Islamophobia TV

October 29, 2014

Laura Durkay defends her argument that Homeland is bigoted to its core.

THE THURSDAY before Homeland's season premiere, I wrote an article for the Washington Post calling Homeland "the most bigoted show on television." While I am not the first person to present many of the arguments I laid out in the article, the moment was right and the article went viral.

By Sunday, it had been read by over 300,000 people. It was syndicated in newspapers as far away as Sydney, Australia, retweeted by Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald, and quoted in a New York Times article about the show's misrepresentations of Pakistan.

I was a bit shocked that an article about a television show was getting so much more attention than previous pieces I had written for the Post about Iraq or violence against women. But the response speaks to both the show's prominence and the lack of discussion around its consistently terrible representations of Arabs, Islam and Muslim-majority countries.

Of course, my article had plenty of detractors. In addition to the standard troll fare--including helpful reminders about how I'd be lynched in the Middle East for being gay, a problem I've not encountered on any of my half-dozen trips to the region--there were several objections I saw repeated many times that bear further analysis, because they shed light on how Homeland manages to attract a large audience, including many liberal viewers.

Claire Danes in Homeland
Claire Danes in Homeland

Here I will address three of them.

"It's just a TV show. Lighten up. It's supposed to be fiction."

Homeland is a fictional TV show--but it airs in an environment of real-life Islamophobia.

In 2010, a small group of right-wingers successfully turned the construction of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan into a national controversy. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented a 50 percent rise in hate crimes against Muslims (or people who "look Muslim") that year.

The narrative that all Muslims are potential terrorists and that Islam is inherently violent and backward is the bedrock justification for U.S. wars and occupations, drone strikes, surveillance, border militarization, the NYPD's massive spying program that targeted everything from mosques to Arabic bookstores to Muslim Student Associations on college campuses, and more. Whether intentionally or not, a show about Muslim terrorists planning to infiltrate and attack the U.S. perpetuates this narrative.

Furthermore, there is evidence that at least some of the show's creators don't see it as "just a TV show" themselves. Homeland is based on an Israeli TV show, Prisoners of War, about Israeli POWs returning from Lebanon who have been turned into sleeper agents for Hezbollah. The Israeli version of the show, created by Gideon Raff, a former paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces, plays on the particular Israeli fear of "the enemy within"--a paranoia often directed at Palestinians living in Israel.

Gideon Raff and Avi Nir, the CEO of Israel-based Keshet Media Group, which produced Prisoners of War, have been quite explicit about their goal of strengthening links between Hollywood and the Israeli film industry, and bringing more U.S. television shows to shoot in Israel. (Homeland shot its "Lebanon" episodes in Jaffa.)

Already, they've produced two more shows: Tyrant, about an Arab dictator loosely based on Assad, and Dig, an NBC miniseries that stirred controversy over its plans to film in occupied East Jerusalem, including the neighborhood of Silwan, which is being aggressively colonized by Jewish Israeli settlers.

Dig was helped along by a $6.3 million grant from the Israeli government. "A picture is worth a thousand words," said racist Israeli politician Naftali Bennett, who met with Dig cast and crew to welcome them to the country. "Sometimes shooting a series in Israel is worth more than a thousand publicity tours of the country."

"The show sometimes humanizes Muslim characters and shows drone strikes killing innocent people, so it can't be racist."

Every single adult male Muslim character of substance on Homeland is a terrorist, connected to terrorism, or harboring a terrorist. Every single one.

Female Muslim characters can occupy one of three roles: terrorist, victim and/or "good Muslim," and active collaborator with the CIA. The latter two are often conflated, with the CIA posing at a defender of women's rights, protecting both Carrie's Beirut asset Fatima and Majid Javadi's wife Fariba from their abusive Muslim husbands.

On Homeland, if you're Muslim, you're either with the terrorists or with the state. There are no other available positions.

The only male Muslim character who's allowed to be something other than a terrorist--an innocent victim--is Issa, Abu Nazir's young son, who's killed in a drone strike that mistakenly targeted his school.

While we're certainly intended to see the drone strike as awful and tragic--although Abu Nazir remains oddly stoic at the death of his son, with most of the grieving displaced onto our American character, Brody--the responsibility is very clearly pinned on the comically evil Cheney-esque Vice President Walden. This makes it easy to see the strike as a mistake or aberration of foreign policy, instead of the norm.

And as an explanation for Abu Nazir's behavior, it falls flat--he was already an internationally known terrorist before the strike, so it cannot explain what originally motivated him.

One of the sillier idiosyncrasies of Homeland is the number of times it goes out of its way to try to demonstrate how not-racist it is. Carrie and Brody randomly stomp some neo-Nazis in a bar fight; Black Marine-turned-terrorist Tom Walker shoots a white guy with a conspicuous Confederate flag decal on his car, and Brody's daughter confronts an obviously bigoted student at school. By knocking down these overtly racist straw men, the show seems to be trying to prove its non-racist cred so it can carry on with its plot in which every Muslim man we meet is a terrorist.

