Tonight’s episode of TLC’s All-American Muslim focused on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. At the heart of the show was the Amen family’s debate over whether siblings Bilal and Shadia’s attendance at a commemoration ceremony was about them showing interfaith unity or feeling pressured to apologize for a horrible act they were not responsible for. You can imagine how carefully this hot-button hour was edited.
Clearly, you lead with Mike Jaafar, a deputy police chief who helped carry an American flag for a 10th anniversary ceremony at a Detroit Tigers game, explaining what September 11 means to any member of law enforcement — “You think about your guys that work for you,” he said, pausing to fight back tears, “going into a building and not coming out” — and his gray-haired partner Dennis Richardson having his back. “Mike Jaafar [and] his wife and his small children are not terrorists. So I will stand with Mike Jaafar and be proud to stand with him… and I’ll probably cry,” Dennis said, welling up. (He also added, “Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy. I’m glad we didn’t execute all the white people.”)
Next, after you show the sweet Aoude family newborn with grandpa, you let Nina Bazzy make a statement on the 9/11 attacks that you can only hope resonated with the Florida Family Association, which protested the reality show because it dares to televise Muslims without a terrorist element: “When I first heard it was Muslim extremists that had done something like that, immediately, my thought, like every other Muslim’s thought, was these people are not Muslim,” she said. “Who are these people? Where did they come from? I’ve never hear of the Taliban. I’ve never heard of Osama bin Laden. They had labeled themselves as Muslim. But they’re not Muslim. A real Muslim would never do anything like that. This is a religion of peace, and the fact that this guy came into the picture and wanted to speak on behalf of all Muslims in the world was terrible. It was the worst feeling for a Muslim. He ruined it for us. He ruined it for our kids. He made us scared. He made us scared in our own home.” (Or as Bilal would later say, “Do you understand that the guy doesn’t like me as much as he doesn’t like you?”)
Then, you’re ready to introduce the Amen family debate. Mother Lila wanted son Bilal and daughter Shadia to accompany her to a local ceremony, but they didn’t want to go because they felt like, as Muslims, they’re expected to apologize for the attacks. “When we go to these things and people walk up to us and tell us, ‘It’s okay. Thank you for coming.’ [Why] are you thanking me for coming? Thank you for coming. You came for the same reason,” Bilal said. Shadia later explained that she feels pressure to prove to others that she’s “patriotic enough” in public, when she prefers to remember 9/11 privately. (Her sister Suehaila’s friend Rana articulated that general notion when she was shown doing a TV interview about how 9/11 had affected her life. “It was the first time where I realized that people looked at me as less American,” she said. “And for someone who was born and raised in this country, it was very difficult for me to accept that…. Those terrorists attacked us as Americans and hijacked our religion as Muslims.”)
For Lila, the ceremony was about expressing unity. She told her kids what happened to her on the morning of 9/11, when she burst into tears and walked quietly to her office after hearing the news. “I want to tell you how many people from within the building came to me at my office and were hugging and kissing me and telling me, ‘You are a part of us. We’re in this together….’ I’ll never forget that day,” Lila said. “They came to me.” It was a heartwarming story that balanced the heartbreaking tale Nawal Aoude had told about her mother’s experience that day. She’d been passing out flyers door-to-door for her daycare business and someone spit at her and kicked her off their porch.
During a roundtable discussion, Nawal joined Shadia and Bilal in expressing frustration over feeling they have to apologize and constantly defend themselves to non-Muslims. Nawal’s husband Nader took a different stance: “You guys all have a problem with the wrong group of people. I think the problem should be with those extremists, and we should do something about that for us not to have to sit here and always defend ourselves. And once you get rid of that threat that we keep empowering by talking about, then we don’t have to worry about sittin’ here and sayin, ‘You know what, I’m a Muslim. I don’t do this, this, and that.’ We wouldn’t have to talk about that because we would have taken care of the problem…. Stop complaining about why you have to explain yourselves to non-Muslims and do something about it.” What can they do?, everyone asked. “It’s something we’re gonna have to figure out,” Nader said.
The episode did end with some sense of new unity for Shadia and Bilal. They traveled to New York City to visit Ground Zero. Shadia wore a T-shirt that read “NOT A TERRORIST,” and Bilal got a new tattoo from Israeli-born tattoo artist Ami James (of TLC’s NY Ink). Bilal had been afraid that James, a former sniper in the Israeli army, would kick him out after seeing the Lebanese flag tattooed on his back. Instead, they had a thoughtful conversation about how when James served in Lebanon, he looked at the beautiful beach and thought he should be over there swimming instead of fighting, and what it means to carry an Israeli passport into other countries. “Being exposed to different viewpoints, like as far as Ami James’ Israeli viewpoint, I’m not used to,” Bilal later said. “It’s good to hear somebody from the other side, and us being able to have a conversation not arguing, yelling, and screaming. I can kind of relate to him.” Upon his return to Michigan, Bilal shared the following quote from James with his mother: “It’s really unfortunate, if you think about it, that we have to leave our country to get along.”
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