DEARBORN, Mich. - When Fordson High School football coach Fouad Zaban was asked to be on a reality show about Muslim family life, his impulse was to decline.
"It doesn't seem like it now, but we kind of like our privacy," Zaban says. "We are simple people. We don't do crazy things. ... Quite honestly, What I told the show (producers) is I'm kind of boring."
Now that he and his family have appeared on the All-American Muslim series (Sunday, TLC, 10 p.m.), Zaban struggles to understand how his life and the ordinary lives of four other Muslim families in Dearborn could be viewed as controversial. That's the tag the show has after the conservative Florida Family Association attacked the program as Muslim "propaganda" designed to mask an extremist agenda. On Dec. 10, the Lowe's home improvement chain pulled its advertising from the show.
"This is what I've been doing for 17 years of my life: teaching and coaching," Zaban says. "If you want to call this propaganda, then go ahead, but you couldn't be further from the truth."
Since 9/11, Muslims have struggled to be accepted in the U.S., despite the country's historic pride in being a melting potof nationalities. Some Americans have become suspicious of Muslims and/or Arab Americans, equating them with terrorists. In May, four Islam clerics were delayed in their efforts to attend a conference on Islamophobia when they were barred from flights.
Hani Bawardi, an assistant professor of history and Arab studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, says the negative depiction of Arabs has a long history in America and "has shown no sign of abating."
"Since the 1940s, I can confidently tell you that the denigrations of Arabs and Muslims became systematic," Bawardi says. "Schoolchildren are exposed to it in their textbooks, comic books. You can see it in magazines, newspapers, in Hollywood productions and made-for-TV episodes. But this show begins to chip away at it."
Dearborn school board member Hussein Berry, a Muslim, says that for a few months after 9/11, it was "scary" for Muslims because of the negative public perception. But he says the way non-Muslim Dearbornites stood up for their Muslim neighbors brought the city closer together.
"My dad taught me that if a person fears a higher power, then you have nothing to fear from that person," Berry says. "Now don't get me wrong - we all aren't sitting in Dearborn singing 'la la la.' There are probably people in Dearborn not happy with the direction the city has taken. But those are few. But from the outside, there are probably people looking in and saying, 'Wow, a Jewish person, a Christian person and a Muslim person can sit down and have dinner together there.' "
The sixth of eight episodes of All-American Muslim aired Sunday night, and the show has averaged 1.2 million viewers a week. Among the cast are deputy chief Mike Jaafar of the Wayne County Sheriff's Department, party planner Nina Bazzy Aliahmad and a young couple having their first child.
Dearborn Mayor John "Jack" O'Reilly sees the series as reflecting the standard American story of immigrants becoming more Americanized in successive generations as they try to preserve their cultural heritage. He also sees the storylines reflecting how people look at religion.
"It reflects that American Muslims or non-Muslims are all human and they are going to exhibit traits, and one of the traits is that I may belong to and participate in a religion, but I am going to exercise my free will with regard to how I practice it," says O'Reilly, a Catholic. "That happens in all religions."
The series has looked at issues such as high school football players who have to play while abstaining from food and even water for Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting; interfaith marriage and conversion; and career women and a Muslim woman's decision whether to cover her head.
"One of the things that I like so much about this cast of characters is the empowerment we see in the female Muslim voice in the show," says co-producer Mike Mosallam, a Muslim who is originally from Dearborn. "It's definitely a stereotype that's being flipped on its head and re-examined."
University of Michigan-Dearborn student Maryam Fawaz, 19, sees the show providing a fair portrayal of a typical American Muslim family, not so different from her own.
"I have relatives in the military. My grandfather is a veteran and most of my ancestors are United States veterans," Fawaz says. "I really wonder if that is normal enough to be an American. C'mon, Florida Family Association - is that not American enough?"
Getting it from both sides
Since Lowe's pulled the plug on its advertising for the TV show, the Newark Star-Ledger, the liberal group People for the American Way and others have called for a boycott of Lowe's. Several stores have been hit with protests.
"The Florida Family Association presents itself as an army ready to strike at companies that won't cater to its extremist views. In reality, the 'group' is just one very angry man - David Caton - and his computer," Michael Keegan, president of the People for the American Way Foundation, said in an e-mailed statement.
Caton did not respond to requests for an interview. Internal Revenue Service records show that the Florida Family Association, based in Tampa, has three officers. Caton is named as president, director, treasurer and the only paid staff; he makes $55,000 a year. The organization's purpose, according to the document: "Educate people on what they can do to defend, protect and promote traditional biblical values."
On Saturday, 100 or so protesters demonstrated at a Lowe's store in Allen Park, Mich. Amid snow flurries and chilly temperatures, they stood at the entrance to the parking lot, they shouted for a boycott.
"We are going to organize around the country," said Charles Williams II, pastor of Detroit's Historic King Solomon Baptist Church. "We are going to lead this effort to get Christian folks and Jewish folks to join this battle. Lowe's thought they had a Muslim issue that will go away in two days. We have proven they have an American issue."
About 25 people showed up in support of Lowe's. Among them was Brian Liddoak, 40, a machinist from Allen Park. "I'm saying they have the right to put their advertising dollars where they want. It's a freedom issue," he said. "I believe (Muslims) have the right to believe in what they want, just as we do. But they seem to forget that Lowe's has its right to spend its dollars the way it wants to."
Imad Hamad, senior national adviser for the Dearborn-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, attended the rally and said he would have respected Lowe's decision if it were strictly a business decision. "However, when they give justification for pulling the ads because of rhetoric of hate, then it is no longer about a business decision," Hamad says.
Lowe's issued a statement earlier explaining its decision: "It appears that we managed to step into a hotly contested debate with strong views, from virtually every angle and perspective," the company said. "We believe it is best to respectfully defer to communities, individuals and groups to discuss and consider such issues of importance."
