By Max Marder
Showtime’s Homeland, the multiple-award winning drama about the politics and personnel of counter-terrorism operations, has rightly received critical acclaim for the outstanding performances of its lead actors and suspenseful screenwriting. However, as a socio-cultural commentary, Homeland is typically stereotypical in its portrayal of Muslims.
American pop-culture has not been kind in its portrayals of Muslims, well before 9/11. Even in a movie as innocuous as Back to the Future, Marty McFly and Doc Brown had to evade gunfire from Libyan terrorists.
Jack Shaheen, the author of Reel Bad Arabs and a former CBS News consultant in the Middle East, has studied how Arabs are portrayed in the media. According to Shaheen, Arabs are usually portrayed as “bombers, belly dancers or billionaires.” For the most part, those roles aptly describe Homeland’s Muslims.
The show follows Carrie, a CIA operative, who suspects that a recently rescued American POW, Brody, has “turned” and begun working for his former captors. While Brody is a national hero, Carrie suspects—rightly—that he is a sleeper agent working for Abu Nazir, a fictionalized derivative of Osama bin Laden. Carrie, and the audience, develops further suspicions of Brody’s intentions upon the revelation that he has converted to Islam during his imprisonment.
The terrorist network that Sergeant Brody supposedly works for is remarkably diverse financially and nationally, if not religiously. In the Homeland universe, Iraqi prisoners, Saudi princes, Muslim-American professors, Palestinian extremists, Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah and Sunni Al Qaeda are all somehow linked in a grand pan-Islamic plot to attack American soil. By ignoring the very real differences within the Muslim world, Homeland tends to vacillate between political insensitivity and laughable unrealism.
Writing for the Guardian, columnist Ian Black condemned the show for portraying “all the Muslim characters as devious and cruel.” Indeed, Homeland rarely examines the underlying motivations of its Muslim characters, interpreting their enmity towards the United States as an a priori reality.
This is not mere triviality. Pop culture and racial stereotypes are mutually constituted—the media informs our perceptions and our perceptions shape the media. Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor for the Observer, aptly notes that a popular television show “not only reflects cultural and social anxieties at any given time, it reflects back those anxieties, reinforcing and shaping them.” With a constant barrage of imagery correlating Muslims with terrorism, Islamophobia isn’t just an unfortunate consequence—it’s a foregone conclusion.
Homeland is certainly not the first racially insensitive television show or movie in American pop culture. Homeland’s counter-terrorism television predecessor, Fox’s 24, was much less subtle in its uniform portrayal of Muslims as Enemies of the State. In 24’s high-octane right-wing universe, phone tapping and torture were appropriate means with which to parry the relentless terrorist threat. Homeland does slightly better, sprinkling in a few minor characters that are both Arab and likeable, including a half-Lebanese CIA operative who works in Carrie’s department. Overall, Carrie’s and Brody’s moral ambiguity and artistic depth make me a regular, albeit cautious, viewer of the show.
But just because Homeland could be worse does not mean it could not be better. Despite its high production value and attention to detail, Homeland represents its Muslim characters as little more than terrorists, oil barons and harem overlords. Brody is the only major Muslim character on the show that is even marginally sympathetic. Yet his religious faith is what creates the audience’s dissonance towards an otherwise normal and loving father. When Brody rolls out his prayer mat: cue the ominous soundtrack.
Homeland (left) and Google images (right) reveal two very different depictions of Hamra Street
While Homeland often treats its Muslim characters unfairly, it also tends to see Muslim culture and society as a whole through an Orientalist lens. The show portrays Hamra Street in Beirut as a petri dish of Islamic fanaticism, to the ire of Lebanon’s Tourism Minister, who has threatened a lawsuit. Problematically, six of Homeland’s Muslim Arab characters, including the Saudi prince and Abu Nazir’s bomb-maker, are portrayed by Israeli actors. This misrepresentation shows a carelessness and apathy toward portraying Muslim characters accurately.
Image from the Guardian. Homeland’s Beiruti scenes were ironically shot in Israel.
It is unfortunate that a show with Homeland’s reputation and ambition has chosen to lazily perpetuate decades-old stereotypes instead of providing a refreshing new narrative. Not only would a more evenhanded portrayal of its Muslim characters improve Homeland in terms of political correctness, it would make the show more original, dynamic, and layered.
Any truly fascinating depiction of the War on Terror would need to deeply examine the so-called terrorists’ motivations, and indeed their humanity. For a show built on suspense and misdirection, Homeland’s portrayal of Muslims is unfortunately the most predictable cliché of all.
Max Marder is a Master of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Youn can find him on Twitter @maxamarder.