Transgressive Hybridity in TLC’s All-American Muslim

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Mass Communication and Society
ISSN: 1520-5436 (Print) 1532-7825 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/hmcs20
The Muslims Next Door: Transgressive Hybridity in
TLC’s All-American Muslim
Shaheed Nick Mohammed
To cite this article: Shaheed Nick Mohammed (2015) The Muslims Next Door: Transgressive
Hybridity in TLC’s All-American Muslim , Mass Communication and Society, 18:1, 97-118, DOI:
10.1080/15205436.2014.888082
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15205436.2014.888082
Accepted author version posted online: 03
Jun 2014.
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The Muslims Next Door:
Transgressive Hybridity in TLC’s
All-American Muslim
Shaheed Nick Mohammed
Department of Communication
Penn State Altoona
The television series All-American Muslim presented audiences with a group
facing widespread negative perceptions in mainstream U.S. society, which
defines them in terms of incompatible differences and external threats. The
present study examines the content of the series and the para-text including
newspaper reviews and commentaries. Using Hall’s perspective on representation, the author analyzes the competing frames of American and Muslim
in terms of the liminal existence and boundary-defying portrayals of the cast
members. The dualities and tensions of the resulting identity portrayals are
examined in the context of transgressive hybridity. The broader implications
of this particular reality program are examined in the context of political
discourse and minority representation.
INTRODUCTION
The series All-American Muslim focused on the lives of five American
Muslim families from Dearborn, Michigan. The show ran on cable channel
TLC from November 2011 to January 2012, starting amidst controversy as
Shaheed Nick Mohammed (Ph.D., University of New Mexico, 1998) is an Associate
Professor in the Department of Communication at Penn State Altoona. His research interests
include culture, globalization and new media.
Correspondence should be addressed to Shaheed Nick Mohammed, Department of
Communication, Penn State Altoona, 101C Cypress, 3000 Ivyside, Altoona, PA 16601. E-mail:
[email protected]
Mass Communication and Society, 18:97–118, 2015
Copyright # Mass Communication & Society Division
of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
ISSN: 1520-5436 print=1532-7825 online
DOI: 10.1080/15205436.2014.888082
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Lowe’s and Kayak.com pulled their commercials after activist David Caton
and his Florida Family Association condemned the series—encouraging
advertisers to withdraw on the premise that the show was ‘‘dangerous and
misleading ‘propaganda’ ’’ portraying Muslims ‘‘as ‘ordinary folks’ just like
other law-abiding Americans, not as extremists and terrorists’’ (‘‘An
All-American Misstep,’’ 2011, p. A20).
The present investigation evaluates representations in All-American Muslim
while extending the notion of ‘‘transgressive hybridity’’ (Werbner, 1997,
2001)—cultural manifestation of presumably incompatible forms whose combinations violate internal or external cultural norms. I adapt and extend the
notion of transgressive hybridity from its primarily linguistic context (Bakhtin,
1981; Werbner, 2001) to the broader realm of culture—an application strongly
suggested in Werbner’s exploration of boundary-breaking cultural encounters.
In particular, I examine transgressive hybridity in the context of competing
ideas of All-American and Muslim in TLC’s All-American Muslim.
LITERATURE REVIEW
(Re)presentation, Power, and Hegemony
S. Hall (1997) described (re)presentation as a process in which meanings are created, emphasizing that media retellings are necessarily biased, in selection of
stories, choices of symbols, and by what is excluded. As Kellner (2010) noted,
the media play important roles in reproducing discourses and power relationships among various social groups. Overwhelming power to define the terms
of such relationships through (re)presentation evokes Gramsci’s (1929=1971)
notion of hegemony—reflected in S. Hall’s contention that particular representations enjoy privileged status as the only reasonable and logical perspectives,
informing what Robinson (1999) called the ‘‘dominant discourse.’’
S. Hall (1997) suggested that as social groups compete to influence the
dominant discourse, hegemony is continuously contested and negotiated;
the dominant discourse reaffirmed and supported through repetition—
without which dominance may be eroded. This dominant discourse in the
United States includes notions of an imminent threat from Islam partly
embodied in Arab=Muslim immigrants and posing dangers to Western
cultural hegemony (Byng, 2010; Schumann, 2007).
Fundamental Otherness, Hybridity, and Transgression
All-American Muslim faced objections from Caton and others (including
activists Pam Geller and Robert Spencer) partly due to the show’s perceived
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incompatibility with dominant Judeo-Christian and Euro-American cultural
legacies (Davidson, 2011; Esposito, 2011). Werbner (2001) noted that
culture defines groups, boundaries and the rules of mixing; breaching these
boundaries and rules may produce hybrids which can be ‘‘transgressive and
oppositional’’ (p. 138). Cultural boundary-crossings between Islam and the
West have often been characterized in such transgressive and oppositional
terms (Byng, 2010; Kaya, 2007).
Said’s (1978) Orientalism critiqued the conceptual divide between the civilized West and a barbarous (Middle) East emerging out of (and justifying)
colonial domination and exploitation. Huntington (1996) saw this divide
leading to a ‘‘clash of civilizations’’ stemming from fundamental incompatibilities such as (he claims) Arab=Muslim societies’ aversion to secular
values and democracy. U.S. Arab or Muslim immigrants challenge these
ideas by their very mixing of the presumed incompatibilities, evoking the
concept of ‘‘hybridity’’ (Bhabha, 1994; Burke, 2009; Kraidy, 2005), the idea
that new identities develop from multiple competing cultural forces. Despite
the popularity of the concept of hybridity, Straubhaar (2008) pointed out
that people are not likely to identify themselves as cultural hybrids despite
diverse identity claims. Some scholars (e.g., Mohammed & Queen, 2011;
Scrase, 2002) question whether hybridity may reflect outward markers
rather than internal identity, whereas others (e.g., Puri, 2004) associate
hybridity with patterns of power embodied in paternalism and colonialism.
In his exploration of hybridity, Bhabha (1994) acknowledged the importance of power and hegemonic discourses. For Anthias (2001), Bhabha’s
work suggested a transgressive potential in hybridity by recognizing the
breaching of cultural boundaries through creation of ‘‘third’’ or
‘‘in-between’’ spaces of identity. Werbner (1997) similarly wrote of the
‘‘transgressive power’’ of hybrids that may ‘‘subvert categorical oppositions’’
creating ‘‘conditions for cultural reflexivity and change’’ (p. 1). Werbner
(2001) recognized such hybridity as threat, suggesting that transgressive
hybridity might constitute an attack on the dominant culture by ‘‘threatening
a prior social order and morality’’ (p. 150). For Werbner (2001), such transgressions are inherently political because they may involve ‘‘claims to symbolic citizenship in the nation-state’’ (p. 149). The identity claims and
representations articulated in the text and para-text (Genette, 1997) of
All-American Muslim violate the dominant discourse through presentations
of transgressive hybridities that appear paradoxical through the lens of
entrenched hegemonic narratives.
All-American Muslim presented an uncommon view of some U.S. Arab=
Muslim families, providing some insight into their assimilation=maintenance dynamics. Esposito and Haddad (1998) raised the question of
whether Muslim immigrants to the United States would remain Muslims
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in America or become American. More recently, El-Aswad (2010) described
the experiences of U.S. Arab immigrants and how they balanced assimilative choices with their traditions. In this regard Ghamari-Tabrizi (2004)
noted the influence of the American assimilationist ideology of the ‘‘melting
pot’’ (p. 63). However, nativism and its attendant prejudices are also present
in the United States (Casanova, 2012; Love, 2009) so that Muslim immigrants face some of the same barriers and cultural conflicts as in Europe
(Ghamari-Tabrizi, 2004) with ‘‘Islamophobia,’’ or the widespread and
presumptively justified (Zu´quete, 2008) fear of Muslims or Islam being
prevalent in both Europe and the United States (Abbas, 2004; FaddaConrey, 2011).
Arab=Muslim Conflation
The terms ‘‘Arab’’ and ‘‘Muslim’’ are fraught with inexactitude and the
potential for prejudice. Conflation of these inexact terms is one way that
the dominant discourse conditions representation of both groups. This conflation ignores the evolution of a wide variety of expressions and forms of
Islam (Westerlund & Svangberg, 1999) among diverse groups including
large non-Arab Muslim populations in several countries (Baker, 2012;
Hoveyda, 2005) as well as the existence of significant non-Muslim Arab
populations (as in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria) and non-Arab Muslim
majorities in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia (Mohammed, 2011).
