American Muslims need pop culture

March 11, 2012


A few words on what American Muslims need.

We were discussing this, an olive-skinned Muslim man and I, at a banquet last year, when he said a wistful, poignant thing that has stayed with me ever since. “We thought we were white,” he said.

Not “white” in the sense of race, whatever that unscientific word means. Rather, white in the sense of assimilation and admission, white in the sense of people from Ireland, Armenia, Cuba, Hungary, southern Italy and other places who, upon arriving here, were regarded as threatening, non-white outsiders and required to earn their whiteness, their acceptance, over several generations. When the man said American Muslims thought they were white, he meant they thought they had successfully navigated the trail blazed by all those other people from all those other places.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001. All that progress — and 3,000 human lives — went up in smoke, and Islamophobia stormed America.

What American Muslims need, I told him, were cultural ambassadors, Muslim actors, singers and joke tellers who could change American consciousness through American televisions, multiplexes and iPods.

Which is why I was pleased last year when the TLC network premiered “All American Muslim,” a reality show about five Islamic families. And it’s why I was disappointed when it was canceled last week, an apparent victim of low ratings.

Between the debut and the cancellation came the controversy, as the conservative Florida Family Association pushed advertisers to abandon a show it saw as too “Muslim tolerant,” and too silent about sharia law. The group found it “troubling” that a Muslim cop was shown saying, “I really am American.” “All American Muslim,” said the FFA, was “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.”

Translated from the original Extremist, that means “All American Muslim” committed the sin of treating Muslims as if they were, well ... normal people. Soon afterward, Lowe’s, the giant home improvement chain, pulled its advertising from the show in a display of corporate gutlessness that still makes my left eye twitch as I drive past my local Lowe’s on the way to Home Depot.

Obviously, the FFA is one of those cartoonish bands of cranks and paranoids who see danger beneath every hijab. Still, it is right in thinking “All American Muslim” might have made it harder for Americans to sustain a blanket fear of all things Islamic. Popular culture has historically played a role in normalizing, individualizing, and humanizing that which seemed frightening and new.

This is what Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll and Motown did for African-Americans. It is what Mary Tyler Moore and “Cagney and Lacey” did for feminist women. It is what Ellen DeGeneres, “Will and Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” did for gays.

And, it is why no less an authority than Bill Cosby himself has said he thinks the time is ripe for a Muslim Cosby Show. It is easy to hate “the blacks” as an abstract, but it becomes more difficult once you’ve been in “Cliff Huxtable’s” home and he’s made you laugh and you have recognized your family in his. No, that recognition is not a panacea for cultural animus. But it is a building block toward the recognition of common humanity, and that is no small thing.

So if “All American Muslim” was a failure, it was a noble one. With luck, it will not be long before someone else picks up the baton it has dropped. As the Florida Family Association experience makes clear, success will not be easy. But the hateful paranoia that makes such a thing difficult also makes it necessary.

“We thought we were white,” the man said. They know better now.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Armstrong 6 years ago

"What American Muslims need, I told him, were cultural ambassadors, Muslim actors, singers and joke tellers who could change American consciousness through American televisions, multiplexes and iPods."

Gee how do you argue with that logic ?

jaywalker 6 years ago

Interesting points. The FFA is just plain embarrassing and I won't shop at Lowe's.

Paul R Getto 6 years ago

Americans are Americans. The sooner we realize that and start moving towards common goals, the sooner we will begin to dig out of our collective mess. Good column, Mr. Pitts.

Liberty275 6 years ago

Because Christianity is just something made up, unlike race... which truly exists inside the liberal mind.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

"unlike race... which truly exists inside the liberal mind."

So, you're saying that slavery and Jim Crow were just creations of the "liberal mind?"

jaywalker 6 years ago

With Jim Crow you have a point. The inclusion of slavery is ignorant.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

Jim Crow was a direct descendent of slavery.

jaywalker 6 years ago

Sorry, but slavery wasn't an American invention. Virtually every race and country has enslaved someone at some point in history, and race often played no part.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

Slavery that was very strictly race-based became an American tradition, even if it was not an American "invention."

