All-American Muslim – Thoughts and Response

The new reality show, All-American Muslim, featured on the TLC channel, has caused something of a stir amongst American Muslims, particularly with Blackamerican Muslims, who continue to feel misrepresented, if not completely excluded from the narrative of Islam in American. While I do sympathize with many of the shows detractors for the obvious and above reasons, I think it’s equally important for Muslim Americans in general, and Blackamerican Muslim in particular, to come to grips with the true realities of piety amongst rank-and-file Muslims.

There is no doubt that All-American Muslim (AAM) is a misrepresentation of Muslim life in America. That Blackamericans as well as South-Asian Americans, Latino-Americans, Turkish-Americans and so many others are absent, is a gross misstep in my estimation of the show’s producers. In fact, I believe much of the backlash from Blackamerican Muslims in particular (having read comments on Facebook and other web sites) can be tied in tandem with the 20/20 exposé on Islam in America (see my posts, Islam: Questions and Answers and Bit Parts). Like AAM, the 20/20 show was woefully absent of any black presence. And given that all recent polls show that Blackamericans comprise at least 30% of the American Muslim population, such ire is not difficult to understand.

Racist or exclusivist accusations aside, I personally feel it is high time for Muslim Americans in general, and certain enclaves within Blackamerican Islam in particular, to come to terms with the nature of on-the-ground realities in terms of atypical religiosity amongst Muslims, Arab, black, or otherwise. Being a Detroit native myself, Dearborn was very much in my backyard, and while I have not had an opportunity to discuss the show with anyone from back home just yet, I can affirm that AAM is no way completely representative of normalized Muslim life in Dearborn. I myself have known very religious and conservative Arab families who are no doubt disgusted to some extent, if not by the show’s participants, certainly in how the show itself attempts to represent all Muslims from Dearborn. One commentator on Facebook wrote,

So what if Dearborn is ‘#1 in population of Muslims in America.’ It doesn’t mean they are a good example of the average Muslim American. I would at least expect them to come to NYC. Philly DC or Chicago!

The above comment shows a heart-felt disgust at the blatant display of “deviant” behavior by Muslims on display for all the world to soak up. While I cannot condone the behavior of the show’s participants, I must concede that their conduct is not so uncommon as many of us (especially conservative Blackamerican Muslims, of whom I can be considered an adherent) would like to believe. Nor is this display of crass behavior exclusively the property of westernized or assimilated Arabs. I cannot recount how many times I have seen (and continue to see) Blackamerican Muslim men in Philadelphia in the company of women who are obviously not their wives or family members. They are so-called halal girlfriends. And this is just the tip of the iceberg with deviant behavior amongst Blackamerican Muslims. So before we loft up stones from our own glass houses, we should perhaps be a bit more honest with the situation at hand.

In a short talk I participated in a few weeks ago, I was asked to speak on the divisions between African and African-American Muslims. In summary, while acknowledging that such divisions do exist, I brought to the surface what I believe to be the crux of the issue: self-validation. It was not so much what African Muslims had done to Blackamerican Muslims per se but rather, so many Blackamerican Muslims continue to embark upon their conception of Islam from a position of low self-esteem. This is why, in my opinion, you still see the majority of Blackamerican Muslims on the East Coast on Friday sporting thobes and other forms of “foreign garb” due in large part to their lack of confidence in their own cultural norms. It is this self-esteem issue that I see resurfacing in the AAM issue. If (Black)American Muslims had more confidence in their own validity as Muslims, then any such displays as are seen on AAM, 20/20, or any other show, would simply be seen in the light of personal malfeasants on the part of those Muslims, and in no way would undermine their own sanctity as Muslims. Whether or not we’re invited to the party should not have any impact on our authenticity as Muslims.

Another comment that caught my eye on Facebook, one I find particularly disturbing, was the following:

I am just speechless… this psedo=modern form of Islam that they want to portray in the media is absolutely disgusting.!!!!

The above rhetoric not only shows just how out of step religiously devout Muslims are from their “religiously challenged” counterparts, it is also revealing of several ideologies that are of great disservice to Islam in America. That “modern” is seen as “psedo” [sic] or fake, reveals just how far myopic, Utopic and completely unrealistic conceptions of Islam run in the American Muslim community. Such rants are juvenile and derelict in duty. Another comment bemoaned the existence of a “westernized, Americanized Islam”:

My coworker told me about the show last week and I told them that it will not depict true Islam, but will portray a westernized conformist view of Islam.