Karpov, Lisovskaya, and Barry (2012) analyzed the conflation of religion
and ethnicity in terms of ethnodoxy or ‘‘ideology that rigidly links a group’s
ethnic identity to its dominant faith’’ (p. 639), which fuels essentialism and
prejudice because group members are ‘‘presumed as belonging to that faith
regardless of their actual individual beliefs or practices’’ (p. 641).
Fadda-Conrey (2011) further suggested that the logic of using either
religious or ethnic markers to determine ‘‘the American from the unAmerican’’ leads to widespread (often misdirected) suspicion, paranoia
and the perception of threat (p. 535).
Difference and Threat
Powerful forces in the United States amplify the notion of Arabs=Muslims
as threats. Peter King, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee,
for example, launched hearings during 2011 into the perceived threat from
American Muslim communities, making what the New York Times (‘‘Mr.
King’s Sound and Fury,’’ 2011) called ‘‘foolish, provocative and hurtful
claims of widespread radicalization of Muslim Americans’’ (p. A22).
Similarly, former speaker Newt Gingrich has suggested that the United
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States is in danger of eventually becoming ‘‘a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what
it once meant to be an American’’ (Marr, 2011).
This emphasis on threat finds support in the attacks of September 11,
2001, the subsequent ‘‘war on terror’’ and continuing terrorist activity
around the world (Ibrahim, 2010). The common(sense) understanding of
the Arab=Muslim as a threat to the United States (Schumann, 2007) serves
as a basis of public discourse, assuming the place of what S. Hall (1997)
called a code of shared meanings. Modern discourse is also shaped by
underlying historical tensions that trace back to the rise of Islamic Empire
and the Crusades (Kaya, 2007) and clearly articulated anti-Muslim
prejudices throughout U.S. history (Hutson, 2002; Spellberg, 2006).
Muslims, Arabs, and U.S. Media
For Suleiman (1999), the conflated Islam=Arab=Muslim representation has
varied over time (e.g., from desert Sheikhs to terrorists) but has been
consistently negative. Both Shaheen (2001) and Michalak (2002) pointed to
portrayals such as Rules of Engagement (Rudin, Zanuck, & Friedkin, 2000)
in which a massacred Yemeni civilian crowd of mainly women and children
is portrayed as ‘‘wild-eyed, gun-wielding terrorists’’ and other Yemenis are
shown as liars, fundamentalists, and jihadists (Michalak, 2002, p. 14). Halse
(2012) noted that the Muslim Araz family on the television show 24 was ‘‘portrayed as irrational, ‘primitive’ and inferior’’ while their ‘‘unpredictable and
violent actions spread fear and cause trouble’’ (p. 14). Hussain (2010) concluded that on American television Muslims are ‘‘not recognized … as citizens
of their own country, but instead are portrayed as dangerous immigrants with
a religion that is both alien and wicked’’ (p. 57).
Some portrayals, however, mitigate these pervasive negative stereotypes.
McDonnell Twair (2005), for example, argued that Sayid in the series Lost
‘‘attempted to shatter American misperceptions of the Muslim Arab male’’
(p. 44). Michalak (2002) saw ‘‘glimmerings of respect’’ (p. 13) for Arabs in
works like The Thirteenth Warrior (McTiernan, Crichton, & Dowd, 1999),
Three Kings (Hertzberg, McDonnell, Roven, Junger Witt, & Russell,
2000), Kingdom of Heaven (Scott, 2005), Syriana (Nozik, Fox, Kacandes,
& Gaghan, 2005), and The Kite Runner (Parkes, McDonald, Mendes,
Kimmel, & Forster, 2007) (Michalak, 2010).
More recently, scholars have also examined how media representations of
Islam resonate with U.S. public opinion which Panagopoulos (2006) found
to reflect ‘‘lingering resentment and reservations about Arab and Muslim
Americans’’ (p. 613). Bowe, Fahmy, and Wanta (2013), for example,
compared coverage of Islam in 18 U.S. newspapers with U.S. public opinion
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on Islam. Although their investigation confirmed continuing negative media
coverage and negative public perceptions of Islam, it also found that media
coverage was not statistically associated with how audiences thought about
particular attributes of Muslims and Islam (including their desire for peace
and levels of tolerance). Bowe et al. suggested that ‘‘individuals may have
strong psychological attributes already linked to the object of Muslim,
meaning that individuals are relatively immune to the effects of media
coverage’’ (p. 647).
Religion and reality on U.S. television. An important component of the
representations in All-American Muslim is overt reference to religion, a
relative rarity in mainstream U.S. television. Head (1954) found content
referring to religion in only 10% of U.S. television in the 1950s. Skill,
Robinson, Lyons, and Larson (1994) found that about 6% of characters
on network television had discernible religious affiliations in the mid-1990s,
a level replicated by Clarke (2005) in 2002. Whenever portrayed, however,
religion on U.S. television tends to be predominantly Christian, reflecting
the majority and hegemonic position (Engstrom & Valenzano, 2010) and
treated as gene rally positive (Lewis, 2002).
All-American Muslim fits into the increasingly diverse genre of ‘‘reality’’
programs that has enjoyed recent popularity (Egbert & Belcher, 2012).
Despite its ubiquity, there is no standard definition of the genre (A. Hall,
2006), although Nabi, Biely, Morgan, and Stitt (2003) noted common properties including their design as entertainment, lack of a script, nonactor participants and real-life settings. All-American Muslim is not the only portrayal
(or even the only reality TV presentation) of Muslims in America. A much different portrayal was on offer in the Shahs of Sunset, which featured the lives of
wealthy Persian Americans and also faced calls for boycotts, although in that
case the calls came from Iranian Americas who feared that Shahs might ‘‘worsen public views of the Iranian-American community’’ (Taghavi, 2012).
APPROACH
The present investigation used interpretative close readings of All-American
Muslim along with textual analysis of press coverage, commentaries, and
reviews of the program. The primary research question was, ‘‘To what
extent did the series pose transgressive hybridities in its representations of
Arabs, Muslims and Islam in the United States?’’ This analysis is concerned
with the extent to which entrenched U.S. stereotypes of Muslim and Arab
life and culture are reproduced (having, according to Hall, been ‘‘fixed’’
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or made to seem natural by dominant social forces) and to what extent these
stereotypes are challenged through transgressions of the dominant discourse. In conducting this analysis, representations of the tensions between
cultural assimilation and cultural maintenance were also apparent,
particularly in the context of dominant tropes of fundamental cultural
incompatibility and latent threat. This necessitated some attention to the
secondary question: ‘‘To what extent did the series portray Arabs=Muslims
cultural assimilation versus cultural maintenance?’’
The small number of episodes and the novelty of the portrayal in
All-American Muslim strongly suggested a qualitative approach to the content rather than numerical analysis. For many researchers (see Carney, 1972;
Ibrahim, 2010; Reader & Moist, 2008) qualitative analysis of content is an
appropriate approach for analysis of social meanings. In the present investigation I use themes as the primary analytical unit consistent with Bardin’s
(1977=1991) notion of the theme as a semantic unit and D’Unrug’s (1974)
description of the theme as a variable-length assertion or reference constituting ‘‘a complex unit of meaning’’ (p. 100). I viewed and recorded the complete contents of the series. Upon its conclusion, I watched the entire series
again, taking notes and identifying themes in each scene with reference to
several levels of ‘‘text’’ including spoken words, visual representations,
and symbolic references.
From this exercise, following Lindlof and Taylor’s (2002) open-ended
thematic analysis approach (see also Reader & Moist, 2008) I derived a
set of thematic categories. As themes emerged in the narrative and representation, they were assigned a label and identified with the episode and scene
in which they occurred. I identified a broad set of themes with a view to subsequent organization and reduction. Each theme label contributed to development of what Carney (1972) and others have described as candidate
explanatory frameworks. Thus in the scene suggesting that the Aoudes
experienced difficulties in being seated at a restaurant I recorded theme
identifiers that included race, religion, prejudice, hijab, food, business,
and othering. From a scene involving two characters getting tattoos from
an Israeli American tattoo artist I identified themes of Middle East conflict,
religion, culture, art, tattoos, assimilation, and prejudice. At the end of
the second complete viewing, this list of themes was refined, based on the
author’s subjective assessment of salience and recurrence to yield the
eventual topics under the All-American and the Muslim representations.
