American chain faces backlash over boycott of Muslim TV show

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Its adverts urge Americans to "never stop improving". But if the good people at Lowe's, one of the nation's largest DIY chains, are true to their word, they may want to take a long, hard look at their chief executive's grasp of PR.

The company was bracing itself for an awkward Christmas yesterday, after managing to needlessly offend a slew of celebrities, politicians, and campaigners for religious tolerance by signing-up to a right-wing campaign to boycott a reality TV show that portrays the Islamic community in a sympathetic light.

Controversy erupted late last week, when the CEO of Lowe’s, Robert Niblock, decided to pull his firm’s advertising from “All-American Muslim,” a programme on the cable network TLC, which follows five seemingly-unremarkable Muslim families living in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn.

His move came at the behest of The Florida Family Association, a small and little-known evangelical organisation which for the past two decades has mounted campaigns against everything from strip clubs to gay rights and the teaching of evolution in schools.

In a letter to Mr Niblock, the Association had claimed that “All-American Muslim,” which seeks to portray the Islamic community as normal, was “propaganda” which had been “clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law.”

The CEO appears to have taken the organisation at its word, apparently without bothering to actually watch an episode, and immediately announced that Lowe’s would pull all of its advertising. In a statement, the firm claimed that the programme had become a “lightning rod” for “strong political and societal views.”

That came as news to the roughly one million viewers of the show, who were yesterday organising a growing backlash. Several politicians, celebrities, and Islamic faith groups roundly condemned the DIY firm. Petitions calling for a boycott of its stores had 25,000 signatories and counting, while 22,000 people had posted on the subject on the firm’s Facebook page.

Ted Lieu, a Californian state Senator, branded Lowe's “bigoted, shameful, and un-American.”  Keith Ellison, one of the few US Representatives who is a practicing Muslim, said it had "chosen to uphold the beliefs of a fringe hate group" and given in to intolerance.

Mia Farrow, the actress, used Twitter to call for a “big effort” to boycott the company, and “hit Lowe’s where it hurts.” The comedian Kal Penn asked fans to sign a petition against the firm, joking that his “next movie” would be called: “Harold and Kumar do not go to Lowes.” Russell Simmons, the hip-hop impresario, said that he had purchased all the newly-vacant advertising slots on All-American Muslim.

Several stars of the show, which focuses on police officers, teenagers, and housewives from a mixture of liberal and conservative households, also condemned the firm, while the Council on American-Islamic Relations said that it had “invoked outrage in our community.”

Lowe’s further upset critics by appearing to issue misleading statements regarding its decision. For example, a spokeswoman for the firm, Lauren Cobb, told reporters that Lowe’s was just one of “dozens” of companies to sever links with All-American Muslim. However, she was unable to name any of those firms. None has yet emerged.

To many in the Muslim community, the affair highlights knee-jerk Islamophobia in sections of post-9/11 America. It hasn’t helped that Mr Niblock is white, middle aged, and that his company is based in North Carolina, which has a chequered racial history.

Neither does it help that both Mr Niblock, who earns $14m a year, and his company, are generous donors to the Republican party. Records reveal that he has personally given $50,000 to mostly-conservative politicians and lobbying organisations in recent years. The firm meanwhile has a Political Action Committee; 85 percent of its donations to politicians go to members of the GOP.

Shares in Lowe's have fallen around three percent since the start of the week, and dropped again in early trading yesterday, despite the Dow Jones index nudging up. Shares in Home Depot, its biggest rival, were in positive territory.

Elsewhere, David Caton, the leader of the Florida Family Association, shrugged-off suggestions that it is a fringe hate group, telling the Associated Press that it exists to "defend traditional American biblical values." He has previously lobbied against Degrassi, a teen show on the Nickelodeon channel, alleging that it "promotes the transgender lifestyle.”

Diverse city: Life in Dearborn

Once home to the industrialist Henry Ford, the city of Dearborn in Detroit's Metropolitan Area has long been tied to the American car industry and remains the global headquarters for the Ford Motor Company.

Jobs in the auto industry first attracted Lebanese immigrants to Dearborn in the late 19th century. Now, the multicultural city has one of the largest Arab-American and Muslim populations in the United States. It is home to the Islamic Center of America, the nation's largest mosque, and the Arab American National Museum.