12.15.11

All-American Muslim: Why Advertisers Are Right to Boycott

Another advertiser pulled out of TLC’s All-American Muslim—but it’s not because the company is ‘Islamophobic.’ It’s simply a terrible program, writes Asra Q. Nomani.

As a real-life American Muslim, I should have loved the new TLC reality show All-American Muslim. I agreed with CBS anchor Katie Couric when she said we need a "Cosby Show for Muslims." But after I eagerly watched the first episodes, I've got to say I think we ended up with something more like a Muslim Jersey Shore, the low-grade MTV series about Snooki's party life in New Jersey.

Forget political correctness. Lowe's, the national chain, did the right thing in pulling its advertising from the series. The company said it killed advertising from the show because it had become too controversial, but there is another legitimate reason the company could have given for yanking its advertising: it's bad TV.

Now, Kayak, an Internet travel company, announced that it too is pulling its advertising. Robert Birge, chief marketing officer at Kayak, put it as plain as it gets: "…I watched the first two episodes," he wrote in a letter to customers, titled "We Handled This Poorly.” "Mostly, I just thought the show sucked." He was a little more delicate than I was when a friend asked what I thought about the series: "It SUCKS," was my subtle response.

A lot has been said about boycotting Lowe's. I imagine there will be a boycott planned of Kayak, too. As an American Muslim consumer, I can say that I'll likely buy the lumber for my son's treehouse at Lowe's, and I'll switch from Expedia to Kayak. I like the company's common sense. "We get what America is about," Birge wrote, adding, "We would not want anyone to think that we caved to hatred." But, as he concluded, the show didn't pass his personal Gong Show, the 1970s TV talent show that banged the gong on stage acts that didn't pass muster.

To me, the issue of Islam-bashing has become a straw man in this debate. This isn't a referendum on whether a person hates on Islam or not. It's about TV—and what makes for good TV and what doesn't. For example, I made it through only two episodes of TLC's Toddlers and Tiaras, because how many times can we watch Princess Penelope throw a temper tantrum? If Lowe's or Kayak didn't advertise there, would we argue that they were trashing prissy little girls and their mom? No, we'd say that they don't want to spend their ad dollars on bad TV.

Here are just a few plot twists that are stomach turners to me as a Muslim seeking some sort of challenge to conventional, traditional, old-school Islamic interpretation reminiscent of the Dark Ages. In "How to Marry a Muslim," an American-Muslim woman with tattoos meets an Irish-Catholic love interest in a bar; they plan to get married, but then she tells him he has to convert to Islam first. It's painful to watch the backyard conversion. Many Muslim women are challenging the notion that they can't marry non-Muslim men, and it's a shame we had to watch this Irish-Catholic man go through the same old gauntlet of conversion. This isn't "How to Marry a Muslim," and it's a little disingenuous to present it as the how-to guide. Yawn.

Then, the newly married American-Muslim bride with a tattoo tells her newly converted Irish-Catholic husband that his dog can't live in their house because it's haram, or illegal—which thank you very much is just a medieval fatwa like the recent one that says women can't eat bananas because bananas are just too sexy for a Muslim woman. It's part of an old idea that a dog's saliva is dirty. Uh, ever heard of rabies shots?

Even when I thought I couldn't watch anymore, I did, for research purposes. Lo and behold, Jane Muslim runs to her imam for a faith check on whether she can do artificial insemination or not. I can tell you what he is going to say before she wraps her scarf dutifully around her hair to go meet the imam. Not only, no, but hell no—with a smile. But what if she covers her hair? Would that help? That would "please Allah," the imam responded. Really? That's a new strategy of fertility treatment I hadn't yet heard about.

I'll be honest. More than taking on the extremists inside our Muslim community, I was afraid of trashing the show. The creators of the show have rallied massive support lobbying through groups such as Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow, a nonprofit group run by the folks who wanted to create the "Ground Zero mosque," Daisy Khan and Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf. In press releases and press briefings, they've trumpeted how they won over everyone from hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons to leading national media columnists.

To me, the issue of Islam-bashing has become a straw man in this debate. It’s about TV.

Some of the moderates who have jumped on the All-American Muslim bandwagon will come after me. They'll accuse me of being "Islamophobic," despite the fact that I'm Muslim. It has already happened, when I argued that including religion in threat assessment—or that dirty word, profiling—is a smart way to do airport security.

But is it possible to not go along with groupthink in the community and also not be a hater? I think so. My mother, a woman who wears shirts over her bottom to make sure she practices her definition of hijab, watched one episode. She wasn't interested in watching anymore. "It's not very deep," she said.

While there is real anti-Muslim sentiment out there, there is also an equal and powerful Muslim movement trying to pin this manufactured word, "Islamophobia," on anyone with anything critical to say related to Islam. This movement takes a typical collectivist perspective: if you have a critical word to say about one aspect of Islam—from this bland series to the Ground Zero mosque debacle—you hate on all of Islam. For many of us, that's actually an insult to sweep our ideas with such a broad brush, but it's strategic. To me, this reactionary Muslim movement stifles debate.

The Muslim "honor brigade" defending the show might very well sic emails on me about being "disappointed" and "betrayed." This is nothing personal. It's just about a show and whether it's any good or not. The verdict on All-American Muslim: gong!