One reasonable definition of a good TV show is one that makes you see something familiar in a new way. That was particularly the case for me with All-American Muslim, a reality show debuting on TLC Nov. 13 and the subject of my column in TIME this week (subscription required, so pony up the dough). I was interested in the project for its subject, obviously—life in five suburban Muslim families, after the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy and various recent Islam-related freakouts (such as the charge that Campbell’s soup was trying to impose Sharia on us).
But what gave it special interest to me was the location TLC chose: the large Arab-American enclave in Dearborn, Michigan—about 30 miles from where I was born and raised.
As I write in the column, I knew about Dearborn growing up. My high school played the Dearborn Fordson High Tractors every fall in football. And I was vaguely aware that there was a large Arab and Muslim community there. (The two are not synonymous; the series doesn’t get into it, because of its focus, but there are also numerous Arab Christian immigrants in and around Dearborn from countries like Lebanon and Iraq.) But I didn’t spend much time there, so much of what’s in the series was as new to me as it will be to anyone watching it.
A lot of the material is fascinating, for reasons I get into at more length in the column: the role of women in the often-conservative community, the question of intermarriage, the religious differences between and within families. But maybe the most striking thing about the show is how ordinary it is: give or take a hijab and some rules about alcohol, these were the same Upper Midwest people I’d grown up around the first two decades of my life, fixated on high school football, speaking in the same flat-voweled, caaaar-and-baaaar accent. (It’s not quite the Fargo-style accent of Minnesota, but close to an outsider, and as I say in the column, maybe the most radical thing the series does is to show us Muslim women in hijabs who sound not unlike Michele Bachmann.)
To me, this is the significance of All-American Muslim: that it shows us mundane life among people whom TV and movies have generally shown only in the most exotic (and often threatening) terms. This is a reality show, so I’m not going to pretend it’s not edited for story and effect like any other, but it doesn’t play up the shock value of its subject. (When the series was announced earlier this year, some people were concerned—the way people always worry in advance about reality shows—that it would caricature Muslims a la Italian-Americans on Jersey Shore. Just the opposite—and because it isn’t overblown for entertainment value like a Real Housewives show, my guess is its ratings will be lower.)
Is that making a social argument? Sure, and one that’s worth making. When it comes down to it, the national debate over Islam hasn’t really been over “Are all Muslims terrorists?” or “Is Islamic extremism a legitimate danger?”—both of them straw-man arguments. It’s really about the implication—through the Sharia-law paranoia, through the idea that “peaceful Muslims” should oppose the Ground Zero project—that Islam is inherently incompatible with American and Western values, necessarily and essentially alienating.
To someone who believes that, I guess, simply making a TV series that shows Muslims going about ordinary Midwestern lives will be offensive. But to me, that kind of reaction is all the more argument for making this show.