Me, The Muslim Next Door – What Muslim Reality Shows Should Be

By Guest Contributor Nicole Cunningham Zaghia, cross-posted from Muslimah Media Watch

One of the main criticisms of TLC’s All American Muslim was that the show’s characters were representative of only a small part of the American Muslim community.  If you felt that way, then a great antidote is Me, the Muslim Next Door, a web documentary produced for Radio Canada International.  Filmed in Montreal and Toronto in both English and French, Me the Muslim Next Door is over two hours of audio, video, and still photography, broken up into 4-6 minute segments, with each of the show’s participants having several segments.  These segments took place in the participants’ personal landscapes – at home, on the street, with their families.

Me, the Muslim Next Door is cast like a cross between the United Nations and a Benetton ad. I love it.  We have:

  • Eduardo, a Brazilian convert who, by his own admission, used to hate Muslims;
  • Dania, whose father is Eritrean and whose mother is a convert from  Quebec;
  • Mehdi, a Moroccan married to Laila from Afghanistan; they met on Facebook;
  • Suad, whose mother is Syrian and whose father is part Palestinian, part Bosnian and, to add some fun to the mix, her husband Karim is part Finnish, part Egyptian;
  • Rizwan, of South Asian background, who lives in Toronto and takes us to his neighbourhood masjid.

One of my recurring problems with Muslims in the media is that we are often portrayed answering the same questions in the same ways. Every show has something about polygamy or hijab or “fitting in.” We either go on tape with platitudes (“oh but you can only be polygamous if you afford it, isn’t it great that widows can be taken care of”), with statements designed to shock the middle classes (“jihad is ok for the kuffar!”), or with instant fatwas about how our religion says things in black and white (“Islam says music is BAD”).

These topics show up in Me the Muslim Next Door, but the  “personal landscape” format of the videos allows a fresh, personal light without bringing down the level of the discourse.

Mehdi and Laila, a mixed Sunni-Shia couple, explain that for them, the most important part of Islam is at the level of the shahada. If you say the shahada, you’re ok, and sectarian or other differences don’t matter.  That spoke to me. Jamila, part of a large family, explains why she stays close to her parents – because they made sacrifices for her when she was a child, so she will make sacrifices for them as an adult. Suad and Karim had a marriage semi-arranged by their MSA, “but” played the piano at their wedding. And Dania’s 23rd birthday party was alcohol-free. She mentions alcohol – that she has never had it, but doesn’t see what it could bring to an already good time. These are people and situations I can relate to and the type of Muslims I want people to see when they ask me about my religion. The show’s participants leave out “Islam says this” and instead talk about these topics in the terms of personal choices they have made in their private lives.

As a francophone Louisianian who lived and studied in Canada, I absolutely LOVED seeing normal Muslim people I could relate to in their living rooms talking about their families, hopes, jobs and dreams. I found my place more in this show than I did in All-American Muslim. The difference is that the goal of Me, the Muslim Next Door isn’t sensational. It nails the fine line between “educating the mass market” and giving Muslim viewers characters who are different enough to be interesting yet similar enough for all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to find common ground.

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  • Kandlu

    I love All-American Muslim. The reality is that most of the islamophobia is directed at Arab Muslims so it makes sense that TLC would  highlight Arab Muslim families. Not to mention the fact that Dearborn is a historically Arab town.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the links to the documentary. I have only seen a short clip of All American Muslim. There is still so much xenophobia and misunderstanding when it comes to Muslims in the US, even from so called liberals and conscious people (from personal experience). I feel that a show like this is too little too late in some regards. It could have been more useful (and probably would have got higher ratings) five or six years ago.

    When it comes to reality tv, my thought is that All American Muslim should be viewed as as  much of an accurate representation of Muslims in America as  the Real Housewives of New Jersey are viewed as an accurate depiction of housewives living in New Jersey.

    • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

      I agree with you that shows about Muslims might have been more influential if they came out five/six years ago. As for All American Muslim, I’m wary of it because I worry about TLC using lowest-common denominator tactics to boost the show’s ratings. As for Me, The Muslim Next Door, I think it’s good that it’s is a web program because that way its producers have more leeway towards showing what they want to show.

  • Anonymous

    Great post Nicole. I was in DC for meetings and on my way to the airport the cab driver gave me a booklet on Islam made by the American Islamic Information Center. I was going to say “thank you but I have relatives (great aunt and cousins) and friends who are muslimah,” and caught myself before I came off as sounding like “No I’m cool I have muslim friends and family” I thanked him for taking the time to share with me and told him I would take the time to share with others as well.

    Thank you for taking the time to share, I will definitely be checking it out, Me, the Muslim next door.