Defining America: media discourse surrounding All-American Muslim

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Defining America: media discourse surrounding All-American Muslim

  1. 1. DCU Faculty Of Humanities and Social Sciences Assignment Submission Student Name(s): Cortney Copeland Student Number(s): 11102578 Programme: HMSAX - Study Abroad (Humanities & Soc Science) Project Title: Final Essay Module code: CM 510 Lecturer: Debbie Ging Project Due Date: 16/1/2012 Declaration I the undersigned declare that the project material, which I now submit, is my own work. Any assistance received by way of borrowing from the work of others has been cited and acknowledged within the work. I make this declaration in the knowledge that a breach of the rules pertaining to project submission may carry serious consequences. I am aware that the project will not be accepted unless this form has been handed in along with the project. Signed: Cortney Copeland Copeland 1
  2. 2. Defining America: Media Discourse Surrounding All-American Muslim Lowe’s home improvement store sparked a firestorm when the nationwide American chain pulled its advertising from The Learning Channel’s (TLC’s) new reality show AllAmerican Muslim in December 2011, allegedly in response to a petition from the conservative Christian group the Florida Families Association (FFA) (“Lowe’s” 2011). Media coverage of the story has responded by portraying the company’s actions as un-American and as capitulation to a small fringe group. “Americanness” has been prevalent in much of the discourse surrounding the event, from the show’s name to the FFA’s claims about a Muslim threat to American values; but while American identity has taken a central role in media discourse surrounding the controversy, what constitutes this identity has rarely been questioned or discussed. Overall, mainstream media discourse has described America according to the ideology of liberal multiculturalism, and defined it against an out-group of bigots. However, such a black-and-white interpretation of the controversy over All-American Muslim fails to acknowledge competing ideas of American identity, and likewise fails to recognise that being American does not automatically smooth cultural differences or cure conflicts and prejudice. All-American Muslim is a reality TV show that follows the daily lives of five Muslim families living in Dearborn, Michigan, a region with a high Muslim population. While the show has become a subject of controversy, its content largely has not; the show has in fact been characterised as “tepid” (Freedman 2011) and “banal” (Khan 2011) as it follows characters such as a young couple expecting their first child, a high school football coach, and a policeman. Such “wholesome” (Freedman 2011) people are in fact a contrast to much of TLC’s other programming, which includes programs about hoarders, addicts, and toddler beauty queens (tlc.howstuffworks.com). Yet while it is far from action-packed, the show addresses significant issues such as how Muslim Americans deal with the anniversary of 9/11, how they feel about Muslim extremists, women’s decisions about whether or not to wear the hijab, intercultural marriage, and experiences of discrimination (tlc.howstuffworks.com/videos/allamerican-muslim). These are portrayed alongside more universalised experiences such as raising a family and working. The show also features footage from group discussions among the cast about some of the aforementioned topics. Among those who appear in or who have seen All-American Muslim, there seems to be an agreement that the purpose of the show is simply to demonstrate that Muslims are “just regular folks” (Freedman 2011, Lalami 2011). Copeland 2
  3. 3. The FFA, however, has sent mass emails to numerous companies asking them to stop advertising on a propagandistic show that hides a “clear and present [Islamist] danger to American liberties” (FFA cited in “Lowes” 2011). Since then, Lowe’s and a travel company Kayak have both stopped advertising on All-American Muslim, although they deny that the FFA is their sole reason for doing so (Birge 2011, Hafner 2011, Rice 2011). While the FFA claims that 65 companies have pulled their advertising, several companies have made statements to the contrary, declaring that they are in fact still advertising on the show (Elliott & Stelter 2011). Although Lowe’s and Kayak have both received criticism for their decisions, both have stated that they will not reinstitute their advertising on All-American Muslim (Rice 2011). Since the story has been made public, Lowe’s and Kayak have been struggling to defend their decisions while simultaneously distancing themselves from clearly anti-Muslim supporters (Birge 2011, Hafner 2011, Popken 2011). The media texts reviewed for this paper originally included 14 news articles from eight different publications, along with 16 opinion pieces and blogs from nine different publications. However, only 10 news articles and five opinion pieces were finally included. Those left out were redundant, addressed side topics such as show ratings, or were opinion pieces on religion in general. All articles were accessed online. Reader