After reducing and arranging the themes from the show I conducted a
textual analysis of 134 newspaper articles about the series obtained from
the LexisNexis database. After an initial searches for the term
‘‘All-American Muslim’’ I removed items that used this particular phrase
outside of the context of TLC’s series (these included several with phrases
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such as ‘‘all American Muslims are affected by’’) and excluded duplicates to
arrive at the final data set. The articles included press coverage of the show
and the surrounding controversy and reviews or commentaries on the show
by newspaper columnists and writers.
As with the televisual text, I read these articles several times, extracting
relevant quotations and noting the focus of each article. In particular, I
searched for mentions of the characters and their representations. Analysis
of these articles provided corroboration of my thematic analysis of the
program with themes identified in the popular press (providing what is
sometimes referred to as an interpretive cross-check).
This focus on external, related content is consistent with Genette’s (1997)
notion of the importance of the para-text or the text surrounding a media
narrative as well as a growing body of work that uses press reviews and
commentaries as a proxy indicator of public sentiment on media content
(Bardhan, 2011; Chen, 2011; Gorin & Dubied, 2011). It is also consistent with
recent studies (Coonfield & Huxford, 2009; de B’be´ri & Hogarth, 2009)
combining analysis of media commentaries with interpretive analysis of
media content.
FINDINGS
Analysis of the themes of All-American Muslim and press coverage, commentaries, and reviews suggested that the representations could be arranged
along the lines of the two competing (and often intersecting) representations
of All-American and Muslim as well as the transgressive hybridity involved
in reconciling the two.
The All-American Representation
The lives of the All-American Muslim cast elucidate the complexities of
modern cross-cultural hybridities involving the kind of marginality initially
expounded in the work of Simmel (1908=1971) and Park (1928). These
liminalities articulate identities and life patterns woven into the space in
between cultures with complexities of mixture, otherness, and neitherness.
The series showed some U.S. Arab Muslims in activities and contexts that
were clearly demonstrative of assimilation into U.S. society and the blurring
of boundaries. Nina Bazzy-Aliahmad, for example, suggests that her identity as a businesswoman and her Western wardrobe combined with being
Muslim result in confusion (‘‘people don’t know what to make of me’’).
Angela Jafar (who, like Nina and Shadia does not wear the hijab) says,
‘‘When people first meet me they don’t know I am a Muslim.’’ Mike Jafar’s
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boss notes, ‘‘For the first year I didn’t know Mike was a Muslim.’’ Such
identity statements reflect external confusion and misperception as well as
the complexities of self-perception. Shadia, for example, while attending a
country music concert notes, ‘‘I’m a hillbilly at heart.’’
Press coverage of the series and commentaries in the media bore out the
importance of these representations, with particular emphasis on their simultaneous integrative and transgressive properties. As Saad and Khan (2011)
described the portrayal: ‘‘Suddenly, Muslims are just like other Americans.
They coach football, marry their high school sweethearts, and own nightclubs. … The cast has familiar, easy-to-pronounce names like ‘Mike’ and
‘Angela’; they wear jeans and hoodies; they speak with a Midwestern
twang.’’ (paras. 8 & 9).
The fact that the commentators note that these portrayals ‘‘suddenly’’
suggest that ‘‘Muslims are just like other Americans’’ in itself hints at the
both a perception of integration and simultaneous transgression of social
categories prescribed by the dominant discourse. The characters’ social
and civic involvement denotes a crossing (transgression) of the boundaries
prescribed by the mainstream as identifiers of Muslim ‘‘otherness’’ while
demonstrating assimilative tendencies in this community.
Occupation. Thematic analysis of the content suggested an emphasis on
cast members’ jobs that demonstrate civic responsibility. Press coverage of
the series supported this interpretation as Stuever (2011), for example, suggested that ‘‘most of the show’s stars seem to have been cast for their exemplary civic and cultural pride’’ (p. T08). Deputy Police Chief Jafar is shown at
work being endorsed by his (non-Muslim=non-Arab) colleagues. To emphasize Jafar’s commitment to the mainstream social order, the producers show
him leading officers protecting anti-Muslim protestors at a community event.
The series shows Muslim women in the workplace—a counterstereotypical (i.e., transgressive) portrayal against the notion of subjugated Muslim
women. Suheila Amen’s role as a court clerk and Nader Aoude’s job as a
U.S. Federal Agent further the trope of civic involvement, suggesting integration with the authority structures of mainstream U.S. society. Suheila’s
invitation to Washington to speak about the Muslim experience and Coach
Zaban’s invitation to the White House Ramadan dinner further emphasize
civic involvement and legitimize connections with centers of power strongly
suggesting assimilative tendencies.
Mainstreaming. Mundane cultural markers demonstrate the cast’s integration into mainstream American life and cultural practice. The show
emphasizes Shadia’s piercings and tattoos. Her brother Bilal also sports a
variety of tattoos. When Bilal and Shadia travel to New York City,
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producers focus on their interactions with an Israeli American tattoo artist.
Although the dominant discourse in the United States suggests automatic
animosities in such an encounter, All-American Muslim presented a conciliatory tone in the discussions between the Israeli-born tattoo artist and the
Lebanese American clients. Yet the very automaticity of these particular
individuals being tied to the conflict reflects an assumption of some essential
connection between the individuals and the geopolitics to which the
dominant discourse connects them.
The emphasis on tattooing (demonstrating American-ness through
acceptance of U.S. popular culture) is somewhat ironic because Islamic traditions either frown upon or specifically prohibit the practice (see Bukhari,
7, 72. 822)—a fact only obliquely referenced with a mention that the siblings’ mother objects to their tattoos. Here, the characters face a dilemma
(one that the program fails to highlight). They quite literally embody transgressive hybridity in their adoption of tattoos and piercings. This choice
marks their transgression of implicit American expectations of what
Muslims ‘‘should’’ look like but also transgresses their own religious traditions.
A similar cultural conflict marked by a lack of emphasis in the series is its
glossing over the fact that Shadia is a divorced single mother. Her experience as a divorcee in a community that places a premium on marriage is
never explored in the show or noted in media commentaries—though other
cast members discuss the stigma of divorce in one episode.
Football. Football is among the most obvious and repeated American
icons in the series. Cast member Fouad Zaban is coach of the Fordson High
School football team in Dearborn. Producers emphasize that most of the
players are Muslim, observing Ramadan fasting while practicing and
playing football. Repeated shots of practice set up the rivalry with a neighboring team, which the viewer is to assume (though this is never specified) is
predominantly or completely non-Muslim.
The narrative pits Muslim concerns (Ramadan fasting) against (American)
football as practice is shifted to evening hours after the breaking of the fast.
This intentional hybridity evident in the combination of Ramadan and football suggests a transgression of the boundaries that might conceptually separate Muslims from being associated with this American pastime—delivering
what Werbner (2001) called the ‘‘capacity to shock through deliberate
conflations and subversions of sanctified orderings’’ (p. 134).
The Muslim Representation
The producers portray a pervasive awareness of religion in the characters’
lives, yet the portrayal suggests that, as Stuever (2011) noted, ‘‘marginalization
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and assimilation are constant forces with which these families reckon, and
it goes both ways’’ (p. T08). The Muslim context in All-American Muslim
involves several elements including religion, hijab, and conversion.
Religion. The portrayal of a pervasive role of religion (Islam) in the
narrative fits with the dominant discourse which suggests that the essential
and defining property of a Muslim (however impious or unobservant) is his
or her presumed religious beliefs. Religion is emphasized, for example, in the
presentation of ritual practices, discussions of beliefs, and the role of the
hijab. Yet much of the characters’ everyday lives appear quite similar
to the mainstream or everyday American experience—violating expectations
of a rigid lifestyle fraught with religion, superstition, and tradition. Their
outward markers such as hijab or attendance at Mosque, although breaking
broader mainstream social norms, are not overtly transgressive, situated as
the characters are, in the largest Arab enclave in the United States. These
portrayals do, however, strongly emphasize cultural maintenance.
The series portrays staged to-camera discussions among cast members
who opine on many issues but frequently return to matters of faith. Their
discussions appear to assume that these characters are knowledgeable
on religious matters though (as press commentators noted) several of their
pronouncements involve glib generalizations and contradictions (Elsayed,
2011; Saad & Khan, 2011).