To contend otherwise is ignorant.

jaywalker 6 years ago

Once again your 'knowledge' is the epitome of ignorance. Slaves in America were not strictly black, nor were Africans targeted because they were black. Scots, Irish, Italians, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, Indians - countless enslaved here. Slavery has always been more about wealth, status, power, and the vulnerability of the victims rather than race.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

White slavery/indentured servitude was certainly a reality, especially pre-independence.

But as time went on, and opposition to slavery increased, slaveholders in the South resorted to justifying slavery on racist grounds. And once slavery was outlawed, Jim Crow rode in on the same racism that justified chattel slavery for blacks.

OK, twist your panties over that.

jaywalker 6 years ago

That's cute, but you're wrong again. Justification of slavery in the American South ran the gamut of excuses, foremost of which were agrarian commerce, property rights, and religion based. Race was brought up as justification for Africans being an "inferior culture" in combination with those rationales, but I'd contend that would have been their same tactic if the majority of slaves were from Mexico, India, China, Ireland, etc.

Liberty275 6 years ago

Racism has nothing do with race, as race doesn't exist. DNA shows so-called racial characteristics to be within the mean for all humans.

Racism is just illiteracy.

As for Jim Crow laws, you can thank the democrats for those. While that party has swung 180 degrees out, they still can't see past the color of a person's skin. The only difference now is that they treat black people as modern-day victims instead of slaves.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

God doesn't exist, either, but that doesn't keep folks from justifying discriminating against others and killing each other because they believe in slightly different imaginary beings.

Armstrong 6 years ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

Liberty275 6 years ago

Are you trying to argue that because idiots fight wars over non-existent gods that I should believe race actually does exist?

I think I'll just go with a "no".

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

"I think I'll just go with a "no"."

Well, that wouldn't require any actual thought on your part, and I think that's probably as wise a course of action as your capable of.

Liberty275 6 years ago

I just think differently than you. I usually take about as wise an action as I need to. No reason to waste more on you than Tusckahoma.

(My petty insult is better than yours).

But seriously, do you really think loons fighting over ghosts and goblins somehow proves race?

jaywalker 6 years ago

Says the clown evading the actual argument. Would that be because it's a wise course of action to avoid voicing your actual thoughts any further?

Made that rhetorical for ya. You're welcome.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

My point was quite clear, but neither you nor L275 want to deal with it, so you deflect with pointless diversions.

jaywalker 6 years ago

Really? Care to point out where I've A) not "dealt" with your points, AND B) diverted anything here?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

"What are the 'consequences' if they're not punishment?"

See jars post below.

Diversion is probably the wrong term-- how about juvenile whining?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

Let me try that again--

"Really? Care to point out where I've A) not "dealt" with your points, AND B) diverted anything here?"

Read jafs post below.

Diversion is probably the wrong term-- how about juvenile whining?

jaywalker 6 years ago

Once again you are wholly incapable of backing up your baseless accusations. At least you're consistent.

jaywalker 6 years ago

"but neither you nor L275 want to deal with it, so you deflect with pointless diversions."

You accused me of avoidance and diversion.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

That wasn't an accusation. It was mere observance of your behavior.

jaywalker 6 years ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

Ooh, ooh, can I be there when you declare yourself King of France?

jafs 6 years ago


His point is that racism is real and affects people's actions, even if the concept of "race" is flawed.

Just as religious belief affects those things, even if the concept of "God" is flawed.

Racists believe in the idea of race - that's kind of the basis of their beliefs.

Liberty275 6 years ago

Sure, lots of bigotry still exists. But shouldn't we devalue both the words "race" and "racism" if we want to forward the notion that all men are equal?

