In reality, no stereotype

by David Hiltbrand
Philadelphia Inquirer

NEW YORK – There’s a new reality show star on the tube Sunday night. Suehaila Amen doesn’t drink, prays daily, and wears a head scarf in public to preserve her modesty. I don’t think we’re at the Jersey Shore anymore, Snooki.

Suehaila is one of the cast members of TLC’s new series All-American Muslim.

While most of the women on the show, set in Dearborn, Mich., choose to wear the hijab (traditional scarf), there are some startling exceptions.

Glamorous blonde Nina Bazzi, for instance, appears to have wandered over from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills set by mistake.

“I’m a little different, a little out of the box,” Nina says, over a plate of oysters. “I do what I want to do, but I was born and raised a Muslim. And I’m living my life as a Muslim – but more as a modern Muslim.”

A few seats away, tattooed and pierced, sits Shadia, Suehaila’s sister. She likes tailgating at country music concerts and calls herself “a hillbilly at heart.”

“I have an extremely strong relationship with God,” she says. “My looks may not convey that. But that doesn’t change what’s in my heart.”

A portion of the cast has been on a quick-march promotional tour in New York. Sitting next to her husband, Jeff McDermott, who converted from Catholicism to Islam to marry her, Shadia is unwinding after appearances on Today and Anderson.

“I wore a scarf for 13 years,” she says. “I took it off because if I’m going to represent my religion, I want people to get the right image.”

The portrait of Muslim Americans depicted on the show is a purposefully diverse one, from the strictly observant to the seamlessly assimilated.

The gratifying part of All-American Muslim is that no matter where on the religious spectrum these families fall, as soon as the cameras go inside their living rooms, they quickly feel like neighbors.

“All-American Muslim is a much needed counter-narrative to negative images of Muslims that seem to saturate the news,” says Rugiatu Conteh, outreach and communications director for the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The religion could certainly use an image upgrade. A new study conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that 24 percent of the general public believes American Muslim support for Islamic extremism is on the rise.

Only 4 percent of American Muslims agree.

Ready or not, Americans will have to learn to accommodate this growing sect.

A separate Pew study projects that the number of Muslims in the United States will more than double over the next two decades, from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2030.

In some ways, All-American Muslim is a typical reality program. “It wouldn’t be a TLC show without weddings, and babies being born, and couples raising kids,” says Alon Orstein, the channel’s vice president of production and development.

“Dearborn in particular was very attractive to us because it has one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in the country.” Nearly one-third of the city’s 100,000 residents are Arab American Muslims.

Like most other groups, Muslims were drawn to the area by the prospect of gainful employment. Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit, is the birthplace of Henry Ford and the seat of his automotive empire.

“We’ve been home to Arab Americans for more than a century,” says Dearborn Mayor John O’Reilly. “The first mosque was built within walking distance of the Model T factory.”

Some of the featured cast members in All-American Muslim reflect how integral a part of the Dearborn community Arab American Muslims are.

Mike Jaafar, for instance, is the deputy chief in the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department. And Fouad Zaban coaches the local high school football team, struggling to prepare a squad that is, almost to a boy, on a month-long Ramadan fast.

Nader and Nawal Aoude have made the trip to New York with their baby son, Naseem. They were expecting during the shooting of the first season, providing some of the show’s best comic moments.

Being in such a tight-knit environment makes it easier to follow Muslim customs, says Nawal. “It would be more of a struggle [elsewhere] to find halal [‘fit and proper’] meats to feed my family. To find a mosque to attend Friday prayers, or a place to take my son for Arabic classes to learn the language,” she says. “My practices wouldn’t change if we lived somewhere else. It would just be more of a struggle.”

That same religious homogeneity has made Dearborn a flashpoint for intolerance in recent years.

Two summers ago, after four evangelicals were detained for breach of peace after aggressively pamphleteering at the city’s annual Arab Festival, a tea party candidate, echoed by a Fox News anchor, claimed that Dearborn was governed by sharia law, not the American Constitution.

Fox News also reported that Dearborn had “the largest Muslim population in the United States.” In fact, according to Conteh, a Temple graduate, Philadelphia alone has more than twice as many – 70,000; in the greater metropolitan area of Philadelphia, there are 250,000 Muslims.

This summer, Terry Jones, the Quran-burning pastor from Florida, undertook a short-lived protest march in Dearborn, wearing a bulletproof vest under a T-shirt that read: “Everything I ever needed to know about Islam I learned on 9-11.”

This month, conservative blogger Debbie Schlussel, who refers to the Detroit suburb as “Dearbornistan,” has accused Suehaila Amen of being a Hezbollah supporter.

In its modest way, All-American Muslim could be quite effective at improving understanding and ratcheting down the rhetoric.

“The primary misconception is that American Muslims are trying to impose some ultra-rigid lifestyle on this country that is foreign to the American experience,” says Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

What you see in TLC’s series is a group of people trying to uphold their faith while living in a materialistic, some would say hedonistic, society.

“Islam gives you the rules and regulations,” says Shadia, fingering the scarlet highlights in her black hair. “What you do with them is your business. At the end of the day, it’s God who is judging you, so what everybody else thinks doesn’t matter.”