Under pressure form a small right-wing group, Lowe’s—the world’s second-largest home improvement retailer—pulled ads this week from TLC’s new television show, All-American Muslim. The show follows five Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan, as they go about their business—marrying, having children, running businesses and generally being human and Muslim in post 9/11 America. The company’s decision came after a group called the Florida Family Association asked its members to e-mail Lowe’s and voice their outrage, claiming All-American Muslim is “propaganda” that is “clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law.”
The Lowe’s decision has prompted some pushback—a boycott threat from Russell Simmons, statements of displeasure from Congressmen Keith Ellison and John Conyers and protest petitions from MoveOn.org and CREDO. But regardless of the company’s next move (currently, it is holding firm), the speed of its surrender to an extreme group peddling outright bigotry should give us pause and force a closer look at how the landscape has shifted in a country that claims religious tolerance as a founding principle. Simply put, the bigots won way too easily.
Having run similar campaigns targeting companies who advertise on objectionable shows, I know how formidable a challenge it is to get a profit-focused company to take a stand on anything perceived as remotely politically controversial. Businesses have an inherent and driving incentive to appeal to as many potential customers as possible, and any move they make in this space risks making news that alienates customers on one side of the issue or the other. Successful campaigns generally either spend months painstakingly establishing a clear pattern of abhorrent behavior on a show, or successfully capitalize on specific indefensible remarks by one individual. The campaign against Glenn Beck for instance, did both, and eventually resulted in a demonstrable loss of hundreds of advertisers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue. But this kind of action required almost two years and the mobilization of multiple organizations with millions of members to document and publicize dozens of instances of Glen Beck’s making racist, anti-Semitic and even violent statements.
Neither the content of All-American Muslim or the strength of the campaign against it rise anywhere close to the levels of other successful advertiser campaigns. In place of Glenn Beck’s claim that the president is a “racist” with a “deep-seated hatred for white people,” last week’s sixty-minute episode of AAM depicted a newlywed adjusting to her non-Muslim spouse’s dog and new parents grappling with having an infant in the house. In place of many prominent African-American and Jewish groups and leaders calling Beck out for his race-baiting, we have the Florida Family Association and its modest list of members—hardly a political powerhouse—to be reckoned with. That equation just doesn’t seem to add up.
Unless, that is, we take a hard look at the cultural context we’re dealing with. To understand the shifts in our country that create the toxic foundation for the Lowe’s decision, consider this disturbing report issued in September by the Brookings Institute and the Public Religion Research Institute on American attitudes towards Muslims. Among the top-line findings:
§ nearly half of Americans would be made uncomfortable by a woman wearing a burqa in their presence, a mosque being built in their neighborhood or Muslim men praying at an airport;
§ 41 percent would be uncomfortable if a teacher at the elementary school in their community were Muslim;
§ 47 percent said the values of Islam are at odds with American values.
This shows a clear, if passive, bias against public displays of Muslim identification in American society. While these numbers do not represent a clear majority of opinion, the number of people openly expressing discomfort with Muslims is enough to create fertile ground for the growth of a more potent strain of bigotry.
There was good news in the survey too:
§ 88 percent agreed that “America was founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone, including religious groups that are unpopular”;
§ 95 percent said all religious books should be treated with respect;
§ two-thirds said there should be strict separation between church and state.
This shows a near-universal commitment to generic religious tolerance. But in a matchup between acute and targeted hatred and generic tolerance with passive bias, hatred will prevail.
Expressions of outrage, holding Lowe’s to account and calling out the haters by name are all important components of beating back the tide of bigotry already widespread across our country. But without a parallel strategy to combat the more pervasive and insidious passive bias, we risk a whole generation’s becoming “carriers” of bigotry. Once these attitudes are openly accepted as the cultural norm, the groundwork is laid for escalating anti-Muslim fanaticism that could seriously jeopardize the American experience for all citizens.
A second (and even more marginal) group, the American Decency Association, has also weighed in support of FFA’s pressure campaign against Lowe’s. Bill Johnson, its president, stated that the show is designed to make the Muslim community “appear attractive.” “And that’s what makes it so dangerous,” he told the right-wing news site OneNewsNow. “We’ve been watching it over these several weeks that it’s been broadcast, and they stay very conveniently away from [mentioning] jihad or anything of that nature.” It apparently never occurred to him that that might be because these families have no relationship to jihad, or anything of that nature.
What we really need to combat passive anti-Muslim bias is exactly what All-American Muslim is doing—exposing non-Muslim Americans to the utterly normal lives of our Muslim neighbors. Ideally this would not require special shows but would be done in the context of the mainstream shows and media that define “normal” America. For now, that will have to wait. But here’s hoping that this controversy brings All-American Muslim some new viewers.