Every time you use the word "racist", aren't you tacitly embracing the concept of race?

jafs 6 years ago

Yes, I think the concept of race should be examined critically, and the flaws in it revealed.

But, no, recognizing that some people believe in it and the concept of superiority of one race isn't embracing the concept.

It's how their mind works, and we're just noticing it.

Kathy Theis-Getto 6 years ago

And blasphemy only applies to Christianity? Who knew?

Your implicit racial bias is howing, dear, that's probably why some may call you names. I'm sorry you were called a racist - I would like to correct that once and for all! You are xenophobic! Better?

I know you are anxious as it goes along with your condition. Here is a pill which may help you through these difficult times. :-) http://hotair.com/greenroom/archives/2012/03/11/new-study-claims-pill-reduces-racism/

beebo 6 years ago

Guess you beat them to the judgmental 'punch'. Congrats

beebo 6 years ago

This was a reply to observant's comment

Liberty275 6 years ago

What American Mormons need, I told him, were cultural ambassadors, Mormon actors, singers and joke tellers who could change American consciousness through American televisions, multiplexes and iPods.

I bet that would make Pitts cringe. The first time around, what did we get? The Osmonds. Next up, The Akbars, singing their top 40 hit "Go away little girl and cover your hair".

voevoda 6 years ago

Liberty275, Haven't you realized yet that Islam no more dictates what women should wear than Christianity does? I guess you don't Muslim satellite TV stations. Many Muslim women performers choose not to wear head coverings. Statements such as yours demonstrate very clearly why Leonard Pitts has a good idea here.

Liberty275 6 years ago

Duh, it was a joke. I always find it a little funny because where I grew up, no women ever had to cover their hair because of religion. I'm not as used to seeing women wear bonnets or veils as you people are with your Mennonites running around. It's funny.

Nothing against the Mennonites. Always seem perfect models of humans they do.

As for Pitts, he's an idiot. Sure, Muslims should to have a place in all sections of our culture because they can act well, or sing, or the next House MD comes from Saudi Arabia. We need to see Muslims because they are the best at what they do, not because of color of their skin (or prophet of choice).

You guys are horrible bigots and you don't even know it.

verity 6 years ago

"your Mennonites"? Now that's just funny. Don't think they would agree that they belong to anybody.

Most Mennonite women do not wear head coverings and not all the women you see in Lawrence wearing head coverings are Mennonites. For the most part, you would not be able to tell by appearance who is Mennonite and who isn't. For those who don't know, the Amish are a branch of the Mennonites who choose not to assimilate to any great degree.

The point that comes from this is that those who came to America have assimilated in different degrees. There is no law or ethics that say a culture has to assimilate completely to be American. You won't find many Mennonites in Hollywood or in a lot of the other areas of the "popular" culture because it doesn't fit with the way many of them choose to live. They were persecuted during the world wars because many came from Germany and were considered traitors because they were conscientious objectors and (for the most part) refused to carry a gun.

I'm just not sure that Pitts is right on this one. I don't think any group needs to become part of the popular culture. In fact, there's a lot of popular culture that we would probably be better off without.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

Wrong answer, voevoda! 1 Corinthians Chapter 11, verses 5, 6: "but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head -- it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil."

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

And not only wear a veil voevoda, she's supposed to keep her mouth shut in church too.

1 Corinthians Chapter 14, verse 34: "the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says."

1 Timothy Chapter 2, verse 11: "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness."

voevoda 6 years ago

Just so, Ron! Islam doesn't demand headcoverings for women any more than Christianity does. Just as most Christians have found this Biblical instruction to be dispensible, so have many Muslims dispensed with the analogous rule. If "Christian" American society can empower women despite the passages in Corinthians and Timothy, why should we assume that "Islamic" American society would be any different?

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

From the Koran, The Light 24.31: " And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! so that you may be successful."

Liberty275 6 years ago

Why would they show their "ornaments" to so many of their own male relatives?