"Homeland might be racist, but at the end of the day, it's a well-made show. Why didn't you talk about any of the things people like about it?"

Homeland is a sophisticated product, and it does have some things going for it--chiefly its cast. Claire Danes, Damien Lewis and Mandy Patinkin are talented actors who infuse their characters with more nuance than the show truly deserves.

Carrie Mathison, the show's bipolar CIA officer protagonist, is allowed to occupy a specific "brilliant but damaged" trope that's usually reserved for male heroes. She's unstable but clearly smart, career-driven to an obsessive degree, and largely clueless when it comes to traditionally feminine domestic pursuits like cooking and (we learn in Season 4) parenting.

But while Homeland may have a great cast, it is a patently terrible show on a number of specific storytelling metrics beyond its racism. There's nothing wrong with liking terrible TV shows (says this author, who's watched every episode of The L Word.) But Homeland is a terrible show that gets treated like a great one. Why?

Two of the show's creators, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, also worked on TV's previous most Islamophobic show, 24. 24 was very much a product of the Bush era--it aired on Fox and starred a male action hero who tortured people at the drop of a hat and walked around saying "Dammit!" a lot.

Homeland, in contrast, is clearly targeted at a liberal audience--it's 24 for the Obama era. It airs on premium cable, and stars a woman and a Jew who (mostly) use their brains instead of their fists. It strives for a realist tone, referencing real-life intelligence agencies and terrorist groups, and has largely succeeded in positioning itself as a serious prestige drama--a veneer it's largely been able to maintain despite being incredibly sloppy with everything from geopolitics to how the CIA operates.

For example, the show has been praised for its fairly realistic portrayal of bipolar disorder and various aspects of the mental health system, and for showing a character who struggles with a serious mental illness, yet is still a functional member of society. Yet this depiction is also one of the show's biggest plausibility holes.

In reality, the odds of the CIA recruiting and retaining an officer with a serious mental illness--one that requires uninterrupted access to medication, responds negatively to stress, and can cause erratic behavior--are basically nil. It's also ludicrous to think that Carrie would have been able to hide a bipolar diagnosis from an agency that conducts exhaustive background checks and regular polygraph tests of its employees.

In addition to an improbable terrorist mega-alliance between al-Qaeda and Iran via Hezbollah, the show plays fast and loose with some very basic facts about the U.S. intelligence community. The CIA's charter forbids it from conducting operations inside the U.S.--a basic feature of the structure of U.S. intelligence that's dismissed in a single line of dialogue on the show. The task of spying on someone like Brody, a U.S. citizen inside the United States suspected of terrorism, would most likely be conducted by the decidedly less sexy FBI.

Aside from the whole actually-everything-Saul-and-Carrie-are-doing-is-illegal bit, the show is filled with moments that would make anyone who's read a couple "inside the CIA" books scratch their head.

No, you can't spy on someone from your living room the way Carrie does in Season 1. Definitely not when your living room has huge glass doors that anyone on your porch can look through. No, the CIA director would not keep a highly sensitive piece of information vital to the vice president's health in his office. No, you would probably not ever be left alone in there. Yes, there are definitely cameras.

The liberties the show takes with CIA tradecraft are nothing compared to how it portrays other countries. Anyone who's traveled to Beirut would have been alternately laughing and crying during the first two episodes of Season 2, when Beirut's wealthy, cosmopolitan Hamra Street was portrayed as a grubby nest of Generic Scary Muslims. (Islamabad seems to be getting the same treatment this season.)

It's easy to dismiss these criticisms by saying that most Americans don't know what Beirut or Islamabad look like and might not care. (Of course, this assumes that no one who's ever traveled to one of these places or cares about how they're represented is part of the show's audience.) But the question remains how a show that's this sloppy with some basic elements of its world-building has racked up so much praise.

Many people who enjoy the show point to its addicting suspense as a factor. But for suspense to work, one has to believe that the threat--even a fictional threat--to the protagonists is credible on some level.

In real life, American civilians are about as likely to be killed by their own furniture as by terrorism. (They're about 20 times more likely to be killed by police.) But the mainstream news media and shows like Homeland continue to pump out tales of imminent terror attacks plotted by crazed Islamic fundamentalists.

The fact that Homeland's many Islamophobic stereotypes and misrepresentations are rarely commented upon--or even noticed--shows just how deeply these ideas have been absorbed into our cultural landscape, and explain how a show that can't even be bothered to learn the most basic facts about the world it purports to depict can be unironically named the best show on television at the Emmy Awards in 2012.

While creating TV shows that aren't swimming in racism is no substitute for building a fightback against U.S. imperialism, surveillance, racist policing and hate crimes, it seems like a pretty low bar to set. We all deserve better.

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