The (re)presentation of their religious lives sometimes reveals subtexts
about the (foreign) influence of Islamic theology or even Shariah law on life
in the United States (Lopez & Gaffney, 2010). One story thread, for
example, follows Samira Fawaz seeking infertility advice from Shi¸
ah clerics
who issue rulings on such matters as in vitro fertilization. Samira takes the
clerics’ advice, including wearing the hijab for blessings toward fertility.
Press coverage of the series supported interpretation of this (re)presentation as demonstrating the influence of foreign powers (Geller, 2011) and
creating discomfort in the audience (Hale, 2011). The clerics, dressed in
robes with Iranian-styled headgear and thick accents, suggest foreign influences on an American community—a fear of which is entrenched in U.S.
discourse (Hutson, 2002; Spellberg, 2006) and manifest clearly in concerns
about John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith and its implied subservience to the
will of the Vatican (McConnell, 2011). Implications of foreign influence in
the show suggest that the players are transgressive hybrids, intentionally
breaking implicit social rules that value American self-determination
and independence. This role of foreign influence also appears when
Nina Bazzy-Aliahmad explains that family reputation in her community
sometimes involves people abroad weighing in on rumors and stories.
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An important criticism of the series prevalent in press coverage and
commentaries was that it was less a portrayal of American Muslims in
general and more a depiction of a particular subgroup (i.e., a few Lebanese,
Shi¸
ah families in one town in Michigan) with their own specific practices
and beliefs (Degli Esposti, 2011; Saad & Khan, 2011; Wood, 2011).
Relevant here is the fact that Hall’s (re)presentation perspective requires
us to also examine what this portrayal excludes. The series excludes large
proportions of U.S. Muslims who are Sunni (85–90%), African American
(42%), or descended from South Asian (24.4%) or other ethnic groups
(Leonard, 2003; Pew Research Center, 2009).
Traditional religious observances such as Ramadan, the Islamic month of
fasting, as well as the Eid-Al-Fitr celebrations that mark its end were among
the chief markers of cultural maintenance in the series. Nina (who, as
Stuever, 2011, noted, ‘‘is tanned, blond and wears tight miniskirts with high
heels’’) attends the mosque for Lailat-ul-Qadr (night of power)—another
Ramadan observance. Outside of the emphasis on Ramadan, the series portrays the role of religion in the birth of the Aoude’s child when Nader recites
the adhan (call to prayer) in the newborn’s ears. Apart from some b-roll of
the Muslim prayer ritual, there is little mention of this—perhaps an
indication that it was not an observance that the particular group was strict
about. However, another more public and more visible religious and
cultural icon was perhaps the most prominent of all, namely the hijab.
Hijab. Despite the fact that hijab refers to a broad code of conduct with
rules for both men and women, it is the headwear (and sometimes face veil
or niqab) that receives attention for its many symbolisms (Ahmed, 1993;
Byng, 2010; Mernissi, 1992; Mohammed, 2011). Newspaper commentaries
featured substantial attention to All-American Muslim’s focus on the hijab,
with Hale (2011), for example, pointing to the headscarf as ‘‘the visible locus
of many people’s negative feelings about Islam’’ (p. C1). Others such as
Hiltbrand (2011, p. H01) pointed to the visible contrasts among the
hijab-wearing Suheila and those women who do not wear the hijab, including the ‘‘glamorous blonde Nina’’ and the ‘‘tattooed and pierced’’ Shadia.
The hijab features prominently in the discussions and life segments on the
show. Samira adopts the hijab on the advice of a cleric who suggests that
this act of religious adherence will increase her chances at conception (in
Episode 8 we are also told that the same Shaikh also recommended parsley
and onions to treat infertility). Viewers see Samira’s exploring hijab styles at
a boutique and showing up at her parents’ house and at work with the headwear. At her parents’ house she is welcomed enthusiastically, and her father
describes her as ‘‘a complete Muslim woman now.’’ Suheila Amen, who
wears the headscarf throughout, tells the camera that wearing hijab is a duty
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in Islam (despite the fact that several women in the series apparently choose
not to conform). In separate segments the Zaban’s family’s two preteen
daughters are outfitted in hijabs at a boutique, and cast members give
to-camera comments indicating either implicit or explicit pressures on
women to adopt the headgear. In another segment the Aoudes are ignored
for seating at a restaurant with the distinct connotation that the treatment is
due to the fact that the wife wears a hijab.
In Episode 6 Nawal attends the gym in hijab, saying that ‘‘working out in
the hijab and fully clothed is a nuisance but it is a part of who I am.’’ Here
she endures the physical limitations because of the strength of the identity
claims that prescribe them. However, in Episode 8 the boundaries of hijab
are somewhat open to negotiation when Nawal says ‘‘I am the fashionista.
…I don’t let me being a Muslim woman who wears the hijab affect my fashion sense. I still try to be fashionable and wear all the in-style clothing while
still being modest.’’ The women without hijab such as Nina and Shadia are
themselves transgressive hybrids by foregoing their cultural and religious
traditions. As Americans, they are hybrids of faith and culture, engaging
in dynamic complex choices that may transgress one set of norms in favor
of another.
Conversion. Jeff McDermot’s conversion presents the next most prominent religious issue in the program and is, perhaps, the clearest example of
transgressive hybridity—embodied in an individual who freely chooses to
breach boundaries of ‘‘incompatible’’ cultures, religions, and traditions.
Jeff’s conflicts are amplified through interviews with his mother who, while
doing her best to be diplomatic, expressed concern about the conversion.
The producers highlight the conversion by focusing on Jeff’s difficulties with
the Ramadan fast. They follow this with an awkward confrontation when
Bilal questions Jeff’s motivations for converting.
The conversion—(re)presented as a hesitant decision by a Christian
man—plays into mainstream fears of an Islamic threat to the dominant
Judeo-Christian belief systems (Alkadry, 2006; Geller, 2011; Lopez &
Gaffney, 2010). Stuever (2011) identified this plot element as the series’
‘‘touchiest’’ issue as producers corroborate latent fears of infiltration in
the mainstream audiences (p. T08). The fact that Jeff willingly chooses to
become a hybrid (breaking boundaries and transgressing normative categories of faith and culture) serves to amplify those fears. Rosenberg
(2011) takes a slightly different view, suggesting that this portrayal resonates
with powerful tension and the subtle concessions to tolerance from Jeff’s
family are ‘‘genuinely moving.’’ This out-marriage also demonstrates the
assimilative component of the representation while the insistence on conversion suggests cultural maintenance.
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Culture and Spaces In-Between
In-between the two primary contexts of All-American and Muslim, several
other representations were important, among them elements of cultural
practice embodying liminal positions and hybridities involving negotiation
(and transgression) of internal or external boundaries and the tensions
between assimilation and maintenance.
Language. Generational differences in language practices are evident—
several of the older cast members speak little or no English, whereas the
younger members use English throughout. The producers do not show the
young adults conversing among themselves in Arabic though they use
Arabic when discussing religious issues with isolated terms such as halal
(permissible) and haram (forbidden). The cast members’ use of Arabic
marks cultural maintenance, whereas their use of English with a ‘‘Midwestern twang’’ (Saad & Khan, 2011) contradicts dominant media stereotypes
and stresses a transgressive linguistic hybridity—devoid of thick accents
and predominant use of a foreign language.
Rites of passage and evolutionary hybridity. Although the boundaries
of the liminal cultural space are fluid and negotiated, they are also evolutionary. In discussing a postpartum confinement tradition, Nawal dismisses the practice, saying, ‘‘I respect the traditions of my culture but this
is the new generation.’’ Jeff McDermott’s mother also notes the evolutionary nature of the liminal space. Discussing Jeff’s conversion and marriage,
Mrs. McDermott is concerned about continuity of tradition. Yet she sees
the disruption of tradition embodied in Jeff’s decisions as part of a process,
saying that despite questions from friends and family, ‘‘society evolves.’’
Weddings are featured in Shadia and Jeff’s nuptials and in depictions of
Nina’s business activities as a party and wedding planner. The depiction
shows elaborate festivities complete with Western-styled wedding gowns,
music, dancing, and even pyrotechnics—throughout which it is difficult to
ascertain what elements of these observations reflect the traditions of the
group. Because modern weddings around the world are heavily influenced
by popular American culture, the portrayal may reflect both the contemporary hybridized Arab wedding and its further-hybridized manifestation as an
Arab American wedding in the American context.