What strikes me most is how one-dimensional this commonly espoused rhetoric is. I certainly hope that Islam in the United States is American and Western. What else should it be? Nor should Islam conforming to American demands be seen as an abandonment of sincere religious devotion if one understands the breadth of leeway one has in the Shari’ah as well as American Constitutional law (for this, see Dr. Sherman Jackson’s response to Vincent Cornell). Such fanciful flights of imagination continue to reveal just how ignorant and lacking in self-worth many Muslims are in America and how little faith they have in Islam to negotiate their lived realities. Ironically, it is most certainly due to a non-indigenized Islam (not the same as assimilated) that Americans continue to look at Muslims with mistrust, monolithic media conglomerates aside.

It is not easy as a practicing Muslim to look upon the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad and see it mangled on display for the whole world. In my line of work as chaplain, I counsel and advice young Muslim students who, while perhaps not quite as brazen in their religious shortcomings, could easily be lumped in the same group as the participants as AAM. My way of navigating this has been to be brutally honest as well as honestly compassionate. For example, my views on hijab have been made abundantly clear from the minbar as well as in private conversations: I believe, for instance, that hijab is mandatory and that those who do not wear hijab have something deficient in their practice. That being said, I will not toss out the baby with the bathwater simply because a Muslim has a deficiency in their practice (Lord knows how many I have). My advice to my fellow (Black)American Muslims is thus: enact a compassionate orthodoxy. Do not give ground on what is mandatory or even highly encourage (wajib/mustahibb). And yet, make the adherence to God’s commandments a means of being understanding and compassionate, even when it rubs you the wrong way. And above all, cement your belief, your identity as a Muslim, not in the validation from others, but in the knowledge that it was none other than your Creator who gave you guidance in the first place.

20 Replies to “All-American Muslim – Thoughts and Response”

  1. Jazak Allah, these are some great reflections. “Ironically, it is most certainly due to a non-indigenized Islam (not the same as assimilated) that American continues to look at Muslims with mistrust, monolith media conglomerates aside” — very true!

    P.S. I think you forgot the word “is” in this sentence: “I certainly hope that Islam in American and Western.”

  2. The facebooker wrote that they would @ least expect them to come to Philly. smh If they did, they would find the same types of Muslim from the show & even some who are far worse in practice. Why do ppl not want to face reality? That we Muslims are human beings on a spiritual jihad just like every other human being on the planet. Depicting Muslim life means you will see ppl @ many differant levels of practicing & understanding of Islam. I really enjoyed the show because I could relate to (& I am born & raised African american woman)& have know Muslims who are Arab, African, European, Asian, & American Muslims who are just like most of the ppl on the show. I can’t wait until next week.

  3. Shukran brother for writing this article. I actually told several people in my family that I was not going to watch this show…. not because I felt sooo strongly aganist it, rather because I feel that it is a media trap/hoax played unseemingly on the American public. Too many people will watch this show and say to themselves “see… I knew muslim women REALLY dont like to cover… it oppresses the” or that “Muslim men REALLY just want to assimlate and be LIKE US”. Truly the Muslim community is being tested by Allah to provide an unapologectic view of what a Muslim shoud be doing in their life that is obligatory.

    I too am from Philadelphia and REALLY TRULY am disappointed in the lack of community unity with ALL diverse groups here. I thought we were made into various nations and tribes so that we may know one another and to represent this deen in the correct light. When will we get the courage to dispell the myths, lies and cartoon shows about US & grow some back bone to represent the REAL.

    I think it starts with one: It starts inshallah with me. So Motivated right now to do something big, great in the muslim community here in Philadelphia. Wonder if that will make TLC?! Not:)

