Backlash to Lowe's Low

There's a lot of buzz around TLC's new reality show "All-American Muslim" since hardware retail giant, Lowe's, pulled all its advertising from the show on December 5th after hearing concerns through emails, phone calls and news reports. When asked by a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors just how many e-mails they received, a Lowe's spokesperson said "dozens," not thousands.

Who's behind these e-mails? The Florida Family Association (FFA), a conservative group based in Tampa, initiated an e-mail campaign calling on advertisers to drop advertising support for the series. FFA alleges the show is "propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law."

Their ridiculous assertion is that presenting peaceful Muslims is propaganda, whereas true Muslims advocate for extremism and Sharia law. And apparently, they convinced Lowe's.

In an e-mail to FFA's executive director, Lowe's wrote:

"There are certain programs that do not meet Lowe's advertising guidelines, including the show you brought to our attention. Lowe's will no longer be advertising on that program... We appreciate your feedback and will share your comments with our advertising department as they evaluate future advertising opportunities."

Lowe's made a mistake. Corporations should not delve into matters of religion or express religious preference. Expressing concern over a show that highlights how "normal" and "American" Muslims are, is tantamount to declaring Muslims inherently abnormal or un-American.

But Lowe's wasn't able to quietly pull this off. As Reza Aslan, founder of and author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam," put it on a recent tweet,

"In past, cowards who caved to bigots thought they could hide and get away with it. Not today."

And it's not just Muslims who are protesting Lowe's actions.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, joined Russell Simmons in condemning Lowe's as "caving in to bigotry" and calling on advertisers to reject FFA's -- and other anti-Muslim groups -- demands to drop advertising support for the series.

Chris Stedman, the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Emeritus Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, has been at the forefront of the "twitter war" on Lowe's. After learning of the FFA boasting that they had compelled Lowe's to remove their advertisements, Stedman bombarded Lowe's with tweets about their actions and encouraged others to do the same.

His efforts caught the attention of Lowe's, who responded directly to him saying

"We did not pull our ads based solely on the complaints or emails of any one group. It is never our intent to alienate anyone."

But this did little to quench his thirst for answers.

"To me," says Stedman, "the question remained: why did they pull the ads, then? Why would they email FFA and say that they pulled the ads because the program didn't meet their 'advertising guidelines'? What were these guidelines? Of course, I got no response to my follow-up questions -- but I and others kept pressing them."

An atheist, Chris Stedman may seem to be an unlikely advocate for the rights of Muslims, but he has proven that justice and tolerance are not confined to any particular religious, or non-religious, group. His goal is to eventually see interfaith cooperation become a social norm. Such selfless voices of reason and integrity represent what America is all about. Religious differences should be used as a force to build relationships, not tear them apart.

This is not the end for Lowe's. Russell Simmons is calling for their CEO to step down. Stedman is calling for the boycott of their business. Why? He says, "if an organization acts in ways that you cannot in good conscience support, then don't give them your money." It is unclear whether an economic boycott will solve the problem, as it may actually further a divide that is separating our nation. Efforts to bring people together should be priority number one.

What is clear, however, is that this episode illustrates how little is understood about Islam, and I call on Lowe's to take this as an opportunity to connect with the consumers they have marginalized by learning about them. I welcome such a dialogue if they so choose.

As Stedman so aptly argues: "Unless we're able to change the way we talk about religious difference, things like this will happen again and again. Our society needs to learn how to handle, and embrace, religious diversity -- how to stop seeing those with different religious identities as alien and threatening. In the end, our shared humanity should come first. We have a lot of work to do to get there, and simply boycotting Lowe's isn't going to cut it."