50YearResident 6 years ago

Black People's goal was to integrate into the white society, and they succeeded. Muslim's goal is to integrate white society into Islam. Does anyone see a difference in goals?

Armstrong 6 years ago

And your posts are soooo much more informative

50YearResident 6 years ago

Please tell us the "insider's view", we all want to know.

voevoda 6 years ago

Where do you get such a strange idea about American Muslims, 50YearResident? There are already a lot of Muslim Americans, but I don't see them proselytizing the way Christians do. They want to fit in with the larger society, while retaining their distinctive religious beliefs and observances. Like Jews do. Like Mormons do.

Liberty275 6 years ago

Really? What if Sharia law in a case complied with all American/state/local law? If all parties consent and none of the native law conflicts, why should anyone tell them how to resolve their problems. That's the definition of freedom.

Liberty275 6 years ago

"US laws it wouldn't be needed."

Catholic churches have rules that require you to see clergy for counseling before marrying in their church. I don't see a different place for Sharia.

"should US murder laws be ignored?"

What parts of "complied with all American/state/local law" and "none of the native law conflicts" did you miss? I said it twice just so people like you would be less likely to make the mistake you made.

"if it complied to all US laws it wouldn't be needed."

WITH! Not to. You don't comply to. That just doesn't make sense.

The terms of Service on this forum comply with US law; does that mean LJW doesn't need them stop me from colloquially telling you which orifice you should pull your head from?

jafs 6 years ago

Well, the Amish don't have to pay into SS and Medicare, because of their religious objections to them.

I think your brush is way too broad when you talk of what the "muslim culture" wants - there are a variety of differing beliefs among Muslims, just as there are among Christians, Jews, etc.

Only the most orthodox and extreme groups want what you suggest, I believe.

jafs 6 years ago


The point is that they, because of their religious beliefs, don't have to follow our laws about SS and Medicare, despite your claim that no religion can be allowed to "pick and choose".

jafs 6 years ago

Many Muslims don't believe in the things you mention.

There are differing kinds of Muslims, just as with other religions.

So, from my perspective, there isn't one sort of monolithic "muslim culture".

Any more than there is one sort of monolithic "Jewish culture", or "Christian culture", etc.

Sufi Muslims are mystical in nature, and believe quite a bit in freedom.

jafs 6 years ago

And there's one Bible.

But many different interpretations of it.

And one Jewish Torah.


And, again, who is "them"? It's a large group of diverse believers, just as with other major religions.

jafs 6 years ago


And those are differing translations, and collections of texts, not completely different books.

RH, who seems to know a lot about Judaism, claims there is one Torah, which hasn't been changed over the years in the way that the Bible has been.

And yet, there are many different forms of Judaism, which involve interpreting and applying the Torah in different ways.

You can object to whatever you like - I'm simply pointing out your selectivity - do you object to Jews and Christians as a large homogenous group?

If not, then you're applying that to Muslims incorrectly, since they're a diverse group as well.

If so, then your brush is too broad with them as well as with Muslims.

jafs 6 years ago

And, if you asked different Muslims, you would probably find a variety of opinions on the subject.

Just as you do with Christians, many of whom seem to believe the Bible is the "word of God", and absolutely true, without interpretation.

How about the Orthodox practice of separating men and women in prayer, which is undoubtedly offensive to many feminists?

Or the Christian teachings that women are to be submissive to their husbands?

Have you actually met many Muslims?

jafs 6 years ago

I never said anything like that, and you know it.

My main point, which you seem to want to ignore/sidestep, is that the Muslim community is no more homogenous than the Jewish or Christian one, and that when you talk of "them" as if it is, you're painting with much too broad a brush.

And, since you don't use that tactic with other religions, you're selectively applying it.

The fact that Muslims abhor what's being done in the name of Islam makes my point well - many Muslims don't support the extreme version of it, or the practices you mention.

My comments about the Jewish and Christian practices were to point out that many religions have practices that may not be completely aligned with our secular culture, but we allow them to practice them anyway.

jafs 6 years ago

What muslims have told you that they support those practices?

