A long time ago, before it became better known for such monstrosities as Toddlers and Tiaras and Kate Plus Eight, TLC was called The Learning Channel. I suppose you can learn something from watching pushy moms prepare their tiny daughters for lifetimes of therapy by dressing them like miniature hookers, but the channel returns to its more substantive roots with Sunday's premiere of the fascinating eight-part series All-American Muslim.
The series looks at the very different lives of five families in Dearborn, Mich., which has the largest concentration of Muslims in the nation. It wasn't always so, of course, and one of the few quibbles you might have with the series is that it doesn't really explain why the city attracted such a large Muslim population.
You probably think you know without seeing a single episode what the show's theme is: Muslims are just like everyone else and have been the object of scorn and discrimination, especially since 9/11.
But that's only the half of it — less than that, in fact. Just being told that we're all alike doesn't compare to having an inside view of daily life among the five families profiled in the series. It also doesn't address perhaps the most compelling aspect of All-American Muslim: Like any community, there are many different varieties of being an American Muslim.
Shadia is a young country music lover with an ornate tattoo on her thigh who is about to marry Irish-American Catholic Jeff McDermott. She follows some Muslim traditions, such as covering her head in the presence of Islamic religious leaders, and her husband is converting to Islam before they get married.
Her sister Suehaila always wears the hijab, or head scarf, and follows the ritual of praying several times a day.
Nina, a shapely blonde who is fond of wearing revealing outfits and could be a participant on a Real Housewives of Dearborn show, wants to open a nightclub because she is bored with her career as an event planner.
Mike is a deputy sheriff who finds himself having to defend the free speech rights of anti-Islamic demonstrators who hit town during an annual festival in Dearborn.
Fouad is head coach at Fordson High School, and the holy month of Ramadan is about to start, meaning most of his team will be fasting from sunrise to sunset. He decides the team will begin practice after sunset and continue all night until the next morning, a decision that causes some concern for the parents of one of the few non-Muslim players.
Samira and Ali have been married for several years but, unable to conceive a child, they consult with Muslim clerics about whether it is allowable to have in vitro fertilization using a sperm donor. Samira is not quite as non-traditional as Shadia, but she stopped wearing the hijab after 9/11. She and Ali are advised that if they adhere more strictly to Islamic traditions, Allah is likely to look more favorably on their efforts to become parents.
Yes, American Muslims are just like everyone else, but learning about those similarities also offers enlightenment about differences. For example: While the general assumption among non-Muslims is that women must be seen as second-class citizens because they are supposed to dress modestly, more than one woman on the show would disagree. Wearing the hijab is in fact seen as an act of empowerment among some Muslim women, one of them says convincingly.
The series also explores the kinds of generational differences you'd find in any American community. Shadia's father doesn't say he would have opposed his daughter's marriage to McDermott if he hadn't converted, but the implication is there. At the same time, he understands that Shadia makes her own choices in life. They might not be the kinds of choices his generation would make, but like any father, he has tried to adapt to the changing times.
It doesn't take long before we understand that the Dearborn families are not only just like the rest of us — they are us.