Alon Orstein, TLC's vice president for production and development, says the idea for the All-American Muslim series came from his staff realizing that "we never see American Muslims on TV." TLC considered featuring Muslims in San Diego, Washington and Northern Virginia before deciding on Dearborn. "Once we found out what Dearborn is all about, we really decided we wanted to make Dearborn, the community, another character in the show," he says.
City has history of diversity
About 30% of Dearborn's roughly 100,000 population is Arab American, and Arabic culture is evident in the schools, stores and lifestyles. Storefronts have Arabic signs. Many female students wear head scarves and the modest dress that leaves only face and hands exposed. Halal foods, those permitted by Islam, are readily available.
"Most Arab-Americans in the U.S. don't live next door to other Arab-Americans," says Matthew Jaber Stiffler, researcher at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.
They do in Dearborn. They also live next to people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds in a city where Ford Motor Co. is headquartered. Dearborn is the site of the Islamic Center of America, described as the largest mosque in the United States when it was built in 2004.
Whenever there are major issues involving events in the Middle East or Arab Americans or Muslims, TV cameras arrive in Dearborn. Earlier this year, O'Reilly issued an open letter refuting claims by Terry Jones - whose burning of a Quran in Florida caused protests in Afghanistan that led to 16 deaths - that Dearborn was under sharia law, the moral code of Islam.
Stiffler points out that Dearborn currently has a 7-foot-high Nativity scene in front of City Hall with a "giant baby Jesus." He pointedly jokes that if the city is under sharia law, "they are doing a poor job of it."
Berry, who moved to Dearborn from Lebanon when he was 7, says he is proud to live in a diverse city.
"Diversity has been here a long, long time," he says. "When I grew up in Dearborn, Gino Marchetti was my friend. He wasn't my Italian friend. Nobody looked at me as their Arab-American friend or Muslim friend."
Berry has watched All-American Muslim and said he believes it has educational value because it promotes discussion of cultural and religious differences.
"I have a lot of friends from Florida, California calling me up and saying 'I didn't know about this,' and asking very good questions about Islam," he says.
Meaghan Branigan-Lowe 27, a teacher who is Catholic, says watching the show made her realize that she had never met a Muslim, even though she lives about 70 miles from Dearborn.
"I was surprised that there is the one person on the show who wears really short dresses," Branigan-Lowe says. "She goes to her parents' house dressed like that. And she is a businesswoman and she goes out in public like that. I found it interesting because I would have assumed she would have been shunned for dressing risqué. But she is a modern woman who is still part of the culture."
The show's organizers readily admit that some Muslims have taken issue with the series because it doesn't reflect the wide range of ethnic backgrounds that practice the faith.
Stiffler says that when he talks to Muslims about the show, "the first thing that they say is 'but they are all Lebanese.' "
The five families all have Lebanese Shiite roots.
"Even within that small microcosm, there is such a diversity in the practice and in the way they live day-to-day," says Mosallam, who grew up in Dearborn. "If we started to branch out to a Black Muslim family or a Yemeni family, you become a survey show that viewers may have a hard time latching onto."
Zeinab Hammoud, 16, says the show has created a buzz at Fordson High School and has been discussed in almost every class. "I think it is a very realistic portrayal," she says. "I think there is very big value, because people around the nation are truly seeing what Muslims are."
Hammoud and some other Muslims say they hope the show makes it more comfortable for them to venture outside of Dearborn.
"I am scarved. ... People look at you like you are an alien," Hammoud says. "It's like you don't belong here, and I've been in many places outside of Dearborn and had many issues and problems. But I've also been to places where people have stepped up and asked, 'Why do you wear that?' That's when I'm proud to wear it, because I'm proud to say I wear it for reasons one, two and three."
Fawaz, an environmental science major, says Dearborn provides Arab Americans and Muslims with a safe haven. "It's definitely a bubble, and it's a fragile bubble," she says.
Fordson teacher Yasmine Ferris, a Muslim, says the events of 9/11 brought the community together "to try to change the perception of the world of what we were really like, to show we were just normal."
About All-American Muslim, Ferris says, "I find myself frustrated with it. I find myself laughing at it. I find myself wondering about it. But I know it's opened up a lot more dialogue."
Ferris says she is noticing "more expansion from the boundaries than there was when I was a student here."
Bawardi says he encourages his students to break the "Dearborn bubble." He says many of his students want to move away from the city to expand their opportunities.
Fordson manufacturing teacher Guy Pizzino lives on the west side of Dearborn, where there are fewer Arab Americans, but he says his neighbors and friends have been positive about the show.
"If you were here in the weeks after 9/11 you would have seen that our students were just as American as any students around the country," Pizzino says. "They were flying American flags. You would have seen our students taking up collections for victims' families just like everyone else did."
The series will address 9/11 in the Jan. 1 episode, and then it wraps up Jan. 8. TLC says no decision has been made about whether there will be a second season. Ratings declined after the first episode drew 1.7 million viewers.
Mosallam said he believes the show has had an impact by giving some viewers their first introduction to a Muslim.
"Hopefully, what's happening is that the audience is no longer thinking in terms of us and them," Mosallam says. "It's thinking of us as a whole."
Cast member Angela Jaafar, who works in marketing in the auto industry and is married to the deputy chief, says she initially wondered why anyone would want to watch her family "try to live the American dream."
In her mind, she is doing what every other American is doing, trying to balance career and family, save for retirement and keep pace with the grind of life. But after seeing the reactions to the series, she understands why it was important that her life was televised.
"The best reaction that I get is 'I never knew that you were a Muslim,' " Jaafar says. "I think that's the whole point."
Kevin Allen, USA TODAY. Contributing: Melanie Eversley