comments on several of the aforementioned pieces are also considered. Additional sources include company statements from Lowe’s and Kayak, and TLC’s All American Muslim website which includes a show description and a collection of 38 video clips from the season’s episodes. The above texts were selected because they include several of the main national publications from which smaller publications tend to draw their content, and cover both political and entertainment news. While most of the emphasis will be given to hard news stories as a large number of the opinion pieces simply offer more of the same perspective. Those opinion pieces that differ from the main narrative, along with reader comments, provide useful counterpoints to the media’s emphasis on a single definition of American identity and their reliance on the ideology of liberal multiculturalism. While the limitations of this analysis do not permit an in-depth treatment of them, they must at least be acknowledged and can provide material for further study. Copeland 3
  4. 4. Liberal multiculturalism as discussed here is defined according to the work of Stuart Hall. Additionally, his ideas regarding identity construction will be engaged. Hall (2001) describes five different kinds of multiculturalism: conservative multiculturalism assimilates difference into the customs of the majority. Liberal multiculturalism subordinates difference to the claims of a universal citizenship. Pluralist multiculturalism corrals difference within a communally segmented social order. Commercial multiculturalism exploits and consumes difference in the spectacle of the exotic ‘other’. Corporate multiculturalism manages difference in the interests of the centre (p. 3). While virtually all of these variations of multiculturalism have emerged to some capacity in the Lowe’s controversy, the mainstream media have predominantly featured liberal multiculturalism, presenting it as a core component of American history and identity. Of the hard news articles sampled, nine overtly address American identity while one clearly contrasts “racist” supporters of Lowe’s to mainstream politicians and celebrities (in other words, recognisable Americans). Overall, three main themes appear: the inclusion of Muslims as patriotic “regular” Americans, the portrayal of diversity and inclusion as fundamental components of American identity, and the characterisation of the FFA and those who agree with Lowe’s actions as un-American bigots. A USA Today article describes one All-American Muslim cast member as somebody “doing what every other American is doing” in her daily life (Allen 2011). The same article says that Dearborn’s mayor “sees the series (All-American Muslim) as reflecting the standard American story of immigrants” (Allen 2011). One Muslim interviewee describes having family members who are veterans or currently in the military, and asks, “is that not American enough?” (Allen 2011), while another asserts that after 9/11, Muslim “students were just as American as any students around the country… they were flying American flags” (Allen 2011). The Press and Guide quotes US Representative Dingell when he “can say first hand [Muslims are] just as patriotic as every other American” (“Congressman” 2011). An article on the Fox News website describes the Muslim cast of the show as “loyal Americans” (“Lawmakers” 2011), while the New York Times quotes the retailer Sears’ statement that they “are proud to serve a diverse customer base which represents a true cross-section of America” (Elliott & Stelter 2011). Copeland 4
  5. 5. Establishing that Muslims are, in fact, American has thus appeared as one of the foremost agenda items in the mainstream media. Although this assertion is largely made in the form of quoted statements, the news industry is responsible for choosing which perspectives and statements to include, and they have chosen ones that unanimously agree. Interestingly, many of the statements not only assert that Muslims are American, but that they are as American as everybody else. This implies a continuum of Americanness along which people can have different positions, and a monolithic “everybody else” is the standard to which Muslims are compared. Whether such a standard American population even exists, however, is not considered, and the characteristics of “every other American” are assumed rather than defined. National pride and a connection to military service are the only aspects of the hypothetical standard American clearly included, implying that patriotism is both necessary and sufficient to be considered American. Readers are otherwise left to interpret Americanness through long-perpetuated national myths like “The American dream” one AllAmerican Muslim cast member says she is pursuing (Allen 2011). It is to this mythical America that “every other American” belongs- an America in which everybody has a job, a family, a house, etc- in which everybody follows “mainstream” values. The fact that All-American Muslim includes only nuclear families and people employed in respectable, well-paying jobs plays into this mainstream “All-American” America, and the media can thus take this limited