How Showtime’s Homeland Stereotypes Muslims
Having completely exhausted every episode of TV’s epic shows, I was desperate for a new television distraction. Last weekend, I fulfilled it with Showtime’s Homeland.
The show’s writers, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, were responsible for the pro-torture series that was 24. I never watched that one, and I harassed my friends who applauded the neocon fantasies peddled by Jack Bauer. Now, I can finally empathize with them: I’m addicted.
I’m addicted in the way that a smoker knows tobacco is harmful in every way but can’t stop. Don’t get me wrong, Homeland’s plot line keeps me on the edge of my seat, to the point that I finished the entire first season in a Bauer-esque twenty-four hours. But that doesn’t excuse the show’s thinly veiled Islamophobic views.
Consider the show’s main focus, Sergeant Brody. He’s just returned from eight years of captivity in a prison run by Abu Nazir, the shadowy racially ambiguous Muslim behind a massive anti-American terrorist network. CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) suspects Brody is a terrorist. Despite thorough spying and stalking, she is unable to prove to her colleagues, or to the viewers, that Brody is anything but a wounded soldier.
That is, until Brody is unveiled as Muslim. Cue foreboding music as Brody is performing wudu, the Muslim preparation for prayer, which includes washing different parts of the body before salah, the formal prayers. The viewer begins to believe that Brody is a terrorist.
In an interview with Mother Jones, the show’s writers claim Brody’s conversion to Islam was a tool to challenge viewers’ own perceptions of terrorism: “We also wanted to challenge the assumption that there was a direct linkage between the religion and the endeavor of Islam,” they said.
Which is all well and good, if those assumptions were actually challenged. Brody, as a Muslim convert, does end up being a terrorist. So maybe while the viewer was tossing around the idea of, however unbelievable, that Brody may have been a Muslim but not a terrorist, the show proceeds to reinforce their initial opinions of Islam.
All of that aside, the show hasn’t shown a single Muslim, American or otherwise, that is not involved in a terror plot of some kind. I kept my eyes peeled and maybe you can count one Arab guy working at the carwash, but who knows what terror-laden future Gordon and Gansa have written for him.
Then come the vast misrepresentation of the Arab world. The show takes glimpses into the personal lives of Abu Nazir, the aforementioned terrorist mastermind, and brief shots of Beirut.
Abu Nazir’s home, a swanky Islamic pad somewhere in Iraq, is always shown with what I like to call the Wailing Arab Woman Soundtrack (see any movie filmed in/about an Arab country). The Wailing Arab Woman Soundtrack is the musical equivalent of the scent of Middle Eastern spices with a hint of anti-Americanism, and Abu Nazir’s Ottoman palace is thick with it. Directors either love it, or can’t seem to escape it.
This is also the chosen soundtrack for scenes in Beirut, which were actually filmed in Haifa and Tel Aviv, two of the largest cities in Israel. This proved problematic for some Israelis, who were shocked that their cities could appear as Hezbollah ghettos to the untrained American viewer.
And as ghettos they did appear. I can assure you, the characterization of the massive and intricate metropolis that is Beirut was anything but accurate. “Meet me on Hamra Street,” said Mathison to her supervisor in one episode. They proceeded to convene in a dusty souk, filled with roaming militiamen. In reality, Hamra Street is one of the most Westernized areas in Beirut. It is lined with pubs, a Starbucks, and art galleries. If Mathison and her CIA cohort wanted to meet somewhere outside of the grips of Hezbollah territory, they could’ve met over burgers and beers at Burger Nation on Hamra Street instead of hiding under fedoras and hijabs in Gordon and Gansa’s fictional Beirut.
Then there’s the foreign policy implications of the plot line, which roughly follows the reality of the war on terror. Characters routinely refer to an attack ten years ago, which the viewer can surmise to be 9/11. As Adam Serwer of Mother Jones points out, in Season 2 the agents are trying to gain information from protests in response to an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a very real possibility in reality. But the show implies such an attack will be met with mild protests at Israeli and American embassies, a news clip Americans are all-too familiar with, instead of an all-out war that many critics of an Israeli attack warn of.
Sergeant Brody’s infiltration of the U.S. government as a Congressman confirms the Michele Bachmann theory of the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrating the State Department in her infamous letter on the subject. It brings mistrust to the level of McCarthy’s witch-hunts, where anybody, even your representative, could be one of “them.” I doubt Keith Ellison is a big fan of the show.
If the show’s writers really claim that the links between the religion and terror are spurious, they should write in a “normal” Muslim or two. If they seek to create a melodrama about the ever-interesting subject of modern terrorism, a hint of accuracy would bring an already entertaining show some legitimacy.
The writers seem to believe that by centering the show on a white, American terrorist, they’re somehow breaking the boundaries of a typical American perception. But so long as every Muslim on the show is somehow part of a diabolical plan against America, they’re only perpetuating it.
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