The Power of Perception: "All-American Muslim" and the Battle for Representation

The Power of Perception: "All-American Muslim" and the Battle for Representation

All-American Muslim” was an American reality television series that aired on TLC in 2011. It followed the lives of five Lebanese American Muslim families in the largest Muslim community in the United States, Dearborn, Michigan. The show was not a hit: it premiered on Nov. 13 and only aired for 8 episodes, over three months total. Early on, The New York Times panned the show in their review, writing, “All those profiled are on their best behavior, and the show is so focused on teaching that it goes for long stretches without entertaining.” 

Beyond lackluster reviews, the reception “All-American Muslim” is a demonstration of the post-9/11 context in the U.S., heavily influenced by the War on Terror.   What was a relatively mundane reality show following the lives of people like a high school football coach and a police officer became a fixation for Christian Right groups like the Florida Family Association, who believed its sympathetic portrayal of Muslims was an attempt to spread an “Islamic agenda.” 

Throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s — and continuing today — it was not uncommon for powerful Christian Right leaning groups to censure arts and entertainment. These groups tried to get the police to clamp down on “immoral” musical subcultures like rap and heavy metal, for example. Baptist preacher-turned-activist Jerry Falwell created a national gay panic around the Teletubbies in 1999. These groups followed a pre-social media playbook of publicizing their grievances nationally, despite those grievances being relatively fringe.

By the time “All-American Muslim” aired, however, the internet was added to the mix. In contrast to individuals like Jerry Falwell who had an amount of visibility and built-in audience with which to mount their campaigns, The Florida Family Association was a one-person operation. It was the brainchild of David Caton, an ex-accountant who earned less than $55 thousand a year. But this single person, capitalizing on the nations’ new hyperconnectedness, managed to convince the home improvement chain Lowe’s to pull their money from the show — and perhaps others, too

“All-American Muslim” did not necessarily make waves as the most engaging or memorable reality TV show of its era — especially considering that it overlapped with the likes of “Jersey Shore” — but its pioneering status stems from its active resistance to an environment hostile to diverse stories.

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