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'All-American Muslim' -- a lost opportunity at understanding

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, nonwhite 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 nearly 3,000 human lives -- went up in smoke, and Islamophobia stormed America.

What American Muslims need, I told him, are 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 is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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