Lowe’s All-American Muslim Fiasco and the Politics of Normalcy
Look, ma! Americans!
Their slogan is "Never Stop Improving," but lately, "Never Stop Denying" seems more fitting. Lowe's has rebuffed a 200,000-signature petition to reinstate ads on the new reality television series All-American Muslim on The Learning Channel.
The retail giant stepped into a big political hubbub once word got out that the company decided abruptly to pull its advertising from the show, which depicts daily life in the Muslim American community, shortly after receiving some nasty backlash from a hardline evangelical group, the Florida Family Association. Apparently showing normal people on television who happen to be Muslim is a sin, and a threat to national security, and would make Jesus mad.
These arguments are nothing we haven't heard before of course, but activists were jarred when they heard that a big box behemoth like Lowe's would be cowed by the condemnation of a fringe group of anti-Muslim crusaders. Then again, the FFA did wage a rather virulent campaign to terrorize corporations who dared put their ads on the show. According to the group's website:
the show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.
Aside from Lowe's, the campaign also targeted such household names as Hershey's and Campbell's Soup, urging supporters to call customer service to voice their rage.
Of course, wingnuts in Tampa aren't the only ones who wield social media to spread their gospel. The reaction to the reports of Lowe's pandering to anti-Muslim haters has proven to be much more of a political minefield than running a few commercials on show designed to be emphatically banal. the controversy has provided endless fodder for parodies about home-improvement jihadis, inspired a nationwide boycott, and prompted Russell Simmons to step up to replace the lost financing.
The interfaith Mecklenburg Ministries gathered 200,000 signatures to pressure Lowe's to reverse its decision, but to no avail. Even in the wake of accusations of "engaging in Jim Crow-style discrimination," the company's damage control unit continues to insist that the pulling of the ads was a marketing decision and not a cave to FFA.
Still, Lowe's spokespeople apparently have not settled on talking points about the influence of hate-mongering critics on their ad campaigns. While Lowe's VP of Marketing Tom Lamb sheepishly told the Charlotte Observer that "The decision was absolutely not, despite what's been reported in the media, influenced by any one group," another spokesperson, according to the Hollywood Reporter, claims that "decisions to pull commercial spots from shows that are considered controversial are made perhaps 8-10 times a year." As if outraged customers were supposed to find that reassuring.
But in the midst of the hooplah, you've got to wonder if the show is worth all the hype, positive or negative. Zaki Hazan had an alternative take on Huffington Post, questioning the hyper-assimilationist mission of the show:
My "meh" reaction to the program comes, I think, from my general dislike of the omnipresent desire among many to turn religions into demographics, and compartmentalizing a far-ranging faith group that includes so much diversity into a single reality cast and labeling it "All-American" just seems counter-intuitive to me. I've long held that the best way to demonstrate how "All-American" Muslims are is to just do it without hanging a lampshade on it. Muslim lawyers on lawyer shows, and it's no big deal. Muslim cops on cop shows, and it's no big deal. Because, guess what? It's no big deal.
Now, fringe groups will always spout their bigotry, and probably no reality show will compel them to recognize their disconnect from the real world. What All-American Muslim ostensibly aims to do is to overcome stereotypes held by "average Americans" by showing them that the Lebanese neighbors next door aren't so scary after all. But the real question is: what does that say about our public discourse? Maybe what prime time television needs right now isn't a showcase of Muslims being as ultra-American as possible but a conscientious exploration of why our image of the "All American" is actually a complete fiction, why terms like "melting pot," "tolerance" and "diversity" have become tools for sugar-coating racial and ethnic difference, masking ugly tensions that block honest dialogue and reinforce hierarchy. Lowe's image problem will probably pass once the controversy subsides, All-American Muslim may or may not change public perspectives, and given the show's current ratings, it seems many might just shrug and change the channel.
In any case, the bigger picture won't get much airtime, because corporate television isn't quite ready to shift the lens away from "Look! they're just like us!" and toward an idea of "American" that isn't bound up in assumptions of middle-class normalcy. What would happen if we all just stepped back from our television screens and turned our gaze toward the real America outside our living rooms?
© 2011 Michelle Chen