By Matthew Jaber Stiffler

Originally written for, and posted at, KnightArts.org.

In early December 2011, I spent two days meeting with Muslim American groups in Grand Rapids. First, I met with the Muslim Students Association at Grand Valley State University to learn about the programs and events that they are involved in. Every February they hold an Islam Awareness Week on campus, which includes lectures, performances and discussions. This year, nationally-known comedian Ahmed Ahmed will be performing. In addition to this week-long event, the members of the MSA help to feed hungry and homeless people through Project Downtown and raise funds for humanitarian relief throughout the Muslim world. It was a pleasure to sit down with these dedicated students.

The next evening, I met with the Arab American membership at the Masjid At-Tawheed in Grand Rapids. Although the mosque has members from over 80 countries, I met specifically with over 70 Arab American members. It was a fruitful discussion about the history of their community and their relationships with the surrounding community. Some of the most pressing issues facing the community involve the impact of stereotypes and anti-Muslim discrimination on school children. The mosque has dedicated activists to build bridges with the larger community, such as Ms. Petra Alsoofy (who, fittingly, was also a driving force behind the Muslim Students Association at GVSU). Grand Rapids is an amazing environment for interfaith discussions and problem solving, and the members of the Masjid At-Tawheed are a big part of the conversation.

Over 100 Muslims and Christians gather for an Iftar dinner in Grand Rapids in August 2011.For example, in August 2011, I attended a community Iftar dinner at the mosque, which was co-sponsored by the Fountain St. Church in Grand Rapids. An Iftar dinner celebrates the breaking of the fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and is the perfect vehicle for friends and visitors to break bread together, so to speak. More than 100 people gathered at the mosque for a tour, a brief lesson on Islam, and feast of traditional Middle Eastern cuisine. During my recent meeting at the mosque this past December, the community expressed their desire to continue this kind of outreach.

So, imagine my dismay when I returned to work in Dearborn, only to read countless disparaging remarks about Islam and Muslim Americans. It was all part of the firestorm over TLC’s All American Muslim program.

It’s a well-worn story by now. On Monday, Dec. 10, 2011, Lowes home improvement stores pulled its advertising from TLC’s groundbreaking reality show All American Muslim, caving in to pressure from a small anti-Muslim organization in Florida, called the Florida Family Association (FFA). The FFA argued that the TLC program was doing a disservice to the American public by not portraying “real” Muslims, or “radical” Muslims.  Eventually other advertisers followed suit, including internet-based travel site Kayak (which later apologized for its handling of the situation). The controversy was fodder for Facebook and Twitter posts, as well as numerous segments on cable news and a poignant piece on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.

The divisions over the reality show, which follows the lives of Arab American Muslim families in Dearborn, MI, revealed some extremely hateful rhetoric towards Muslims and Arabs. The Islamophobia machine (as detailed by the Center for American Progress’s eye-opening study Fear, Inc.) jumped into action and spewed its typical blend of hate and misinformation about Islam and Muslim Americans, directing much of it at the families depicted in the show. Luckily, many organizations, news outlets, and individuals (like Russell Simmons), defended not only the show but the civil rights of Muslim Americans. USA Today researched and wrote a wonderful piece about the show and the firestorm surrounding it. 

Perhaps the current national conversation about Islam and Muslims is so volatile because the majority of Americans say they don’t personally know anyone who is Muslim (one Time poll says 62% of Americans said they do not know any Muslims). There is certainly no lack of “information” about Muslim Americans in the mainstream media. The difficult part is wading through the cacophony of pundits, bloggers, and talking heads to find the real lived experiences of Muslims in the U.S.  Luckily, there is also no lack of opportunities for people to learn accurate information. My most recent trip to Grand Rapids demonstrates that there are many organizations trying to reach out and educate the general public.