Recap of ADC Community Forum: All-American Muslim
Washington, DC | www.adc.org | January 6, 2012 -- Earlier this week, ADC was delighted to host a special community forum at Washington DC’s West End Cinema, in which cast members from the TLC reality television series All-American Muslim shared their thoughts with an enthusiastic and diverse audience about their experiences on the show. The event was also made available to viewers online through ADC-TV via live streaming. Members of the audience were encouraged to participate, and viewers online were welcome to send their questions over Twitter and Facebook.
It was an ordinary gathering with ordinary Americans, yet the overwhelming feeling in the auditorium was that all involved were experiencing something extraordinary. In the midst of much laughter, a keen awareness of the profound significance of the show, and a jovial running debate about the Steelers and the Cowboys, Suehaila Amen, Bilal "Billy" Amen, and Nina Bazzy, along with TLC’s Vice President of Production and Development on the East Coast Alon Orstein spoke openly about what it meant for them to be part of this unprecedented initiative in American history.
ADC President Warren David started the evening by welcoming the audience, and offered remarks on how important it is that we take ownership of our collective narrative.
ADC Legal Director Abed Ayoub facilitated the discussion. He began by asking the cast members how they would characterize their overall experience with the show. “A great experience,” “really enjoyed it,” “absolutely extraordinary,” they said, with Billy adding, that for him, it “created a lot of dialogue, because people, who normally wouldn’t be talking to each other, had a reason to sit down and talk to each other.”
In reply to Abed’s question to him about why TLC chose this show at this time, Alon said, “it had to be done.” Alon emphasized that being a learning channel, it only made sense that TLC would take on the issue of the oft-misunderstood Muslim American community and provide an educational experience for all Americans through the show. He said that he felt it was an important show. He spoke of how striking it seemed that Muslim Americans are never really seen on television. “People said I don’t know anything about these people and would love to learn – this is why we did this show.”
As many are aware, All-American Muslim received much attention across America, with vocal critics from outside the community. However, it also had its critics from within the community, and Abed posed the question to each cast member: “which hurt more?” Suehaila’s response encompassed the sentiments of all three speakers by noting that having become accustomed to the criticism from non-Arab society post 9/11, she’s had to develop “thick skin,” and that the criticism from within the community was tougher to deal with. Later in the discussion, Billy added that despite the criticism, most in the community seemed proud of the people representing them on the show.
According to Alon, the network had spoken with Muslim families from coast to coast in America, but “we just fell in love with these personalities in Dearborn as characters,” he told Abed and the audience, when asked about how TLC selected the cast. Suehaila added that it would have been impossible to find a group that was completely representative of the entire Muslim American community, which is truly diverse. Nevertheless, she pointed out that whenever there is an incident on the news involving a Muslim, whether he is Caucasian, African American, or Arab American, “the media,” she said, “always seem to come to Dearborn to see what we think because our community is so central” to the greater Muslim community.
One online viewer asked how the speakers hoped to see the Muslim American community change from within. Billy reflected on the importance of the community opening its doors more; that attending interfaith meetings once a month does not suffice; that Muslim Americans need to be more open to dialogue through friendship rather than religious debate; and that the community’s youth should be encouraged to be more active in mosques, churches, synagogues, and temples. Suehaila expounded on the need for more effort in community organizing between Muslim Americans and Arab Americans; that while bills are being passed in government that directly impact these communities, no strong, united voice for the two is ever heard; that as Americans who have contributed greatly to this nation, members of both communities need to be more active on a civic level. “If we’re not voting and being active, we will continue to be voiceless.” Nina focused on the need for the community as a whole to unite as one, rather than separate along the lines that divide the community into various groups and categories.
Following this came a question from the audience about the responsibility of the cast members to represent the community effectively. Reiterating her point about not being able to represent the entire community, because of its vast diversity, Suehaila responded by saying, “I can’t be responsible as one person to represent the entire Muslim Umma [community]. I am one person.” She also emphasized that none of the cast tried to be somebody they weren’t. “It is a great responsibility,” she said, “but we have to portray who we really are.” Billy concurred by saying that growing up in America, he knew people would always see him differently, and he knew in this show that viewers would have on every word, but he remained true to himself throughout the show. Nina and Suehaila added that there was no script, not even a strategy about what to focus on. “We were just being ourselves.”
Alon added that judging by the level of support from TLC, “from the top, down” and by the reception of the media, All-American Muslim was one of the most well received shows in the history of TLC.
An online question, directed to Suehaila, came from an Asian-American woman who said she really connected to Suehaila’s story, particularly during the parts of the show portraying the issue of marriage. She asked if Suehaila found non-Muslim women connecting to her, to which Suehaila emphatically responded, “yes,