Shadia and Jeff’s wedding presents a conscious and deliberate mixing of
Western and Arab influences in which the organizers include both an Irish
dance and a belly dancer. Surrounding this deliberately hybridized cultural
performance we witness more subtle cultural accommodations. Shadia, for
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example, switches to modest clothing complete with hijab for the marriage
ceremony in the presence of the Shaikh and then back to Western clothing
for the reception. Suheila’s preparations for the wedding included a special
hijab rather than a hairdo.
Gender=Sexuality. Issues of gender roles are common in discussions of
Islam and Arabs, particularly in comparison with modern Western norms
(Ahmed, 1993; Mernissi, 1992). In All-American Muslim, gender expectations are central to the show and published commentaries (Allen, 2011; Saad
& Khan, 2011; Stuever, 2011). The producers emphasize the appearance and
aspirations of Nina Bazzy-Aliahmad, whose family members object to her
plans to open a nightclub. Nina argues that the barriers to her plans (including a landlord’s pricing demands) involve her gender. Nina faces resistance
from her family based on the nature of the business rather than her abilities
as an entrepreneur. Although gender issues are clearly at play, one might
argue that the automaticity of the (re)presentation in gendered terms suggests that this fits with prevailing stereotypes of Muslim communities. At
least one press commentary, however, brought this particular interpretation
into question. Hale (2011) pointed to the tensions in the portrayal somewhat
approvingly, arguing that Suehaila Amen and Nawal Aoude are ‘‘outspoken, intelligent, attractive, fiercely capable young women who choose
to wear the hijab’’ who struggle to ‘‘reconcile their obvious independence
of mind with the complacent patriarchal attitudes demonstrated by fathers,
brothers and husbands’’ (p. C1).
DISCUSSION
The aforementioned findings reveal something of the blurring of boundaries
in the particular group of Muslim Americans portrayed on All-American
Muslim who demonstrate simultaneous assimilative and transgressive tendencies. Although the program presented several countertypes pertaining
to the characters’ occupations and civic roles and their participation in
the cultural mainstream, it also reinforced long-standing representational
emphases on religion, foreignness, and physical markers such as hijab.
The program also presented several elements reflecting the liminalities of
the portrayed cultural space focusing on such phenomena as selective acculturation, the evolution of cultural practices, and the dynamics of conversion
and intermarriage.
All-American Muslim’s (re)presentation of the everyday lives of some
American Muslims marked a departure from U.S. media portrayals which
(with few exceptions) have focused on religious and cultural ‘‘otherness’’
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and threats. By representations of ‘‘American’’ and ‘‘Muslim’’ in the same
characters, the series challenged obligatory discourses of differences and
othering.
The show’s mundane portrayals serve as powerful markers of inclusivity
by implicating these Muslim Americans in the everyday realities of American life. These mundane details mark commonalities that define not a
hybrid or marginal space but a common space to which viewers can relate.
However, although these mundane portrayals may suggest assimilation and
inclusion, they may also work to strengthen entrenched notions of latent
and hidden threat in the manner identified by Halse (2012).
Examples such as the mostly-Muslim high school football team and the
Arab American deputy police chief violate implicit social boundaries, redefining (re)presentations of American Muslims. At the same time, neither
producers nor cast were able to wholly resolve the tension between the
All-American and Muslim representations. The ostensible public discrimination against the Aoude couple and refusal of families to accept Nina’s
nightclub business suggest that these identities often clash and that transgressive hybridity necessarily involves dynamic tensions and continual redefinitions. Further, these examples also suggest that transgressive hybridity is
not in itself a sufficient condition for social acceptance on either side of the
liminal space.
The mainstream airing of the series violates the norm of exclusion of
Muslims (except as terrorist or cultural ‘‘other’’). However, as one of only
few representations on U.S. television attempting to reconcile American
and Muslim contexts, All-American Muslim may ultimately have little
impact on prevailing stereotypes or tacit understandings. The short duration
of the single series may also be a limiting factor to its impact because
the fixing of meanings (in Hall’s representation) happens over time with
repetition.
With several nontypical representations (e.g., two cast members called to
Washington to represent Muslims) and glimpses of religious=cultural
inflexibility among cast members, the series often weakens its own case
for the legitimacy of the hybrids portrayed. Saad and Khan (2011) nevertheless concluded that ‘‘while there are definite conceptual shortcomings,
‘All-American Muslim’ opens the door to national dialogue’’ (para. 3). This
observation highlights Werbner’s notion that transgressive hybrids aim to
advance not only the voice of the subaltern but also broader social cohesion.
Werbner’s claim of cohesion finds some support in the series, particularly
where American identity is negotiated against Islamic traditions. Bilal, for
example, says that while visiting the Ka’bah during the Hajj, he was praying
for the Steelers to go to the Super Bowl. Nawal says, ‘‘There’s your
American Muslim … football and the Ka’bah.’’
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Negative reactions, lukewarm reviews, and low viewership also suggest that,
to the extent that the series included countertypical representations, the very
idea of such portrayals were poorly received and even a source of offense to
various communities, including Christian conservative groups. The fact that
such groups were involved in moves to stop the series before it ran suggests that
the enemy status of Islam, Arabs, and Muslims still runs deep. This underlines
the importance of the transgressive nature of the hybrid (re)presented in the series, one that evokes suspicion and fear in elements of the mainstream who
already perceive the othered, essentialized foreign Muslim as a threat and this
hybridized American Muslim as a worse, more insidious danger.
The All-American portrayal was assimilative in its representation, suggesting claims to legitimate U.S. identity. The Muslim portrayal, exhibiting
concessions to religious authority and portraying young people playing
football while ‘‘deprived’’ of food and water, emphasized the tensions of
the transgressive hybrid—struggling as it does with internal and external
conflicts. The presentation of mundane everyday American Muslim life
brings to mind Bakhtin’s (1981) observation of ‘‘organic’’ hybrids which
he called ‘‘profoundly productive historically’’ and ‘‘pregnant with potential
for new world views’’ (p. 360). The present analysis also suggests that transgressive hybridities evolve over time. Thus in addition to major transgressive
cultural acts, each small decision, each mundane lived accommodation or
adjustment within and across the liminal cultural space contributes to
redefining that space and its boundaries.
CONCLUSION
The transgressive hybrids of All-American Muslim are politically meaningful
in the struggle for voice and social power because the dominant discourse
insists on the incompatibility of these cultures and delegitimizes the hybrid’s
claims to full citizenship (see Werbner, 2001). In the (re)presentation of
everyday lives that are Muslim and American, All-American Muslim lays
claim to the validity of the transgressive hybrid and aims toward social
cohesion through articulation of marginalized voices. To move beyond
Werbner somewhat, the present study also strongly suggests that what I
term the ‘‘mundane hybrid,’’ or portrayals of othered groups in everyday
activities, also acts as a powerful representation of social cohesion that
may factor into the negotiation of stereotypes and hegemony. However,
such portrayals, in reducing the familiar markers of difference, may also
help to increase suspicion.
All-American Muslim’s transgressive hybridities further debate on minority media representations, highlighted in the 1980s by idealized portrayals
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such as the The Cosby Show (Rosenberg, 2011). The series does not provide
prescriptions for an ideal portrayal of a subdominant group. Writers who
believe Muslims represent an existential threat to U.S. culture criticized
the show’s lack of attention to terrorism and the ‘‘threat’’ of Sharia law,
whereas those in favor of increased and favorable coverage of American
Muslims criticized it for portraying the group as uniformly Arab and
essentially tied to religion. Yet, like The Cosby Show, which provided an
alternative (i.e., transgressive) vision of African American life, All-American
Muslim breaks numerous boundaries of representation that, once broken,
may remain pervious and malleable, laying the ground for a national
discourse that is less bound by obligatory discourses of difference and
essentialism.
Unlike these prior television successes, however, All-American Muslim
aired to a small audience on basic cable and failed to survive its first season
(De Moraes, 2012). The show was criticized for poor choices in its portrayals such as focusing only on an Arab Shi¸
ah group (Elsayed, 2011; Saad
& Khan, 2011). It was also criticized for being too tame (De Moraes, 2012)
and lacking in entertainment value (Hale, 2011). Whatever the reasons for
its failure, the limited run of the show and its failure to attract audiences
(Wallenstein, 2011) suggest a limited impact on national discourse despite
its countertypical and transgressive portrayals. Whatever its impact,
Rosenberg (2011) concluded that ‘‘there’s something touching about the
faith All-American Muslim exhibits in Americans generally.’’
