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"American Life" Includes Muslims Too


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Since I was first introduced to it, I’ve been a fan of the radio program This American Life. Each episode of the weekly show looks at a “theme” and fills the hour with stories — real and fictional — of different experiences that reflect the theme. Some stories inspire, some bring tears to my eyes, and some make me laugh out loud (some do all three). I look forward to the weekly podcast. So when I heard the teasers for the upcoming episode “Shouting Across the Divide” — on the failed attempts of Muslims and non-Muslims to communicate — I was intrigued but also a little worried. Coverage of Muslims in the media is ridden with stereotypes, misrepresentation, and incomplete information. Then again, TAL was actually considering the stories of Muslims. Ironically, this conflict could actually fall under the theme of the show.

The Jan. 4 episode is divided into three parts. First, the prologue discusses with a CAIR spokesman the issue of having a statue of the Prophet Muhammad in the Supreme Court. Respectful? Offensive? Well-intentioned? Stereotypical? It’s an interesting topic and it sets the stage for the theme of the show.

Act One tells the story of Serry, an American woman who convinced her Palestinian husband to move the family from the West Bank to the United States to raise their children. The irony is that, instead of the peaceful childhood Serry imagined for them, her children faced intense harassment by other students — for being Muslim, after 9/11. This story, which takes up the bulk of the hour and is the most emotionally compelling, is the best part of the episode. In fact, journalist Alix Spiegel won a journalism award for the segment. Serry and her daughter Chloe describe the difficulties they faced living after 9/11 in homogeneous New Jersey suburb. Serry, who wears hijab, received the middle finger from fellow drivers; she flashed a peace sign in return. Once Chloe’s teacher handed out a pamphlet explaining that “Muslims want to kill Christians,” her fourth-grade classmates began to look at her suspiciously and call her “Osama.” The harassment reached the point that fourth-grade Chloe and her father, watching his daughter suffer, became severely depressed.

One of the most interesting parts is the discussion of Chloe’s response. Facing teasing, rejection, and her teacher’s words that she will burn in hell, Chloe finds she cannot handle being Muslim anymore: “She sat down with her mother and explained that it was all too much pressure.” Instead of rejecting their daughter, Chloe’s parents take the news with sadness but also make accommodations. In Serry’s words, “We stopped practicing as we used to.” Wow. Stories of Muslims being harassed is nothing new. I’ve heard many of those stories: Muslim children are bullied at school, hijabis face discrimination, and teenagers have to explain that they are not terrorists. Throughout it, they stand up against the harassment (and often sue) and their faith never wavers. Chloe’s story is something new. Serry’s faith is described as very important to her — “It’s what gets her up in the mornings” — but she feels the pressure too, and the family skips Ramadan one year. When the children transfer to new schools, they don’t tell their new friends that they’re Muslim. It’s certainly not a faith-inspiring story, but it points to the situation of American Muslims today. Islamophobia is at the point that it’s often easier to just not bring up the topic of religion with non-Muslims. Being openly Muslim requires a “coming-out” process that may, as in Chloe’s case, not be worth it. This is a fascinating topic I would love to see more investigation into.

(For the record, Chloe returns to being Muslim and her family does sue the school district for unfair treatment.)

Journalist Alix Spiegel introduces the story with sensitivity. She pronounces “Muslim” as Serry and Chloe do (unlike TAL host Ira Glass, who says “Muhzlim”). She says “God,” not “Allah.” She lets Serry and Chloe’s own words carry the story. The piece is very well done overall, and I hope it opens eyes of people similar to the dangerously ignorant classmates and neighbors who made Serry’s family miserable. It’s also refreshing to hear the voices of Muslim women — when it’s not even about hijab! (Serry’s hijab is casually mentioned when relevant, but it is neither turned into a big deal nor described as a requirement of Islam.) Too frequently Muslim women’s voices only come up when the discussion is either modest dress or the oppression and abuse of women in the name of Islam. In other cases, men define Islam. Here that’s not the case. (The photo on the website, however, features traditional-looking Muslim men, seated on the floor. Does this illustrate Muslims?)

Unfortunately, the show goes downhill after Act One. Act Two is the experience of a Jewish man working for an advertising company, assigned to a project to “sell American values” to the Arab world (half the time referred to simply as “Muslims”). It’s not clear whether it’s Muslims or Arabs they’re targeting, and there are some awkward moments when the issue of Israel comes up. As a radio story, it’s told well. There are moments of humor and irony. The ad company’s disturbingly racist attitude towards African-Americans is portrayed clearly. But for the theme of the show, this segment doesn’t seem too relevant or necessary. Muslims are painted as a foreign-living entity whose shared belief is anger with Israel. The interchangeable use of “Arab” and “Muslim” is inaccurate and misleading, and the story carries the implication that Muslims and America are intrinsically opposed. There’s no mention of American Muslims, people whose identities coexist peacefully (such as Serry).

It’s unfortunate that TAL could not find a more appropriate story to complement Act One; it would have made for a much stronger episode overall. Nevertheless, I applaud TAL for its effort and Alix Spiegel for her excellent journalism. I appreciate the inclusion of Muslim stories, even if it has to be in an episode set aside specifically for Muslim stories, but “Shouting Across the Divide” won’t rank among my favorite episodes.

Posted by Melinda at 12:36 AM



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