According to your earlier post, the muslims said they opposed them, and were horrified at them.

jafs 6 years ago

I don't want to take the time to do that - can you please re-post the survey link or information?

That figure sounds quite high to me, and I'd be very surprised if that's true.

And, it might change my point of view on this issue.

jafs 6 years ago

Islam, Judaism and Christianity are the 3 big monotheistic religions, and they share quite a bit of commonality.

The 5 pillars of Islam are strikingly similar to the basic tenets of both Judaism and Christianity.

There are extremists/radicals in all 3 groups - Christian religious radicals shoot abortion doctors, for example.

There are moderates in all 3 groups.

Mystics, in whatever tradition, often have more in common with mystics from other traditions, than with non-mystic believers in their own.

I have heard Christian theologians argue in favor of "just war" theory - that's not far from the belief that fuels the current terrorism, that they're justified in this fight.

If you look at the passage that underlies it, it's a passage that says oppressive occupiers should be fought against - that's a sentiment we might have a lot of sympathy for, if we didn't happen to be the occupiers they're talking about.

I'm not trying to justify it, or the tactics involved - but, I do think it's important to understand it.

jafs 6 years ago

What about Jewish law?

Or Catholic law?

We allow believers in both of those religions to solve a variety of disputes according to them, as far as I know.

Should we outlaw that?

If not, why not allow Muslims to do similarly?

Of course, I don't think we're talking about issues that conflict with our secular law, or involve violence. But, in Judaism (some forms), one can't get a divorce without a specific religious process - that sort of conflicts with secular divorce laws.

gudpoynt 6 years ago

50YearResidue - Blacks did not want to integrate into "white" society, nor do they now. They wanted to integrate into "American" society, and had to overcome misconceptions, fears, and stereotypes from whites like you in order to achieve the success they have.

Good luck on resisting cultural equality for Muslims. History will remember you as a bigot, and your efforts will in all likelihood prove futile in the end.

50YearResident 6 years ago

Time will tell, gudpoint. How will history remember the Muslim push for World Dominance? You are so well informed, please fill me in.

Liberty275 6 years ago

I don't know about white society, but western society would destroy Islam from the inside out. That's why Iranians kill emo kids. They can't afford to let western society in because it is so viral.

Liberty275 6 years ago

I'd say the lack of a medieval period helped preserve the rigid nature of Islam. The west rebooted after the fall of Rome and became more secular with less stringent religions. Islam has never done that, at least not to the same extent.

I don't know how the average Muslim would prefer to live in the Mideast. I suppose they have the same human aspirations we do, but cannot as easily opt out of the religion they were born into.

The theocracies and monarchies retain power by keeping societies limited by state religions, and it seems the people are genuinely devout. I wouldn't call that a dark age. It's more like uninterrupted oppression, at least to those of us used to a less stringent group of religions. I doubt most of the people actually feel oppressed by Islam, although some groups are definitely more persecuted than they would be here.

acg 6 years ago

The black peoples' goal wasn't to integrate into a white society!! What a horrid thing to say. If you remember your history, they didn't show up one day trying to force their way into our nation ready to adopt our way of life, now did they? You should be ashamed!

voevoda 6 years ago

It's a novel, its_just_math, and it's about Iranian expatriates, not about Muslims in general.

asixbury 6 years ago

It was also made into a movie. I agree with it_just_math; it's a really good movie.

geekin_topekan 6 years ago

Muslims are so ordinary, so normal that no body watched, myself included. If I wanted to spend an hour a week observing normal AMericans I would sit on a bench downtown.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

"I'd like to give Pitts the benefit of the doubt"

That's a lie, and you know it.

booyalab 6 years ago

Pitts seems to be equating Muslim with a particular race. What would one call that type of generalization, I wonder?

Paul R Getto 6 years ago

Perhaps, but if race is involved it is the 'white' race.

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