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Transgressive Hybridity in TLC’s All-American Muslim

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Mass Communication and Society
ISSN: 1520-5436 (Print) 1532-7825 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/hmcs20
The Muslims Next Door: Transgressive Hybridity in
TLC’s All-American Muslim
Shaheed Nick Mohammed
To cite this article: Shaheed Nick Mohammed (2015) The Muslims Next Door: Transgressive
Hybridity in TLC’s All-American Muslim , Mass Communication and Society, 18:1, 97-118, DOI:
10.1080/15205436.2014.888082
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15205436.2014.888082
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The Muslims Next Door:
Transgressive Hybridity in TLCs
All-American Muslim
Shaheed Nick Mohammed
Department of Communication
Penn State Altoona
The television series audiences with a group
facing widespread negative perceptions in mainstream U.S. society, which
defines them in terms of incompatible differences and external threats. The
present study examines the content of the series and the para-text including
newspaper reviews and commentaries. Using Halls perspective on representation, the author analyzes the competing frames of American and Muslim
in terms of the liminal existence and boundary-defying portrayals of the cast
members. The dualities and tensions of the resulting identity portrayals are
examined in the context of transgressive hybridity. The broader implications
of this particular reality program are examined in the context of political
discourse and minority representation.
INTRODUCTION
The series All-American Muslim focused on the lives of five American
Muslim families from Dearborn, Michigan. The show ran on cable channel
TLC from November 2011 to January 2012, starting amidst controversy as
Shaheed Nick Mohammed (Ph.D., University of New Mexico, 1998) is an Associate
Professor in the Department of Communication at Penn State Altoona. His research interests
include culture, globalization and new media.
Correspondence should be addressed to Shaheed Nick Mohammed, Department of
Communication, Penn State Altoona, 101C Cypress, 3000 Ivyside, Altoona, PA 16601. E-mail:
[email protected]
Mass Communication and Society, 18:97118, 2015
Copyright # Mass Communication & Society Division
of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
ISSN: 1520-5436 print=1532-7825 online
DOI: 10.1080/15205436.2014.888082
97
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Lowes and Kayak.com pulled their commercials after activist David Caton
and his Florida Family Association condemned the seriesencouraging
advertisers to withdraw on the premise that the show was dangerous and
misleading propaganda portraying Muslims as ordinary folks just like
other law-abiding Americans, not as extremists and terrorists (An
All-American Misstep, 2011, p. A20).
The present investigation evaluates representations in All-American Muslim
while extending the notion of transgressive hybridity (Werbner, 1997,
2001)cultural manifestation of presumably incompatible forms whose combinations violate internal or external cultural norms. I adapt and extend the
notion of transgressive hybridity from its primarily linguistic context (Bakhtin,
1981; Werbner, 2001) to the broader realm of culturean application strongly
suggested in Werbners exploration of boundary-breaking cultural encounters.
In particular, I examine transgressive hybridity in the context of competing
ideas of All-American and Muslim in TLCs All-American Muslim.
LITERATURE REVIEW
(Re)presentation, Power, and Hegemony
S. Hall (1997) described (re)presentation as a process in which meanings are created, emphasizing that media retellings are necessarily biased, in selection of
stories, choices of symbols, and by what is excluded. As Kellner (2010) noted,
the media play important roles in reproducing discourses and power relationships among various social groups. Overwhelming power to define the terms
of such relationships through (re)presentation evokes Gramscis (1929=1971)
notion of hegemonyreflected in S. Halls contention that particular representations enjoy privileged status as the only reasonable and logical perspectives,
informing what Robinson (1999) called the dominant discourse.
S. Hall (1997) suggested that as social groups compete to influence the
dominant discourse, hegemony is continuously contested and negotiated;
the dominant discourse reaffirmed and supported through repetition
without which dominance may be eroded. This dominant discourse in the
United States includes notions of an imminent threat from Islam partly
embodied in Arab=Muslim immigrants and posing dangers to Western
cultural hegemony (Byng, 2010; Schumann, 2007).
Fundamental Otherness, Hybridity, and Transgression
All-American Muslim faced objections from Caton and others (including
activists Pam Geller and Robert Spencer) partly due to the shows perceived
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incompatibility with dominant Judeo-Christian and Euro-American cultural
legacies (Davidson, 2011; Esposito, 2011). Werbner (2001) noted that
culture defines groups, boundaries and the rules of mixing; breaching these
boundaries and rules may produce hybrids which can be transgressive and
oppositional (p. 138). Cultural boundary-crossings between Islam and the
West have often been characterized in such transgressive and oppositional
terms (Byng, 2010; Kaya, 2007).
Saids (1978) Orientalism critiqued the conceptual divide between the civilized West and a barbarous (Middle) East emerging out of (and justifying)
colonial domination and exploitation. Huntington (1996) saw this divide
leading to a clash of civilizations stemming from fundamental incompatibilities such as (he claims) Arab=Muslim societies aversion to secular
values and democracy. U.S. Arab or Muslim immigrants challenge these
ideas by their very mixing of the presumed incompatibilities, evoking the
concept of hybridity (Bhabha, 1994; Burke, 2009; Kraidy, 2005), the idea
that new identities develop from multiple competing cultural forces. Despite
the popularity of the concept of hybridity, Straubhaar (2008) pointed out
that people are not likely to identify themselves as cultural hybrids despite
diverse identity claims. Some scholars (e.g., Mohammed & Queen, 2011;
Scrase, 2002) question whether hybridity may reflect outward markers
rather than internal identity, whereas others (e.g., Puri, 2004) associate
hybridity with patterns of power embodied in paternalism and colonialism.
In his exploration of hybridity, Bhabha (1994) acknowledged the importance of power and hegemonic discourses. For Anthias (2001), Bhabhas
work suggested a transgressive potential in hybridity by recognizing the
breaching of cultural boundaries through creation of third or
in-between spaces of identity. Werbner (1997) similarly wrote of the
transgressive power of hybrids that may subvert categorical oppositions
creating conditions for cultural reflexivity and change (p. 1). Werbner
(2001) recognized such hybridity as threat, suggesting that transgressive
hybridity might constitute an attack on the dominant culture by threatening
a prior social order and morality (p. 150). For Werbner (2001), such transgressions are inherently political because they may involve claims to symbolic citizenship in the nation-state (p. 149). The identity claims and
representations articulated in the text and para-text (Genette, 1997) of
All-American Muslim violate the dominant discourse through presentations
of transgressive hybridities that appear paradoxical through the lens of
entrenched hegemonic narratives.
All-American Muslim presented an uncommon view of some U.S. Arab=
Muslim families, providing some insight into their assimilation=maintenance dynamics. Esposito and Haddad (1998) raised the question of
whether Muslim immigrants to the United States would remain Muslims
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in America or become American. More recently, El-Aswad (2010) described
the experiences of U.S. Arab immigrants and how they balanced assimilative choices with their traditions. In this regard Ghamari-Tabrizi (2004)
noted the influence of the American assimilationist ideology of the melting
pot (p. 63). However, nativism and its attendant prejudices are also present
in the United States (Casanova, 2012; Love, 2009) so that Muslim immigrants face some of the same barriers and cultural conflicts as in Europe
(Ghamari-Tabrizi, 2004) with Islamophobia, or the widespread and
presumptively justified (Zuquete, 2008) fear of Muslims or Islam being
prevalent in both Europe and the United States (Abbas, 2004; FaddaConrey, 2011).
Arab=Muslim Conflation
The terms Arab and Muslim are fraught with inexactitude and the
potential for prejudice. Conflation of these inexact terms is one way that
the dominant discourse conditions representation of both groups. This conflation ignores the evolution of a wide variety of expressions and forms of
Islam (Westerlund & Svangberg, 1999) among diverse groups including
large non-Arab Muslim populations in several countries (Baker, 2012;
Hoveyda, 2005) as well as the existence of significant non-Muslim Arab
populations (as in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria) and non-Arab Muslim
majorities in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia (Mohammed, 2011).
Karpov, Lisovskaya, and Barry (2012) analyzed the conflation of religion
and ethnicity in terms of ethnodoxy or ideology that rigidly links a groups
ethnic identity to its dominant faith (p. 639), which fuels essentialism and
prejudice because group members are presumed as belonging to that faith
regardless of their actual individual beliefs or practices (p. 641).