  4. Marc, another excellent analysis. As always I appreciate your work. What you are saying is true, I cannot argue with what you have said. I am even more of an anomaly then the Black Muslim since I am a White Muslim. I remember my first time going to the MANA Convention in Philly and people were asking me if I was the Press or a Cop. I told them my name is Bruce and I’m a Muslim. I have been called an FBI by members of my own community until we had a sitdown. I have been to various masajid in Philadelphia where the Imams would say we got an FBI here today. It’s like look at Whitey in the house. So there is even another dimension to this American Muslim experience. I remember at the MANA Conventions, which I frequent, they were saying the indigenous Muslims, us Black folk who were here before you, meaning the immigrants. This is true, but some of us are White. Now I saw the show, I had my feelings, some visceral and I told myself, baby steps, baby steps. Now not to deflect from the Dearborn Group but let’s give them cuddos. Ok, now the Black Muslims should be doing some introspection. Why didn’t we do this? Excuse my generalization but why didn’t, MANA or any of the dynamic Black Muslim scholars in our community at least approach BET. Don’t yell at me, I said it was a generalization. What I am trying to do is make a point. All those brothers and sisters in Hollywood and the Music Industry gots to have some Muslim kinfolk. You know what I am talking about. So what I am saying is we have to look inside and say why didn’t I, Bruce a White Muslim approach the networks and pitch my project. And often what we dislike about others in a quality we have or have had. I felt uncomfortable watching this show. I surely would not us it as a form of Dawah. Marc, there is a lot of ignorance in the Muslim world, especially the so-called Arab world, most wouldn’t know the Sunnah if it was right in front of them. I say we American Muslims continue the process of educating ourselves so we can bring the light of Islam to those who have deviated from normative, traditional, Sunni Islam that was practiced for the last 1,400 years.

  5. My comment on facebook about this very subject—

    The show itself has room for a lot of improvement but I never expected it to be accurate hardly anything on tv is. I know what Muslims families are like I am Muslim and I have a “Muslim family” I have friends who are also Muslims. We are all different yet all the same. We are all trying to pray better, worship better and some days quite honestly just get out of bed. Some Muslims are non-practicing, some are so practicing that they make even the halal haram but usually many of us are closer to the middle in sha’Allah. My gripe is not so much that thet “don’t practice” so much as in I wish they showed Muslims on different levels of iman and worship not just some people’s dirty laundry. I feel annoyed that years of work and explaining myself on why I changed are now being question all over due to a show in less than one night….”why don’t you do such ‘n such as those Muslims do?” Yes, it’s annoying but at least I can reiterate the fact that not all Muslims are the same and not everyone knows, understands, cares or follows Islam like other religions as well.

    Other than that I don’t know why people are in such a tuff? Everyone is taking other people’s opinions. So seriously and arguing over it like they get paid for it or something. Everyone fighting their brothers and sisters in Islam giving me a headache fighting about people on a show who don’t give 3 craps about you….

    People are fighting about it n stuff…I don’t get it, thats dumb. They (on the show) are publicly displaying their sins so when people judge ’em others shouldn’t get mad ‘n say don’t judge. Everyone is a sinner but try ‘n hide them things In sha’Allah.

    That said YES there are NOT portraying Islam “properly”, yes It irritates me because now I, once again, have to answer why “those muslims do and you don’t?” Stupid questions….

    Not all Muslims are perfect or practicing, not all Muslims are non-practicing. It was never meant as a documentary on Islam… I guess maybe the name is so misleading it’s ticking ppl off because now we have to answer why we’re not lining up to open clubs, get more tattoos and such stuff…

    Allah guides whom He wills though and if I was guided to islam maybe they will be too In sha’Allah.

    The negatives is people will now think those who actually practice are “extremists” the “positive” is you actually have people asking questions so it’s not all horrible.

    As far as them “trying to be American” or “Americanized” I’m going to throw it out “Americanized & American Culture” are not that horrible. Not all Americans are slow, inbred, ignorant, racist fools– just like all Muslims are not the same either. Wearing sunglasses, eating at buffets, mac n cheese….these are all part of “Americanization” If someone does these things are they now “Americanized”. Islam is NOT Anti America we need to stop thinking this way InshaAllah. Last I checked they ARE an American family so obviously they are going to be “Americanized”. Being religious or non religious has NOTHING what-so-ever to do with being American. Many Lands, countries and people are non practicing it has NOTHING to do with trying to being American.