conception of America for granted when including Muslims in it. The mythical America does not include people who have dreadlocks, protest the government, make massive fortunes through corruption, or live on welfare payments. In asserting that Muslims are American, both the show and the media around it are really asserting that Muslims who work steady, respectable jobs and wave American flags are like every other American who works a steady, respectable job and waves an American flag. This is the idealised group- the idealised nationto which American Muslims must belong in order to be accepted. The idealised America, according to the media, includes tolerance, diversity, and equality while it excludes discrimination. A Detroit Baptist minister quoted in USA Today states that Lowe’s does not have a “Muslim issue” but rather “an American issue” (Allen 2011). CNN quotes a tweet from All-American Muslim cast member Shadia Amen-McDermott calling for people to “Stand United” against “Bigotry and Hatred in this Country Founded on Peace, Justice, and Equality” (“Lowe’s” 2011). Likewise, another CNN article quotes the hip-hop Copeland 5
  6. 6. celebrity Russell Simmons saying "This country is built on religious freedom …This is the kind of hate that tears this country apart" (Duke 2011). Fox News quotes US Congressman Ellison’s similar statement, “Our nation's history is full of examples demonstrating how we have repeatedly torn down false divisions hate groups choose to create” along with his claim that Lowe’s “is choosing to disregard the First Amendment” (“Lawmakers” 2011). The article further quotes Ellison’s allegations that Lowe’s actions are “un-American” (“Lawmakers” 2011), a phrase that is repeated when the LA Times quotes California State Senator Ted Lieu’s accusations that Lowe’s decision was “bigoted, shameful, un-American” and “ignorant” (Sewell 2011). Politicians, representing the formal American position, are portrayed as strongly against Lowe’s actions when the Press and Guide includes the fact that “more than 30 Congressmen sent a letter to Lowe’s’ CEO” asking the company to apologise (“Congressman” 2011). In the above representation of America, diversity and tolerance are as fundamental as patriotism. While the media stories quoted above do in several cases acknowledge widespread and even institutional discrimination against Muslims (Allen 2011, Freedman 2011), this discrimination is inserted as another chapter in a national narrative that portrays the “real” America repeatedly fighting against and overcoming the prejudice that is against its core values. Producing and supporting All-American Muslim is characterised as a part of this ongoing fight, and standing against it is therefore standing against America’s tradition of tolerance. Such a representation of America- something along the lines of “America is tolerant and that is that” – creates a dichotomy in which people are either happily multicultural Americans, or ostracised bigots. There is no room in such a dichotomy to earnestly discuss what multiculturalism means or to address the fact that many American citizens do hold prejudices. Such rhetoric is in fact a casting aside of responsibility, creating a tolerant “us” and a bigoted “them” rather than a “we” who have some issues to work out together. According to Hall, this contrast with an “other” is always included in the process of identity construction. “Every identity is an exclusion”, he claims, “To leave something out is an act of … symbolic power, which is to say: I am what I am because I’m not the other” (Hall 1997, p. 16). In the story told by media surrounding All-American Muslim, America is multicultural and tolerant because it condemns those who espouse religious bigotry as outsiders. In addition to the examples in the above paragraph, the Press and Guide quotes a US Copeland 6
  7. 7. Representative Dingell, from Dearborn, saying, “it has been encouraging to see so many individuals throughout, not only Southeast Michigan, but the entire nation, come together to stand up against outsider attempts to mislead and create fear surrounding our Muslim neighbors” (“Congressman” 2011, emphasis added). Thus while those supporting Dearborn are part of a unified nation, the FFA and its supporters are not granted the same inclusion. The fact that they are fellow American citizens is not acknowledged; they stand outside “the entire nation” that has come together against them. The media have, in fact, taken it upon themselves to present the FFA as an outsider, portraying it as an “extreme fundamental group” (“Congressman” 2011) headed by “one dude with a poorly made website” (Freedman 2011). News stories have emphasised that the FFA’s sole full-time employee is David Caton, “one fringe individual with an e-mail list” and a former pornography addict (Freedman 2011). The media has also focused on the falsity of FFA claims, exposing them as untrue (Elliott & Stelter 2011). Lowe’s in turn has been characterised as caving in and fearing the FFA. While these descriptions of the FFA are not necessarily inaccurate, and the correction of its false claims is an important aspect of journalism, the effect of