Fadda-Conrey (2011) further suggested that the logic of using either
religious or ethnic markers to determine the American from the unAmerican leads to widespread (often misdirected) suspicion, paranoia
and the perception of threat (p. 535).
Difference and Threat
Powerful forces in the United States amplify the notion of Arabs=Muslims
as threats. Peter King, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee,
for example, launched hearings during 2011 into the perceived threat from
American Muslim communities, making what the New York Times (Mr.
Kings Sound and Fury, 2011) called foolish, provocative and hurtful
claims of widespread radicalization of Muslim Americans (p. A22).
Similarly, former speaker Newt Gingrich has suggested that the United
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States is in danger of eventually becoming a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what
it once meant to be an American (Marr, 2011).
This emphasis on threat finds support in the attacks of September 11,
2001, the subsequent war on terror and continuing terrorist activity
around the world (Ibrahim, 2010). The common(sense) understanding of
the Arab=Muslim as a threat to the United States (Schumann, 2007) serves
as a basis of public discourse, assuming the place of what S. Hall (1997)
called a code of shared meanings. Modern discourse is also shaped by
underlying historical tensions that trace back to the rise of Islamic Empire
and the Crusades (Kaya, 2007) and clearly articulated anti-Muslim
prejudices throughout U.S. history (Hutson, 2002; Spellberg, 2006).
Muslims, Arabs, and U.S. Media
For Suleiman (1999), the conflated Islam=Arab=Muslim representation has
varied over time (e.g., from desert Sheikhs to terrorists) but has been
consistently negative. Both Shaheen (2001) and Michalak (2002) pointed to
portrayals such as Rules of Engagement (Rudin, Zanuck, & Friedkin, 2000)
in which a massacred Yemeni civilian crowd of mainly women and children
is portrayed as wild-eyed, gun-wielding terrorists and other Yemenis are
shown as liars, fundamentalists, and jihadists (Michalak, 2002, p. 14). Halse
(2012) noted that the Muslim Araz family on the television show 24 was portrayed as irrational, primitive and inferior while their unpredictable and
violent actions spread fear and cause trouble (p. 14). Hussain (2010) concluded that on American television Muslims are not recognized … as citizens
of their own country, but instead are portrayed as dangerous immigrants with
a religion that is both alien and wicked (p. 57).
Some portrayals, however, mitigate these pervasive negative stereotypes.
McDonnell Twair (2005), for example, argued that Sayid in the series Lost
attempted to shatter American misperceptions of the Muslim Arab male
(p. 44). Michalak (2002) saw glimmerings of respect (p. 13) for Arabs in
works like The Thirteenth Warrior (McTiernan, Crichton, & Dowd, 1999),
Three Kings (Hertzberg, McDonnell, Roven, Junger Witt, & Russell,
2000), Kingdom of Heaven (Scott, 2005), Syriana (Nozik, Fox, Kacandes,
& Gaghan, 2005), and The Kite Runner (Parkes, McDonald, Mendes,
Kimmel, & Forster, 2007) (Michalak, 2010).
More recently, scholars have also examined how media representations of
Islam resonate with U.S. public opinion which Panagopoulos (2006) found
to reflect lingering resentment and reservations about Arab and Muslim
Americans (p. 613). Bowe, Fahmy, and Wanta (2013), for example,
compared coverage of Islam in 18 U.S. newspapers with U.S. public opinion
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on Islam. Although their investigation confirmed continuing negative media
coverage and negative public perceptions of Islam, it also found that media
coverage was not statistically associated with how audiences thought about
particular attributes of Muslims and Islam (including their desire for peace
and levels of tolerance). Bowe et al. suggested that individuals may have
strong psychological attributes already linked to the object of Muslim,
meaning that individuals are relatively immune to the effects of media
coverage (p. 647).
Religion and reality on U.S. television. An important component of the
representations in All-American Muslim is overt reference to religion, a
relative rarity in mainstream U.S. television. Head (1954) found content
referring to religion in only 10% of U.S. television in the 1950s. Skill,
Robinson, Lyons, and Larson (1994) found that about 6% of characters
on network television had discernible religious affiliations in the mid-1990s,
a level replicated by Clarke (2005) in 2002. Whenever portrayed, however,
religion on U.S. television tends to be predominantly Christian, reflecting
the majority and hegemonic position (Engstrom & Valenzano, 2010) and
treated as gene rally positive (Lewis, 2002).
All-American Muslim fits into the increasingly diverse genre of reality
programs that has enjoyed recent popularity (Egbert & Belcher, 2012).
Despite its ubiquity, there is no standard definition of the genre (A. Hall,
2006), although Nabi, Biely, Morgan, and Stitt (2003) noted common properties including their design as entertainment, lack of a script, nonactor participants and real-life settings. All-American Muslim is not the only portrayal
(or even the only reality TV presentation) of Muslims in America. A much different portrayal was on offer in the Shahs of Sunset, which featured the lives of
wealthy Persian Americans and also faced calls for boycotts, although in that
case the calls came from Iranian Americas who feared that Shahs might worsen public views of the Iranian-American community (Taghavi, 2012).
APPROACH
The present investigation used interpretative close readings of All-American
Muslim along with textual analysis of press coverage, commentaries, and
reviews of the program. The primary research question was, To what
extent did the series pose transgressive hybridities in its representations of
Arabs, Muslims and Islam in the United States? This analysis is concerned
with the extent to which entrenched U.S. stereotypes of Muslim and Arab
life and culture are reproduced (having, according to Hall, been fixed
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or made to seem natural by dominant social forces) and to what extent these
stereotypes are challenged through transgressions of the dominant discourse. In conducting this analysis, representations of the tensions between
cultural assimilation and cultural maintenance were also apparent,
particularly in the context of dominant tropes of fundamental cultural
incompatibility and latent threat. This necessitated some attention to the
secondary question: To what extent did the series portray Arabs=Muslims
cultural assimilation versus cultural maintenance?
The small number of episodes and the novelty of the portrayal in
All-American Muslim strongly suggested a qualitative approach to the content rather than numerical analysis. For many researchers (see Carney, 1972;
Ibrahim, 2010; Reader & Moist, 2008) qualitative analysis of content is an
appropriate approach for analysis of social meanings. In the present investigation I use themes as the primary analytical unit consistent with Bardins
(1977=1991) notion of the theme as a semantic unit and DUnrugs (1974)
description of the theme as a variable-length assertion or reference constituting a complex unit of meaning (p. 100). I viewed and recorded the complete contents of the series. Upon its conclusion, I watched the entire series
again, taking notes and identifying themes in each scene with reference to
several levels of text including spoken words, visual representations,
and symbolic references.
From this exercise, following Lindlof and Taylors (2002) open-ended
thematic analysis approach (see also Reader & Moist, 2008) I derived a
set of thematic categories. As themes emerged in the narrative and representation, they were assigned a label and identified with the episode and scene
in which they occurred. I identified a broad set of themes with a view to subsequent organization and reduction. Each theme label contributed to development of what Carney (1972) and others have described as candidate
explanatory frameworks. Thus in the scene suggesting that the Aoudes
experienced difficulties in being seated at a restaurant I recorded theme
identifiers that included race, religion, prejudice, hijab, food, business,
and othering. From a scene involving two characters getting tattoos from
an Israeli American tattoo artist I identified themes of Middle East conflict,
religion, culture, art, tattoos, assimilation, and prejudice. At the end of
the second complete viewing, this list of themes was refined, based on the
authors subjective assessment of salience and recurrence to yield the
eventual topics under the All-American and the Muslim representations.
After reducing and arranging the themes from the show I conducted a
textual analysis of 134 newspaper articles about the series obtained from
the LexisNexis database. After an initial searches for the term
All-American Muslim I removed items that used this particular phrase
outside of the context of TLCs series (these included several with phrases
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such as all American Muslims are affected by) and excluded duplicates to
arrive at the final data set. The articles included press coverage of the show
and the surrounding controversy and reviews or commentaries on the show
by newspaper columnists and writers.
As with the televisual text, I read these articles several times, extracting
relevant quotations and noting the focus of each article. In particular, I
searched for mentions of the characters and their representations. Analysis
of these articles provided corroboration of my thematic analysis of the
program with themes identified in the popular press (providing what is
sometimes referred to as an interpretive cross-check).
