This article is the 3rd in a series of Commentaries regarding All American Muslim by Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Director, Center for Interreligious Understanding (NJ) and of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue (Rome), The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York City, Professor Marshall Breger, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC and former Reagan White House liaison to the Jewish community, Suhail A. Khan, Buxton Initiative, Washington, DC
The Power of Thank You
Next Sunday is the last installment of All American Muslim, the reality television series on TLC that was the target of fringe, anti-Muslim hate rhetoric. The show introduced five Muslim-American families to the reality TV audience, two groups who would not, in all likelihood, have otherwise met. As it turns out, these five families are not shills for radical extremists. They are not hiding sinister plots, surreptitiously trying to turn American law into Sharia law, lulling America into a false sense of security by showing a few "good Muslims."
These families are the real Muslims. They are folks from Dearborn, Michigan, where the show takes place, who struggle to raise their families to the best of their abilities. Some wear headscarves; others wear tattoos. They suffered through 9/11 alongside us, and they decry those who hijack Islam in the name of terrorism. They, it turns out, are just like us, and that is the reality that the fringe groups who called for advertisers to boycott the program, cannot tolerate.
One of the important lessons learned here is not actually about bigotry. Most of us know bigotry is wrong and many of us don't hesitate to speak out against it. But while we're busy lambasting the vocal minority who do the wrong thing, we often forget to thank those who stand up and do the right thing. So thank you TLC, and thank you to the sponsors of the show who did NOT pull their advertising. While some did pull ads, scores of other companies with huge commercial interests - from Campbell's to McDonald's - hung in there despite pressure to do otherwise.
We also want to say thank you to media entrepreneur Russell Simmons, who put his money where his mouth is and made up for lost revenue when companies like Lowe's and Kayak.com did capitulate to pressure from the anti-Muslim fringe groups and pulled their ads from the show.
We want to say thank you to those five American Muslim families who put their faces and families in full public view. We suspect that they never anticipated being the center of a firestorm that's been covered in every major US newspaper and many others around the world. They've been accused of perpetrating a fraud on the American people just because they were being themselves - American citizens struggling along in daily life, who happen to not be Catholic, Protestant or Jewish.
Last, in an ironic twist, perhaps we owe a thank you to the fringe few who manufactured this storm. Far more people met these five American-Muslim families than would have, had this controversy not occurred. Due to their effort to kill the show, some 80 diverse groups and countless individuals from every faith have come together to speak out against Islamophobia.
Bigotry has no place in American society. Generations of Catholics, Jews, Japanese, women, African Americans and many more have faced it down. They made their way through it to become accepted members of American society. We wish the same for our Muslim brothers and sisters. But just this past weekend, Molotov cocktails exploded outside a Queens, NY mosque and a Muslim-run corner store. Member of Congress Peter King has more hearings scheduled for February. Even the presidential race to the White House will likely include bigoted messaging. It remains important that we continue to speak out for that all-American value: religious freedom.
We believe someday prejudice against Muslims in America will seem absurd and even shameful. But until then, it is far wiser to speak out now, in support of those who do the right thing and resist efforts to read Islam and Muslims out of the American fabric, rather than to hang our heads in shame later.
So we think a lesson learned here is a pretty valuable one, too often neglected: we all need to remember the power and influence of "thank you." We need to thank individuals who are brave enough to face hatred, and do it with dignity; thank businesses who risk controversy to do the right thing and the media companies that are willing to take a chance in a world that demands commercial success above content. None of us should ever underestimate the impact we make for good and no one should go un-thanked for taking action in defense of our American values.
This article is the 2nd in a series of Commentaries regarding All American Muslim by Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Director, Center for Interreligious Understanding (NJ) and of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue (Rome), The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York City, Professor Marshall Breger, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC and former Reagan White House liaison to the Jewish community, Suhail A. Khan, Buxton Initiative, Washington, DC
From Many, One Nation:
The Case of 'All American Muslim'
We don't normally look to reality TV to teach lessons of faith and religious freedom. But one TV program is doing just that. On an upcoming segment this Sunday, commemorating the 9/11 tragedy, the audience meets real-life first responder Mike, who speaks of the bond of loyalty he shares with his fellow first responders and his heartfelt sense of loss for those who heroically gave their lives on 9/11. With his wife Angela and their three children watching on with pride, Mike and his fellow heroes in uniform carry an American flag during the pre-game ceremony at Detroit's Tiger Stadium.
The support expressed for Mike by his colleagues is poignant because Mike's last name is Jaafar, an Arabic name. Mike is one of the real-life characters on TLC's All American Muslim, the reality TV show that has come under recent attack. Islamophobic extremists seem to have forgotten the values on which this country was founded, and that dismays us.
The show is filmed in Dearborn, Mich., where there is a large American Arab and Muslim population. It has the power to introduce viewers to the lives of five American Muslim families. In addition to Mike and Angela Jaafar, there are sisters in a complicated relationship, a party planner, a high school football coach and newlyweds. The families may share the same faith but even a cursory peek into their everyday lives by means of reality TV, challenges viewers to rethink many commonly held stereotypes about American Muslims and Islam. American Muslims are busy struggling to raise their families, go to work, pay the bills and achieve the American Dream. In short, they are just like us.
Sadly, like those who opposed the building of Jewish synagogues in New York City in the '30s, racial integration in the '50s and a Catholic president in the '60s, a small cadre of hate groups is now opposing this television show because they allege the show "humanized Muslims in America" and is "propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law." Having not succeeded in scaring off enough advertisers (two have pulled ads), they are now also trying to drive off the show's audience and destroy the viability of this critically acclaimed program by killing its ratings.