intensely focusing on them has been to portray the FFA as an irrational outlier, a freak against which America can define itself. The result is that discrimination is blamed on a scapegoat who “manufactured” the controversy (“An AllAmerican Misstep” 2011), and while it is condemned it is not taken seriously. Even as the media is accusatory it is dismissive, never addressing anti-Muslim sentiment as something that can exist in different forms, to different degrees, and among different kinds of people. The possibility of “good Americans” holding stereotyped views of Muslims is neglected because it is too complicated for an identity based on “us” and “them”, while disagreement over the nature of multiculturalism is never even considered. One could say the same thing about America that Hall has said about Britain: “the dominant version of the story has … systematically overplayed the unity and homogeneity of the nation” (2001, p. 9). The seemingly hegemonic vision of cultural diversity portrayed by the media is that of liberal multiculturalism- the subordination “of difference to claims of universal citizenship” (Hall 2001, p. 3). USA Today devotes a significant section of its article to discussing the diversity of Dearborn. One longtime resident says proudly of his acquaintance with footballer Gino Martelli, “He wasn't my Italian friend. Nobody looked at me as their Arab-American friend or Muslim friend” (Allen 2011). Such statements downplay both ethnic and religious Copeland 7
  8. 8. differences, while the common identity of being American is, as demonstrated above, made preeminent. However, Hall is critical of liberal multiculturalism for the very reason that it fails to engage with what he calls “the play of difference” (2001 p. 5). No amount of asserting that every American subgroup is American will make them all the same, or can make them agree on such contentious topics as public expressions of religion. In fact it is quite easy to espouse the values of liberal multiculturalism while turning a blind eye to cultural tension or conflict. For example, in Kayak’s statement explaining their reasons for no longer advertising on AllAmerican Muslim, chief marketing officer Birge writes, “we adamantly support tolerance and diversity… We get what America is about” (2011). However, when Birge discussed Kayak’s decision with a New York Times reporter, he explained: “When TLC pitched ‘All-American Muslim’ to advertisers, it was characterized as a fair-and-balanced look at the life of an American Muslim … what was not disclosed was the pre-existing controversy surrounding race, religion and specifically the divide between the Muslim and Christian communities in Dearborn, Mich.” (Elliott 2011). “The play of difference” is too messy to be free of controversy, yet Birge’s vision of diversity clearly does not include the conflicts and realities of a multicultural society. Liberal multiculturalism’s claims of universal citizenship are naively idealistic. For many people reading the news articles surrounding All-American Muslim, such discourse is clearly inadequate. Comments left on articles about All-American Muslim range from the overtly racist to the astutely critical, and nearly all present differing ideas about both Muslim Americans and American identity more generally. Many comments reveal that some people cannot or do not wish to reconcile the images they see of violence and repression among Muslims with the positive portrayals in All-American Muslim: Realamericangirl commented on Duke (2011) “The show is fake. They should have mentioned the ‘honor killing’ of a young woman just down the road recently” while a comment on USA Today reads “i am sorry but i do not believe this story... we get to see muslims beheading an American journalist and their sharyia pracitice and forcing little girls into forced marriages! Is this story about fantasy island or Dorothy in Kansas city…” (comment on Allen 2011). It is quite possible that this skepticism has been encouraged by past media representations of Muslims and a preponderance of negative stories. The media’s jump to defend All-American Muslim can in this context almost seem hypocritical. Furthermore, the heavy presence of such negative comments on nearly Copeland 8
  9. 9. every news article reveals that the media’s dismissive treatment of the FFA perhaps underestimates the pervasiveness of anti-Muslim bias. Interestingly, while the news media have largely leveled accusations at Lowe’s and left the FFA at the sidelines as a radical group not to be taken seriously, opinion writers have been much more critical of the FFA’s rhetoric and its potential impact. In The Washington Post’s opinion section John Esposito compares the FFA’s rhetoric to the Manifesto written by the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik (2011), while in The New York Times Salam Al-Marayati compares it to anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda (2011). The ideas expressed by the FFA cannot be dismissed as solely belonging to fringe groups, nor can they be taken lightly. While the media have provided a useful space for debate in opinion sections, their tendency to belittle and ridicule