Sponsored by the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the largest civil rights organization in this country, the reality TV show All-American Muslim (AAM) descended from the screen into three dimensions at the West End Cinema this evening.
Suehaila (Sue) and Bilal (Billy) Amen joined Nina Bazzy-Aliahmad and TLC (cable tv) producer Alvin Ornstein to discuss their personal experiences making the show and their feelings about it. Abed Ayoub, the legal director for ADC, was moderator. Warren David, president of ADC, introduced the program.
An audience of about eighty along with numerous Facebook and Twitter users followed the lively discussion with many questions about this show that has stimulated more public and media discussion and reaction than any other so far. Most publicized, though not discussed this evening, was the home store Lowe's decision to stop advertising on the program, misled by the conservative Florida Family Association. Lowe's example was unfortunately followed by others, but according to TLC sponsorship remained strong.
At its annual convention in Washington, DC, ADC plans to award the pioneering TLC for this first reality program about Arab Americans--in this case all Lebanese Americans who live in Dearborn, Michigan, where the largest Muslim American community outside of the Middle East resides.
Response to the eight-part series has fluctuated but statistics are high enough that TLC is contemplating continuation of the program, which is its best received to date, said Ornstein. There was a good bit of discussion about the issues AAM might focus on if the series continues. More interaction with non-Muslims was a popular theme, and the suggestion by an African American tv and radio anchor that African American Muslims and Christians join episodes also, extended this conversation, a controversial issue because of inherent misunderstandings, which all those on stage agreed should be remedied.
The conversation began with all cast members agreeing that AAM was a great experience, "showing that we're like everyone else," having cookouts on July 4, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and so on. Nina noted that they've received a lot of positive feedback.
On behalf of TLC, Alvin Ornstein thanked families for letting his families into their homes.
The next question, Which was worse, criticism from outside or from within? received mixed answers: thick-skinned Billy said outside criticism hurt the most, while Nina reacted more strongly to the alternative, because of her close, familial relationship with her community. Sue's reaction was similar, though she sadly mentioned all of the hateful messages posted on Facebook and Twitter.
"The show is all about being yourself," said Ornstein.
As to aspects of the characters not apparent in the programming, Sue raved about Nina's charitable generosity. Billy spoke of his profession, teaching and training children; he also lectures at mosques weekly. In the preceding ten years, he has worked with forty thousand children--hard to imagine! He works in Wayne County, one of the largest counties in the United States, and only a small percentage of these children are Muslim.
Sue stated that she is more politically oriented than Billy and has thought about moving to DC to work for the federal government or an embassy, but this conflicts with her deep attachment to her familial community in Dearborn. She said that she cries often and feels that she is carrying the weight of the world.
The process of selecting a community to "realize" on TV was difficult, said Ornstein. His crew traveled the country but stopped at Dearborn, a dynamic community filled with storylines on how the cast members' faith informs their lives.
And what role has AAM played in knocking down negative stereotypes? Said Sue, she knew the program would be effective in highlighting an epicenter of Islam where Sharia law is not practiced. Billy added that it emphasizes our common ground rather than differences. "The show's purpose is to educate," said Ornstein, later adding that TLC "doesn't shy away from issues."