In concept, a show like The Great Muslim American Road Trip is long overdue. Too often, Muslim Americans are presented in popular culture as unrelatable — or worse, anti-American. One imagines that this PBS three-parter was conceived to help dispel these myths, but it's hobbled by some odd and at times disconcerting choices.
The series follows millennial Muslim American couple Mona Haydar and Sebastian Robins on a cross-country road trip on historic Route 66. Along the way, they speak with scholars who share the stories of enslaved Muslims brought to the U.S., or of Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Massacre, which led many Black Americans to convert to Islam. The Great Muslim American Road Trip is at its best in these moments, as it covers the history of race and Islam in America through an educational lens that's both interesting and engaging.
The series also does a good job of having its hosts meet with and speak with Muslims of all ethnic backgrounds, including Black Muslims, Arab Muslims, Asian Muslims, and Native American Muslims, but it's here where the show veers off course as these conversations often end up feeling manipulated to show mainstream viewers — and in particular white Christian conservatives — that Muslims are just like them.
For instance, although Islam's main prophet is Muhammad, he's barely mentioned; instead, the series continuously circles back to Jesus and Mary. It's true that Jesus and Mary are viewed in high regard in Islam, but as a Muslim American viewer, it's hard not to feel as though the constant callbacks to the two figures Christianity holds in highest regard are an attempt at equating Muslims and Christians, instead of highlighting and celebrating differences.
And while it's commendable that the series features many successful and thriving Muslims working as doctors, actors, and tech developers, none are presented as anything other than model minorities. There's no effort to acknowledge the struggles faced by these Muslim Americans, or even the existence of racism and xenophobia. While many of those profiled are doing amazing work, like creating jobs for people out of prison, or organizing hiking trips for refugee children from Afghanistan, the series never once touches on their difficulties. What is it really like for Muslims in these communities?
It's particularly puzzling that The Great American Road Trip would choose to gloss over these issues, since the couple at the heart of the series has previously spoken publicly about their own experiences with racism and xenophobia. (Mona, who does most of the talking in the series, is a Syrian American rapper, while her white American husband Sebastian converted to Islam after meeting her in 2012. Worth noting here that the majority of Muslims living the U.S. are not white.)
Road Trip's cringe-inducing tone only exacerbates its issues. 24 minutes into the first episode, there's a montage of Mona and Sebastian doing couple-y activities as a song titled "American Dream" by Steeltown plays in the background — another moment that seems to be catered to conservative Christians, because anyone else in their right mind will almost certainly find it nauseating.
In another scene, Mona, who is quick to share her thoughts and feelings, encourages Sebastian to do the same. Instead of talking about his experiences on the road trip, he uses the moment as an opportunity to criticize his wife for not being a minimalist like him.
"I think when I fight with you, I'm just really fighting against this predicament of living in the material world, and I don't think you fight against that as much," he says.
Mona stands her ground and defends herself against the criticisms of this cis white man who has barely spoken over the course of the series except to put his wife down in this moment. But from start to finish, the conversation is uncomfortable and unnecessary, making the show's choice to present him as a spokesperson for Muslim Americans that much more questionable.
At its best, The Great Muslim American Road Trip offers a solid history lesson about different groups of Muslims in America, and shines a light some extraordinary Americans. But by ignoring their struggles (and taking some odd detours instead), it misses the rare opportunity to put that history in context and provide viewers with deeper insight into the true Muslim American experience.
The Great Muslim American Road Trip premieres July 5th on PBS stations nationwide.
Deena ElGenaidi's writing has been featured in Nylon, MTV News, Insider, The AV Club, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @deenaelg.