The Extraordinary Ordinariness of 'All-American Muslim'

"Nader and I, we would go back and try to research," the questions that came up in discussions, she says. "This has kind of stepped up our game in trying to understand our faith better. This is an educational opportunity for us, too."

None of which is to say the show is saccharine, or drama-free. Bilal may be a bit preachy, but at Jeff's conversion to Islam, he jokes that Shadia's finacee suggested the whole family become Jewish instead but that they compromised on Buddhism. When a sheikh tells Samira that she can't use donor sperm to try to become pregnant if she wants her child to be recognized as her husband's, her disappointment is palpable. The show never treats the difficult and ongoing project of trying to reconcile the demands of faith and the possibilities of the modern world as if it's easy, or if there's an obvious answer the characters are missing.

And it manages to generate powerful tension out of that most anodyne subject: tolerance. For instance, how Jeff's mother handles his conversion: In one episode as she struggles find a way to say she wishes he'd stay Catholic, she tells Jeff, "Society evolves. It doesn't stay the same. Sometimes we would like things to stay the same," connecting her personal anxiety to larger fears of change. Later in that very same episode, she lets Shadia's mother fix a head scarf for her and tells the camera,  "Today was one of the most special days of my life." Her evolution from rejecting her son's new faith to embracing at least his new family is genuinely moving. Similarly, when Shadia and Jeff hit up a country music festival, telling us, "I'm a hillbilly at heart," it's easy to brace for a confrontation between her and the cowboy-hatted fans bugging her husband to chug a beer. Instead, she ends up talking to a white, non-Muslim woman who's happy for a chance to vent about how annoyed she is by Islamophobic stereotypes. And when Samira comes to work wearing a hijab for the first time, her coworker Kelly tells her, "You look so different. You look awesome, though. I love the color." There's something touching about the faith All-American Muslim exhibits in Americans generally—when a heavily pregnant Nawal and Nader find themselves repeatedly ignored by a restaurant hostess, Nader tries to convince his wife that they're just experiencing routine bad service rather than outright discrimination.

Of course, we live in a world where that faith isn't always justified. A well-financed and paranoid industry that conjures wild fantasies about the establishment of Islamic theocracies in the West, rather than focusing on the mutual goal of mainstream Muslims and non-Muslims alike: marginalizing and disempowering extremist terrorists. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors bias attacks and extremists groups, reported a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes around the ten-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Dearborn is an incomplete refuge from that turmoil. But with All-American Muslim, TLC suggesting that the town and its families might be part of a better American future. And in challenging Islamophobia, the network's upended the conventions of reality television and produced one of the best new shows of the fall.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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