This focus on external, related content is consistent with Genettes (1997)
notion of the importance of the para-text or the text surrounding a media
narrative as well as a growing body of work that uses press reviews and
commentaries as a proxy indicator of public sentiment on media content
(Bardhan, 2011; Chen, 2011; Gorin & Dubied, 2011). It is also consistent with
recent studies (Coonfield & Huxford, 2009; de Bberi & Hogarth, 2009)
combining analysis of media commentaries with interpretive analysis of
media content.
FINDINGS
Analysis of the themes of All-American Muslim and press coverage, commentaries, and reviews suggested that the representations could be arranged
along the lines of the two competing (and often intersecting) representations
of All-American and Muslim as well as the transgressive hybridity involved
in reconciling the two.
The All-American Representation
The lives of the All-American Muslim cast elucidate the complexities of
modern cross-cultural hybridities involving the kind of marginality initially
expounded in the work of Simmel (1908=1971) and Park (1928). These
liminalities articulate identities and life patterns woven into the space in
between cultures with complexities of mixture, otherness, and neitherness.
The series showed some U.S. Arab Muslims in activities and contexts that
were clearly demonstrative of assimilation into U.S. society and the blurring
of boundaries. Nina Bazzy-Aliahmad, for example, suggests that her identity as a businesswoman and her Western wardrobe combined with being
Muslim result in confusion (people dont know what to make of me).
Angela Jafar (who, like Nina and Shadia does not wear the hijab) says,
When people first meet me they dont know I am a Muslim. Mike Jafars
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boss notes, For the first year I didnt know Mike was a Muslim. Such
identity statements reflect external confusion and misperception as well as
the complexities of self-perception. Shadia, for example, while attending a
country music concert notes, Im a hillbilly at heart.
Press coverage of the series and commentaries in the media bore out the
importance of these representations, with particular emphasis on their simultaneous integrative and transgressive properties. As Saad and Khan (2011)
described the portrayal: Suddenly, Muslims are just like other Americans.
They coach football, marry their high school sweethearts, and own nightclubs. … The cast has familiar, like Mike and
Angela; they wear jeans and hoodies; they speak with a Midwestern
twang. (paras. 8 & 9).
The fact that the commentators note that these portrayals suddenly
suggest that Muslims are just like other Americans in itself hints at the
both a perception of integration and simultaneous transgression of social
categories prescribed by the dominant discourse. The characters social
and civic involvement denotes a crossing (transgression) of the boundaries
prescribed by the mainstream as identifiers of Muslim otherness while
demonstrating assimilative tendencies in this community.
Occupation. Thematic analysis of the content suggested an emphasis on
cast members jobs that demonstrate civic responsibility. Press coverage of
the series supported this interpretation as Stuever (2011), for example, suggested that most of the shows stars seem to have been cast for their exemplary civic and cultural pride (p. T08). Deputy Police Chief Jafar is shown at
work being endorsed by his () colleagues. To emphasize Jafars commitment to the mainstream social order, the producers show
him leading officers protecting anti-Muslim protestors at a community event.
The series shows Muslim women in the workplacea counterstereotypical (i.e., transgressive) portrayal against the notion of subjugated Muslim
women. Suheila Amens role as a court clerk and Nader Aoudes job as a
U.S. Federal Agent further the trope of civic involvement, suggesting integration with the authority structures of mainstream U.S. society. Suheilas
invitation to Washington to speak about the Muslim experience and Coach
Zabans invitation to the White House Ramadan dinner further emphasize
civic involvement and legitimize connections with centers of power strongly
suggesting assimilative tendencies.
Mainstreaming. Mundane cultural markers demonstrate the casts integration into mainstream American life and cultural practice. The show
emphasizes Shadias piercings and tattoos. Her brother Bilal also sports a
variety of tattoos. When Bilal and Shadia travel to New York City,
MUSLIMS NEXT DOOR 105
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producers focus on their interactions with an Israeli American tattoo artist.
Although the dominant discourse in the United States suggests automatic
animosities in such an encounter, All-American Muslim presented a conciliatory tone in the discussions between the and the
Lebanese American clients. Yet the very automaticity of these particular
individuals being tied to the conflict reflects an assumption of some essential
connection between the individuals and the geopolitics to which the
dominant discourse connects them.
The emphasis on tattooing (demonstrating American-ness through
acceptance of U.S. popular culture) is somewhat ironic because Islamic traditions either frown upon or specifically prohibit the practice (see Bukhari,
7, 72. 822)a fact only obliquely referenced with a mention that the siblings mother objects to their tattoos. Here, the characters face a dilemma
(one that the program fails to highlight). They quite literally embody transgressive hybridity in their adoption of tattoos and piercings. This choice
marks their transgression of implicit American expectations of what
Muslims should look like but also transgresses their own religious traditions.
A similar cultural conflict marked by a lack of emphasis in the series is its
glossing over the fact that Shadia is a divorced single mother. Her experience as a divorcee in a community that places a premium on marriage is
never explored in the show or noted in media commentariesthough other
cast members discuss the stigma of divorce in one episode.
Football. Football is among the most obvious and repeated American
icons in the series. Cast member Fouad Zaban is coach of the Fordson High
School football team in Dearborn. Producers emphasize that most of the
players are Muslim, observing Ramadan fasting while practicing and
playing football. Repeated shots of practice set up the rivalry with a neighboring team, which the viewer is to assume (though this is never specified) is
predominantly or completely non-Muslim.
The narrative pits Muslim concerns (Ramadan fasting) against (American)
football as practice is shifted to evening hours after the breaking of the fast.
This intentional hybridity evident in the combination of Ramadan and football suggests a transgression of the boundaries that might conceptually separate Muslims from being associated with this American pastimedelivering
what Werbner (2001) called the capacity to shock through deliberate
conflations and subversions of sanctified orderings (p. 134).
The Muslim Representation
The producers portray a pervasive awareness of religion in the characters
lives, yet the portrayal suggests that, as Stuever (2011) noted, marginalization
106 MOHAMMED
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and assimilation are constant forces with which these families reckon, and
it goes both ways (p. T08). The Muslim context in All-American Muslim
involves several elements including religion, hijab, and conversion.
Religion. The portrayal of a pervasive role of religion (Islam) in the
narrative fits with the dominant discourse which suggests that the essential
and defining property of a Muslim (however impious or unobservant) is his
or her presumed religious beliefs. Religion is emphasized, for example, in the
presentation of ritual practices, discussions of beliefs, and the role of the
hijab. Yet much of the characters everyday lives appear quite similar
to the mainstream or everyday American experienceviolating expectations
of a rigid lifestyle fraught with religion, superstition, and tradition. Their
outward markers such as hijab or attendance at Mosque, although breaking
broader mainstream social norms, are not overtly transgressive, situated as
the characters are, in the largest Arab enclave in the United States. These
portrayals do, however, strongly emphasize cultural maintenance.
The series portrays staged to-camera discussions among cast members
who opine on many issues but frequently return to matters of faith. Their
discussions appear to assume that these characters are knowledgeable
on religious matters though (as press commentators noted) several of their
pronouncements involve glib generalizations and contradictions (Elsayed,
2011; Saad & Khan, 2011).
The (re)presentation of their religious lives sometimes reveals subtexts
about the (foreign) influence of Islamic theology or even Shariah law on life
in the United States (Lopez & Gaffney, 2010). One story thread, for
example, follows Samira Fawaz seeking infertility advice from Shi
ah clerics
who issue rulings on such matters as in vitro fertilization. Samira takes the
clerics advice, including wearing the hijab for blessings toward fertility.
Press coverage of the series supported interpretation of this (re)presentation as demonstrating the influence of foreign powers (Geller, 2011) and
creating discomfort in the audience (Hale, 2011). The clerics, dressed in
robes with Iranian-styled headgear and thick accents, suggest foreign influences on an American communitya fear of which is entrenched in U.S.
discourse (Hutson, 2002; Spellberg, 2006) and manifest clearly in concerns
about John F. Kennedys Catholic faith and its implied subservience to the
will of the Vatican (McConnell, 2011). Implications of foreign influence in
the show suggest that the players are transgressive hybrids, intentionally
breaking implicit social rules that value American self-determination
and independence. This role of foreign influence also appears when
Nina Bazzy-Aliahmad explains that family reputation in her community
sometimes involves people abroad weighing in on rumors and stories.
MUSLIMS NEXT DOOR 107
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