeland whose loss of context and identity have seduced him to the other side. All-American Muslim gives Americans the Muslims that they would like to live next door to, but Homeland shows them the Muslims that they fear living next door to. Homeland confronts this ambiguity, but All-American Muslim pretends that it doesn't exist.
Denial is the operating mode of All-American Muslim and it is caught between its guiding mission of normalization and the reality show mechanics that aim to create drama out of thin air. This week the focus is on the coach of the Fordson football team, Fouad Zaban. Zaban had already been featured in "Fordson: Faith - Fasting - Football," a Muslim documentary dealing with the team. The documentary covered much of the same territory as the previous episode of All-American Muslim, and this episode, "A Muslim Goes to Washington," feeds the same culture of entitlement that centered Fordson football around the Ramadan fast.
This week Zaban heads to the Iftar dinner at the White House to chat up Keith Ellison and Obama. While the reality show mechanics require Zaban to pretend that it's difficult for him to decide between skipping practice and going off to the White House, it's obvious all along what he will do. Zaban and the Fordson team have been the focus of more cameras than any normal high school team in America. All that has obviously disrupted practice already, but the Fordson team's purpose is to be a showpiece for Muslims in America. And when Zaban, the coach of a high school football team, gets an invite to head to the White House, it isn't because of how his team plays, but because he is a Muslim.
That unspoken entitlement is the whole premise of All-American Muslim, a show full of people who are there not because they're interesting or because they do anything interesting, but because they are Muslims. All-American Muslim is a show built not on merit, but on religious identity. And that may help explain why All-American Muslim is tanking in the ratings.
All-American Muslim is unwilling to look at the harder questions; instead it serves up a one-sided narrative which ignores the complex realities. Though Zaban and Fordson have been a presence in episode after episode, the show has never dealt with the allegations that Fordson High School’s Muslim utopia was created when its Muslim principal forced out Christian staff members.
Gerald Marszalek, a top wrestling coach, received a settlement after being forced out of Fordson. A lawsuit filed by two teachers charged that Fordson Principal Imad Fadlallah had “systematically weeded out Christian teachers, coaches and employees." Information such as this casts a whole different light on the "All-American" nature of Zaban's high school team and asks how it was achieved and who had to pay the price.
In a tie-in with Homeland, one former member of the football team and brother of a current team member, was accused of buying cell phones in bulk for resale the Middle East where they are used to remotely detonate car bombs.
The rest of the episode does its best to milk the conversion of Jeff for drama, but inevitably falls into the show's usual pattern of using the time it's given to preach about Islam in the guise of discussing a topic. Whether it's the hijab or the nature of Islam, this approach is tediously dishonest, but also ends up being its own punishment as the catastrophic ratings drop testifies. People may not have been tuning in for a behind the scenes look at suicide bombers, but they expected more than a tepid version of the Jersey Shore interspersed with lectures on wearing the hijab.
"A Muslim Goes to Washington" plays a trip to Washington and a birth for drama but it can't deliver. Its goal is to get us to identify with the families on the show, but its approach is self-defeating. Like so many media productions that deal with Islam, All-American Muslim has nothing meaningful to say about the subject and gives audiences no reason to continue watching.
The innate drama of Islam is not another story of immigrants facing intolerance, as All-American Muslim would like us to believe. It is the violence and intolerance that is spread in its wake, and because it fails to address the concerns of Americans, the show fails to make an impact. Homeland does address those concerns. Its politics are often wrong, but it isn't willing to completely close its eyes either.
Homeland asks what the consequences of bringing Islam to this country are; All-American Muslim blandly assures us that they are all good. But the question is who pays the price. Whether it is the Americans caught up in a terrorist attack or the Christian teachers and coaches purged from Fordson High School, this is the great unanswered question that hangs in the air during every commercial break. And when the show is done and the handful of remaining viewers move on with the rest of their night, that question is still there.
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