TLC’s new eight-part series, “All-American Muslim,” is set to air this Sunday and follows the daily lives of five American Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan, the country’s largest Arab-American enclave. I spoke with Shadia Amen and Jeff McDermott, whose road to marriage is featured on the show. Shadia is an Arab-American Muslim and her family would like for Jeff to convert from Catholicism to Islam in order for the union to be valid in their faith.
So how did you two meet?
Shadia: Jeff used to live across the street from me for 12 years and moved away when I was 9 and he was 12. Seventeen years later we bumped into each other at work. Immediately the next day we went to dinner, brought him to meet my mom, and we’ve been talking ever since!
How did being on the show affect your relationship?
Jeff: I’m not the one who always accepted things. It took two months to get over the fact that these cameras were here to stay and they were going to follow me around. They were following us at a stressful time, but I think we are going to turn out better because of it.
Shadia: The wedding was coming up and [being filmed was] difficult to adjust to, but it was a fun time and a good opportunity to shed light on our lives. I had to deal with a wedding, cameras, and making Jeff happy! (Laughs) Jeff was an introvert-turned celebrity!
When deciding on whether you each wanted to do this reality series, what were your greatest concerns? What were you looking forward to?
Shadia: Well, my family is very active in the community and my mom and dad have spent their entire lives trying to open the world to our community. I am a third generation American and when they asked us to be a part of this, it was an amazing opportunity to show everyone [how we live our lives]. “Hey come on, look at how fun and goofy we are and how we raise our kids and [live] our daily lives.”
Jeff: I had to make a decision- we were under the gun. The wedding was going to be a big part of filming and I put my trust in Shadia (which we have to do in marriage). I was very skeptical of reality shows- I don’t like them because of shows like “Big Brother,” “Jersey Shore,” and “Housewives.” I automatically assumed (not a good thing) that we were going to be misrepresented- but that’s not the way it was.
Shadia: Yes it is considered a reality, but there aren’t any [shows] like ours. You are going through the trials and tribulations of any American family- the only twist it that we’re Muslim. The show is definitely ground breaking and one of a kind.
Jeff, did you have any of your own ideas or misconceptions about Muslims or Arab-Americans coming into the show?
Jeff: Now I’ve known Shadia for three years. Before that, I knew little to nothing about Arab culture other than the restaurants I frequented or my Arab-American neighbors, but never had an issue [with the people or culture]. I’ve been welcome. I’ve never had any negative stereotypes against Arabs because I went to an all-Catholic school so I didn’t have very many experiences with Arab-Americans.
As you know, AltMuslimah focuses on issues related to gender and Islam. How do you think the show will help dispel common stereotypes about Muslim men, women and their relationship to one another?
Shadia: There are a lot of misconceptions about woman being subordinate and oppressed, but you are going to see that we are strong and outspoken women, who are living our daily lives as American people do. We hope that this show changes minds and misconceptions
Jeff: Because I am in the show, representing a different (Catholic, white) side, hopefully we can get a greater understanding that yes, [Catholics and Muslims] are so very similar in traditions.
How has your relationship with the rest of the cast developed?
Shadia: The amazing thing about Dearborn is that as large as it is, we may not hang out with each other but we have known each other for quite some time. The nice thing about us is that we are all American Muslim. There is diversity within each family and it’s really nice to see that and understand that.
Jeff: I just met the other four families less than three or four months ago. I feel comfortable [with them] and I can talk to them about anything. I will get a different answer [about Islam] from each, but that’s okay too.
One of the things we have explored on AltMuslimah is whether scholars should engage in a reinterpretation of Islamic texts in order to allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Shadia: Within Islam, they do say that it’s okay for men to marry women who are not Muslim, but for women it is not recommended [to marry outside their faith]. That goes down to how kids are raised. Thankfully Jeff decided that converting would be in all our best interests.
Jeff: If I brought it to my family’s attention that we want to get married in Catholic Church, there would be similar nuances- our religions are [almost] saying same thing … and they are not telling me that I have to convert. It was a personal choice. It would be as challenging for Shadia to convert to Catholicism.
Is there a message that you would like to give audiences before they watch the show?
Shadia: Personally, I would hope that before, after and during, if you see something [that makes you uncomfortable], feel free to come up and ask a question. We are a welcoming people. We are in our country and we are all living the American dream.
Jeff: However, we would appreciate tact with questions. When I’m traveling with Shadia’s family, friends, sisters, parents, I don’t want non-Muslims to shoot dirty looks. I want them to treat her family the same as mine in Chicago, in Middle America. I would very much appreciate the same dignity and respect for my family.
Well, thank you very much for your time, and good luck to all of you!
Shadia and Jeff: Thank you!
ALL-AMERICAN MUSLIM will air on Sunday, November 13 at 10 PM ET/PT.
Shazia Kamal is an Associate Editor at AltMuslimah. TLC is a television channel based in Silver Spring, Md. and is available internationally. It broadcasts non-fiction programming geared towards women that aims to “celebrate extraordinary people and relatable life moments,” according to the company. This top 10 cable network channel has built successful brand franchises around shows like “Cake Boss,” “Say Yes to the Dress” and “Police Women” and averaged more than one million viewers for 31 TV series in 2010.