    There are many things I love about being a Muslim American the fact that I CAN and have the opportunity to talk to others about Islam. The fact that our Muslim gatherings are a melting pot of multicultural gatherings, mixed race marriages and babies and the food oh the food!!! The fact that I can practice my religion even if some people hate the fact that I am Muslim, i cover or hate without knowing the whole truth my religion. I love the fact that there are some opportunities here and I love that not every non muslim American is ignorrant. There is NOTHING Wrong with being “American” so long as you stand up against whats wrong, don’t support killing neither in god’s name nor America’s name and don’t be a fool. We have access to FREE education, it’s time we use it! It’s time for us to stop being so ignorant, racist, closed minded, hurtful and mean on all sides religious wise and Country wise…

  6. As someone who works in alternative TV, I can say that accurately portraying Islam or American cultural diversity is not a priority for mainstream networks. The media sells illusion and stereotypes. Black people of any creed are absent from “reality” TV, except for ghetto cliches on shows like Housewives. We all know this is not by accident. As Blackamerican Muslims, why we are looking for TV to prove our worth? As for anti-Black attitudes among various Muslim groups in America, we can ask the same question. Are we looking to people for approval? They don’t know us. Don’t want to know us. Not all, but not a few hate us. But what are we doing? We must begin to transform our families, then communities and then the larger society– with Prophetic compassion. Why was the Nation of Islam successful in its early days? What about the dignity and confidence Imam Warith Deen Mohammed instilled in his community? What institutions can we establish and support to get to feeding and healing the people? As my grandmother used to quote the Book of Matthew, “By their fruit you will recognize them.” As African Americans and Muslims, we have an invaluable, human story to tell. First we have to believe in it.

  7. Alhamdulillah, you have made some excellent points and it really does point to some of our own internal issues in regards to culture and identity. My question is, why such outrage from AA Muslims over this show? Is it because we disagree with the portray or because we’ve had Muslim communities for over 40 years and still have yet to properly present ourselves in such a forum. As a community African American Muslims have had access to BET and other smaller networks, yet we’ve not taken advantage.

    The point you mentioned about the poor practice of some Muslims is also important because although many people have stood up on the soapbox to decry what’s depicted on television, how many people actually say it to their Muslim friends, brothers, sisters, cousins and associates who have boyfriends/girlfriends, sell drugs, rob people and commit every crime in the book, yet we say nothing. (This goes for American Muslims of every stripe).

    Point being, people have taken it upon themselves to talk and give opinions about something on television, yet have done next to nothing about doing anything to benefit Muslims or their community in the real world. But hey, is that really anything new?

  8. I think you may be taking the comment of “westernized Islam” out of context (I could be misreading what you said if I did then disregard). But I am of the same opinion of being against this “westernization” or “Americanization” of Islam. That is to say, a version of “Islam” that essentially makes, as The Prophet(S) said “make halal what is haram and make haram what is halal.”

    This leads into the conformist Islam that the Facebook quote you posted alluded to, that in this conformist-westernized-islam it’s okay for a Muslimah to marry someone that is not Muslim, as is the case in AAM, drink alcohol, fornicate, and so on. This I believe is what people are referring to the westernization of Islam. How can any Muslim not be against such a thing?

  9. @Bruce

    “Don’t yell at me”

    Ha! Naw, brother, we ain’t gonna yell at you.

    As for MANA, there were many mistakes and issues, foremost in my opinion due to the lack of a binding vision. However, give sympathize with MANA, that is a hard thing to accomplish. If we learned anything from MANA [we meaning black folks] it was that Blackamerican Muslims are a much more diverse group that we thought before. Simply appealing to a pan-Afrocentric mentality would not prove to be enough to galvanize MANA in the minds of Blackamerican Muslims.

    The “whitey” issue again has more to due with our insecurities in our religion, which is why Islam that is perpetuated by Blackamericans in America’s urban centers tends to devolve down into “a black thang”. To be frank, the W. D. community is still more concerned with not being Arabs than they are with carrying Imam Warith Deen Muhammad’s vision forward, may God have mercy on him. Similarly, many of the conservative groups [read the Salafiyyah] have couched their Islam in contradistinction to modernity in general and America/The West in particular, which for Blackamericans has meant casting suspicion and doubt upon everything in your cultural backyard.

    Jazakallah for your feedback.

  10. @Holly,

    “There are many things I love about being a Muslim American the fact that I CAN and have the opportunity to talk to others about Islam.”

    It is a blessing. One we have to strive to appreciate more each day.

  11. @Jamal,

    “Point being, people have taken it upon themselves to talk and give opinions about something on television, yet have done next to nothing about doing anything to benefit Muslims or their community in the real world.”

    True, true.

  12. @Hossam,

    You wrote: “I think you may be taking the comment of ‘westernized Islam’ out of context (I could be misreading what you said if I did then disregard).”