the FFA in news articles has been adopted by those who comment on them (“Florida Farts Association”, according to one comment on Duke (2011)). Such belittling risks underestimating the influence of so-called fringe groups. Finally, comments have repeatedly raised issues both of free speech and of religious tolerance, with users quoting a variety of texts ranging from Ben Franklin’s autobiography to the Bible. The contentiousness of these supposedly central American values reveals the necessity of what Lentin (2002) would call a ‘politics of interrogation’ of Americanness. While liberal multiculturalism simply demonstrates the appearance of diversity in a unified America, Lentin’s interculturalism interrogates concepts of national identity, while Hall asserts that “by definition, a multicultural society must involve practices and debates between more than one group. There has, therefore, to be some framework in which serious conflicts of outlook, belief and interests can be negotiated, and this can’t be simply the framework of one group writ large or universalized” (2001, p. 16). While the news portrays American identity as if it is clear, unified, and agreed upon, public discourse reveals no such agreement even on core components of the Constitution. The news’ simple portrayal of one-dimensional Americanness and superficial multiculturalism clearly does not provide the kind of interrogation or framework described by Lentin and Hall, nor does it satisfy the people who are filling up comment feeds and facebook walls with their arguments. Since the very existence of a show like All-American Muslim reveals that being a Muslim American is still a challenged identity, a new discourse must emerge that explores American identity as much as it does Islam. Copeland 9
  10. 10. Works Cited Allen, K. (2011, 19th December). TLC show brings Muslims in America out in the open. USA Today. Retrieved from www.usatoday.com/news. Al-Marayati, S. (2011, 22nd December). A campaign against patriotic Muslims. [supplemental material]. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate. “An All-American Misstep” [Editorial]. (2011, 23rd December). The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com. Birge, R. (2011, 14th December). Company statement posted on kayak.com. “Congressman Dingell, State Rep. Darany stand with Muslim neighbors”. (2011, 19th December). Press & Guide. Retrieved from www.pressandguide.com. Duke, A. (2011, 13th December). ‘All-American Muslim’ sells out , despite Lowe’s withdrawal”. [supplemental material]. CNN.com. Retrieved from edition.cnn.com. Elliott, S. (2011, 14th December). Kayak defends cutting ties to ‘All-American Muslim’. [blog post]. The New York Times. Retrieved from mediacoder.blogs.nytimes.com. Elliott, S., & Stelter, B. (2011, 13th December). Controversy drives advertisers from ‘AllAmerican Muslim’—or does it? [Web log post]. The New York Times. Retrieved from mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com. Esposito, J. (2011, 16th December). The madness over All-American Muslim [Web log post]. The Washington Post. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith. Freedman, S.G. (2011, 16th December). Waging a one-man war on American Muslims. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com. Hafner, S. (2011, 15th December). “We handled this poorly”. Company statement posted on Kayak.com. Hall, S. (1997). Random thoughts provoked by the conference “Identities, democracy, culture and communication in Southern Africa”. Critical Arts, 11(1-2), 1-16. ----------(2001). The Multicultural Question. Pavis Papers in Social and Cultural Research. The Open University. Retrieved from www.open.ac.uk/socialsciences/pavis/papers.php Khan, S. (2011). Friday: Family “’All American Muslim,’ banality fights fear”. [Web log post]. Retrieved from nynatives.com. Copeland 10
  11. 11. Lalami, L. (2011, 19th December). Why ‘All-American Muslim’ should have the right to be boring”. [Web log post]. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy. “Lawmakers slam Lowe’s for pulling ads from Muslim-American reality show”. (2011, 11th December). [supplemental material]. Foxnews.com. Retrieved from www.foxnews.com. Lentin, R. (2002). Intercultural education: The University of tomorrow? In Report on the Forum on Media and Interculturalism (2002). Connolly, M., Ging, D., & Malcolm, J. Conference held 21-22 March 2002 at Dublin City University. List of TLC shows. (2011). Retrieved from www.tlc.howstuffworks.com/tv/allamerican/muslim. List of All-American Muslim video clips. (2011). Retrieved from www.tlc.howstuffworks.com/videos/all-american-muslim. “Lowe’s pulls advertising from TLC’s ‘All-American Muslim’”. (2011, 12th December) [supplemental material]. CNN.com. Retrieved from edition.cnn.com. Popken, B. (2011, 13th December). Lowe’s in Facebook Hell as racist comments pile up. Adweek. Retrieved from www.adweek.com/adfreak. Sewell, A. (2011, 11th December). Lawmaker: Lowe’s ‘bigoted’ for pulling ‘All-American Muslim’ ads. [Web log post]. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from latimesblogs.latimes.com. Copeland 11

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