What terrible thing will happen if these hate groups fail and people continue to watch? Important segments of the American reality TV audience will get a valuable, stereotype-stopping window into people alleged to be "different" from themselves. The audience would then know not to do what they are being told: to fear, to mistrust, to denigrate them.
In another scene, Shadia Amen-McDermott and her brother, Bilal Amen, travel to Lower Manhattan in New York City to visit Ground Zero, pay their respects and to get tattoos from their favorite tattoo artist, Ami James (this is, after all, a reality TV show). As American Muslims of Lebanese decent, Shadia and Bilal initially are apprehensive about their encounter with Ami James, because James is an Israeli Jew who served in the military during the action in Lebanon. Their fears quickly subside once Shadia, Bilal and James are able to discuss their backgrounds openly. They lament that it took leaving their countries of origin and coming to the United States for them to become friends.
But that should be no surprise for us as a nation of immigrants. Many of us, and our forebears, came here looking for a better life. Then, and now once again, we find segments of our country discounting this crucial fact about the United States. Generations of Americans of every race, ethnicity and faith have forged a unity - a United States - based on individual liberty and religious freedom. They brought to life the motto "E. Pluribus Unum" - From Many, One Nation - as does All American Muslim. It illustrates the vibrancy of our shared American heritage. That heritage is not some lofty goal - it is who we are as Americans.
We are community leaders from the three Abrahamic faiths who are not usually brought together by reality TV. But this show has ignited an exceptionally valuable conversation. So, rather than tune-out in protest, as Americans, it's time to tune-in.
This article is the 1st in a series of Commentaries regarding All American Muslim by Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Director, Center for Interreligious Understanding (NJ) and of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue (Rome), The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York City, Professor Marshall Breger, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC and former Reagan White House liaison to the Jewish community, Suhail A. Khan, Buxton Initiative, Washington, DC
'All American Muslim'
Celebrates All American Values
Last summer, an angry and emotionally-charged debate erupted over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" in New York and the perceived threat and rights of a religious minority, American Muslims. While some were legitimately concerned for the sensitive reconstruction of property near Ground Zero, the controversy grew ugly and messy with some media and political figures calling for a moratorium on mosques everywhere - near Ground Zero, Staten Island, Tennessee, Wisconsin, California and anywhere in our nation.
And there's no doubt a good deal of the rhetoric surrounding the controversy crossed the line from antipathy toward mosques to hateful comments about American Muslims and the religion of Islam itself.
Ignorant and inaccurate diatribes about Muslims and Islam are especially troubling due to the frightening impact this fear-mongering zeal continues to have on the fabric of American society. Hate crimes against American Muslims are up, and some 20 states are considering - and even passing - legislation attempting to limit the constitutionally-guaranteed rights of American Muslims to the free expression of their faith.
The latest chapter in this unfortunate national debate surrounds a new television show on TLC called "All-American Muslim." Filmed in Dearborn, Michigan, the reality show introduces viewers to the lives of five different American Muslim families which include real-life American Muslims such as a high school football coach, a federal agent, a businesswoman and a deputy chief of the county sheriff's office. The families may share the same faith, but the show realistically demonstrates that the nation's 6-7 million American Muslims lead lives that dispel the negative stereotypes about Islam and American Muslims.
In addition to the everyday family challenges of life in modern America, the show also tackles issues such as the diverse understandings of faith, post-9/11 life for American Muslims, and gender roles in Islam. Indeed, programs such as "All American Muslim" help defy long-held stereotypes and help us realize that American Muslims are overwhelmingly, quite simply, just like us.
Sadly, however, due to a shameful effort by a vocal few, the home-improvement supply store Lowe's pulled its commercial advertisements from future episodes of the new show as has the web-based travel site Kayak.com. A Tampa-based conservative Christian group, the Florida Family Association, has made the show its newest target with a letter-writing campaign urging companies to pull ads from TLC's show because, they allege, the show is "propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law." Incredibly, McDonald's, Home Depot and Sears are facing similar pressure.
Are there extremists who promote violence in the name of faith? No doubt. Zealots of all three Abrahamic faiths have done so for time immemorial. But we must not commit the cardinal sin of taking as a dominant tradition or teaching one aspect of a religion (often torn from context) or condemning an entire faith community for its errant fanatics who may do something in the name of that religion but not actually even be believers in it. In our zeal to attack the extremes, we should not attack the spiritual truth of the religions themselves or individual believers who ground their citizenship and valued-based, community-spiritedness in their particular faith.
We would do well to remember the words of President George W. Bush in aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy: "Millions of our fellow citizens are Muslim. We respect the faith. We honor its traditions. Our enemy does not. Our enemy doesn't follow the great traditions of Islam. They've hijacked a great religion." And the post-9/11 statement issued by 57 leaders of North American Islamic organizations, 77 Islamic intellectuals, and dozens of concerned Muslim citizens: "As American Muslims and scholars of Islam, we wish to restate our conviction that peace and justice constitute the basic principles of the Muslim faith... Groups like al Qaeda have misused and abused Islam in order to fit their own radical and indeed anti-Islamic agenda. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda's actions are criminal, misguided and counter to the true teachings of Islam." And the words of President Obama: "There are extremist organizations - whether Muslim or any other faith - that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name."
As Americans of all faiths or no faith, we must recognize, marginalize and reject the divisive rhetoric of a vocal minority. Hate is hate. Human history shows us that hate tragically knows no bounds. The only way to make real the principles on which this country was founded, freedom of expression and religious liberty, is to unite against injustice as we loudly reject the angry voices of prejudice that go against all our faiths.