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All-American Muslim Meets an Un-American Advertising Pullout

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Samira Amen of ALL-AMERICAN MUSLIM. A conservative group wants to make sure you don't see "propaganda" images like hers unless they're properly balanced with scary Muslims.

The TLC reality show All-American Muslim, which follows five families in Dearborn, Michigan, has a lot of points to make about the lives of average Muslim citizens in America, among them the lingering discrimination they face after 9/11. (Here’s my review of the show’s premiere.) Last week, hardware big-box store Lowe’s pulled its advertising from All-American Muslim under pressure–and thereby proved the show’s point.

Lowe’s pulled its ads following a protest campaign from the Florida Family Association, which objects to the show, in essence, because it portrays Muslims too positively. That is, it argues the show is “propaganda” because it portrays peaceful, ordinary Muslims without mentioning horrible things that other Muslims have done. Right: because a decade of news reports, eight seasons of 24 and constant political grandstanding have done a bang-up job of utterly ignoring Islamic extremists.

(More: Mideast Meets Midwest in All-American Muslim)

Lowe’s caved to the pressure and pulled its ads. This is repulsive. It also shouldn’t be surprising, in a country where bigots have carefully worked to establish different rules for “peaceful Muslims” than for everyone else. (And I’ll be fair to Lowe’s: it’s entirely possible that other advertisers have also silently pulled their ads–we don’t know who might have done so already and what’s just normal advertising churn–but that only Lowe’s was upfront enough to state it publicly. The FFA, at least, is claiming credit for more advertisers dropping out and Lowe’s contends that “dozens” have.)

The FFA’s specific complaints about All-American Muslim should be ludicrous on their face to anyone who has actually watched the show. I’ll take just a few from its letter to advertisers:

“The show portrayed a Roman Catholic who converted to Muslim to marry.  However, there was no mention of a Muslim who attempted to convert to Christianity which has resulted in a multitude of conflicts in America and abroad.”

This is flatly false. The arc in which one of the Muslim characters married her Catholic husband noted his mother’s discomfort with the conversion, but then directly, specifically discussed the fact that her conservative Muslim parents would have had an issue with her conversion.

“Many Imams who are at the head of [the show’s] prayer rituals believe strongly in Islam and Sharia law.”

Leaving aside the question of “Sharia law,” a shibboleth that anti-Muslim advocates have used to whip up suspicion against Campbell’s soup, why exactly would an imam not believe strongly in his own religion?

“Many woman were shown wearing hijabs and many who were not, but the program did not show what happens if one of the hijab-wearing women decides to take it off.”

False again: All-American Muslim actually pays a tremendous amount of attention to the personal decision to wear the hijab or not, and specifically follows the story of one character who did decide to stop wearing it, to avoid workplace repercussions after 9/11. In fact, one of the show’s biggest themes is the treatment of, and double standards toward, women in parts of the religious community. But because women are abused far worse in Islamic countries elsewhere in the world—or even because there have been extremist Muslim wackjobs in the United States—does not obligate All-American Muslim to make out Dearborn to be Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

I could go on, but it would be fruitless: the point of a campaign like this is to create an us-vs.-them dichotomy and force businesses and networks to choose sides. Which is what religious zealots do.

I’m guessing the FFA would say that I’m arguing that anyone who criticizes Islamic extremism is a bigot. No: Hating terrorism is not bigoted. Neither is disdaining the persecution of women or minorities by religious fundamentalists.

But what is absolutely bigoted is to decide that there is one group in America that gets treated by different rules. What is blatantly bigoted is to say that there is one group whose members cannot be shown to live mundane, nonthreatening lives without being “balanced” by references to murderers who have the same religion that they do. (Thus a Maine newspaper was browbeaten into apologizing for showing local Muslims peaceably praying on the 9/11 anniversary.) What is systemically bigoted is fighting to make sure that one religion, and one religion only, is never portrayed without an element of menace attaching to it.

(More: Paper to Readers: Sorry for Portraying Muslims as Human)

And what is despicable, embarrassing and un-American in the deepest sense is for an advertiser to cave to that bigotry.

In a statement on its Facebook page, Lowe’s acknowledged that it had pulled the advertising, because the program had become a “lightning rod.” It added: “We have a strong commitment to diversity… We strongly support the right of our customers, the community at large, and our employees to have different views.”

No, Lowe’s, you don’t. At best, you’re acknowledging that right. That’s not the same thing. Supporting it and respecting it would mean standing by the principle that a program should be able to express its views, and that others can differ from those views by complaining and by not watching. Supporting and respecting diversity and free discussion means more than caving to the squeakiest and craziest wheel, then issuing some mealymouthed corporate boilerplate.

I’m sure Lowe’s would rather have rather avoided this whole controversy. I’m sure it would be glad to quietly continue making money from consumers of all faiths. That’s not “a strong commitment to diversity”—it’s a weak one. It’s the bare legal and business minimum, if that. Actual commitment means committing to a principle without calculating how much it will cost you.

I will say this for Lowe’s, however (and any other advertisers who may join them in the pullout): I don’t believe they’re bigots. They’re cowards. They’re the kind of penny-ante self-interested cravens who, throughout history, have passively made the work of blatant, active bigots possible. No, they didn’t express any animus toward Islam. They just stated, pretty much flat-out, that if you raise a big enough stink about a show, they’ll pull out, if they feel it’s cheaper than the alternative—and implicitly, that bigotry against Islam is acceptable enough that it’s OK to kowtow to it. (Who out there believes they’d have made the same calculus for a show that was “dangerously” positive about Jews, Italian Americans or African Americans? Should 19 Kids and Counting be “balanced” with references to Christian fundamentalist extremism?)

That makes them no better, though, nor should it earn them a pass from customers who want to live in a respectful society. Lowe’s may not be building a platform of bigotry itself. But it’s supplying the tools, and that’s more than bad enough.