    I cannot say if you’ve misunderstood what I wrote so much as you don’t agree with it. But I will clarify my case again. Islam in America has every right to reflect its Americaness in the way in which Islam looks Senegalese in Senegal, Kuwaiti in Kuwait, or Indonesian in Indonesia. Yet, for some “oddity”, when it comes to Islam in America, this same desire is looked upon with great skepticism if not downright hate by many Muslims. This double standard is unconscionable.

    You also wrote: “I am of the same opinion of being against this ‘westernization’ or ‘Americanization’ of Islam.”

    I would ask you, do you live in the U.S.? If so, how do you define and justify your stance? What should Islam in America look like? I assume you purport that Islam overseas in so-called Muslim lands is the real deal Holyfield, and thus, if Muslim in America wish to have any hopes of being “real Muslims” and practicing “true Islam” they must emulate their brothers and sisters overseas, lock stock and barrel? Not only is this ridiculous but it only outlines the pervasiveness of myopic, Utopian rhetoric Muslims still espouse.

    You continued with: “That is to say, a version of ‘Islam’ that essentially makes, as The Prophet(S) said ‘make halal what is haram and make haram what is halal’.”

    I think the fatal flaw in your reasoning is you conflate “version” with “expression” when it comes to Islam. This is again why you can see such diversity of expression Islam among the Muslims, from China to South Africa.

    When you say, “This leads into the conformist Islam that the Facebook”, what do you mean by conformist? Again, why is it acceptable for Islam to express itself locally in Saudi Arabia or Turkey but not in America? And if it cannot, how can you possibly hope for Islam in America to succeed?

    When the Prophet Muhammad, صلى الله عليه وسلم, conducted the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah [صلح الحديبية], he made a number of great concessions, including allowing the Quraysh to refer to him as Muhammad ibn ‘Abd-Allah instead of Muhammad Rasul-Allah. There were many other issues to which the Prophet, صلى الله عليه وسلم, “conformed to”. It has been recorded that many of his Companions became upset at these requests, yet the Prophet “conformed”. But in the end, the conforming allowed the Muslims to be seen as a validly “Arabian religion”, something it had not yet achieved until the treaty. Again brother, I believe you should revisit your history and learn about how Islam unfolded. What [some] Muslims in America are trying to do is carve out a niche so that they can belong and get down to doing what we ought to do: worship God alone according to the tradition left us by the Prophet, صلى الله عليه وسلم.

    You conclude with, “this conformist-westernized-islam [says] it’s okay for a Muslimah to marry someone that is not Muslim, as is the case in AAM, drink alcohol, fornicate, and so on.” I hate to break it to you my brother, but these issues [marriage, drinking, sex] are not of the exclusive purview of Americans/American Muslims. Such deficiencies in practice are existent in all Muslim countries today. Again, you assume that such maladies are in and of themselves American, innate to the culture here. But this only reveals both your ignorance of how humans struggle with their piety and the nature of American culture, which has far more conservatism than you are privy to.

    “How can any Muslim not be against such a thing?”

    I would argue, “how could any Muslim in America be committed to such irresponsible behavior and rhetoric?”

  13. I’d recommend that everyone reading this post also peruse the article by Sherman Jackson that Marc linked to; it might change your views on “American Islam”.

  14. @marcmanley

    “This is why, in my opinion, you still see the majority of Blackamerican Muslims on the East Coast on Friday sporting thobes and other forms of “foreign garb” due in large part to their lack of confidence in their own cultural norms. It is this self-esteem issue that I see resurfacing in the AAM issue.”

    While I totally agree with this statement, it is however a bit more complex than an issue related to self-esteem. My take is the lack of self-esteem may make it easier for some to don “foreign garb” over regular “American wear”, however I believe the issue is also related to knowledge. When leadership is completely ignorant of the flexibilities, differences and richnes of Islam, they will teach and exemplify a brand of Islam that is consistent with their teacher or shiekh. The white thobe, Saudi-taught Imams; the white turban, West African-taught leaders. These are just two examples, I trust you get the point. Many of these leaders or Imams have what would be perceived as no issue with self-esteem, yet these displays of outward Islam display a self-esteem issue that is related to the lack of Islamic understanding that would allow them to make decisions within the religion that may go outside what is expected of them, based on what and who they studied with. We need indigenous Muslim leadership that is confident enough in their studies in Islam that they can take positions relative to our situation here in America, not based on a construct of principles that work in a theoretical world.

    When our leadership takes this stance based what the have studied, we should then see a change in “Joe the Plumber” Muslims. Until then, monkey see monkey do!!

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