Is Homeland Racist?

Showtime's Homeland may be compelling but its portrayal of Muslims lacks nuance.

 

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.

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Max Marder is a second-year Master of International Affairs candidate at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and the editor-at-large of the Morningside Post. You can find him on Twitter @maxamarder

10 Responses to “Is Homeland Racist?” Subscribe

  1. SomethingOutOfNothing November 18, 2012 at 5:34 AM #

    The show is about war. It is about an American who turns out to be a terrorist. Since the United States is at war with Afghanistan it makes sense that it would show a lot of Muslims in military-related activities since that is what the show is about.

    If you want movies that are about civilian Muslims, you’ll have to get big corporations to stop making movies catering to the below-18-year-old crowd. Otherwise you have Independent film makers or you have very specific subsets of Muslims as we simply do not have that many Muslims in this country. I have seen some movies that have been very good, but they have been independently made ones.

    As far as interest, mostly now I would say this has received a lot of interest because the United States is still at war, this has a military based theme, and we are at war in the Middle East. Stop trying to make something out of nothing.

  2. Lo Cox December 20, 2012 at 4:39 AM #

    I strongly disagree with this article on many, if not all, of its points.

    Let’s just start by saying that the show focuses on stopping terrorist attacks on American soil before they are perpetrated by extremist Muslims. Naturally, the show doesn’t portray any “good Muslims” because it’s not what the show is about.

    I would say it’s far from “unfair” the way the show depicts its Muslim characters, and there are several times when characters’ motivations are explained. In the first season, Aileen, who is a White, American woman who allies with Al-Qaida, explains the reasons why she cooperates with the terrorist organization. Also, there’s that episode when the American drone attack kills several children and the Vice President denies its truthfulness, Abu Nazir says “And they call us terrorists.” I think this conveys some of the antagonists’ motivations behind their actions.

    Naturally, Brody’s conversion to Islam WILL make the viewers suspect of his true intentions. Knowing from episode 1 that a P.O.W. was turned and that, after being tortured and imprisoned for 8 years any human being would have developed some kind of rejection for those who have committed such acts against them. However, Brody hasn’t. And all the while, you’re being shown how he lies to the CIA intelligence officers and what his relationship with Abu Nazir actually is.

    I don’t see how Israelis playing Muslim characters is “problematic.” Damien Lewis is British, is it a problem that he plays a sergeant in the US Marine Corps? I don’t think so… How does an international conflict between Israel and Muslim countries present a problem when actors are playing characters? Don’t you think that’s a little far-fetched into finding something wrong with the show?

    I will admit, however, that it is silly to portray Hezbollah and Al-Qaida working together (because in reality, the CIA would never suggest such thing), and that Hamra ST’s depiction is far from accurate; but claiming the show is racist? Far from reality.

    • christy k December 31, 2012 at 7:25 AM #

      REALLY??? You can’t connect the dots and realize why Israelis playing Muslim characters is a problem???Have you not noticed that Isreal has been at war with…oh I don’t know? THE ENTIRE MIDDLE EAST SURROUNDING ITS BORDERS FOREVER??? Israel is HATED, by all the countries surrounding it. Period. That is WHY it is “problematic” and a bit insulting. It’s pretty insensitive in my opinion.

      I agree with the article. I have only watched the first two episodes of Season 1, and the second I saw Brody rolling out the mat to pray, I found it racist. How? Why? Because being Muslim does not equal being a terrorist. That is the problem with this scenario. It is giving the wrong message. Perhaps to intelligent audience members, it won’t mean a thing. However, most Americans of below average intelligence will equate that being Muslim is a BAD thing. Yes, I get it, he was holed up for 8 years, and blah blah blah. Still, that scene was a bit disconcerting for me.

      Maybe it’s because I’m half Lebanese, and although I am Christian, I am a little sensitive to these kinds of portrayals of Islamic culture. I understand that the show is about terrorism from the Middle East, but the article is spot on about how the portrayal of the people who live in the Middle East, is a just a tad off in American pop culture.
      .

      • TJ July 3, 2013 at 8:06 AM #

        Totally agreed with the article and Christy. I was born and raised in the Middle East (although I am not Muslim) and I am very familiar to the culture. There is nothing wrong with rolling a mat and praying.

        I don’t mind the fact that they are not portraying any good Muslims because, as some of you said, the show is about terrorism so there is no need to portray good Muslims. However, with the amount of association the show has made between Muslims and terrorism, I think it is mandatory to even it out by introducing some positivity to being Muslim.

        I don’t hate the show, in fact, I am a fascinated by it due to the intensity and nail-biting moments. Nonetheless, they really should stop with the malign soundtrack when he is praying.

  3. RacistMuslim January 29, 2013 at 1:08 AM #

    Obviously it’s racist. That is why it’s to popular, because most of America is racist.

  4. Matthew Fisher November 6, 2013 at 9:14 PM #

    It’s by far the most racist show in the world.

    • Matthew Fisher November 6, 2013 at 9:26 PM #

      “Amos & Andy” and “Seinfeld” might be a little more racist. This show definitely ranks in the top 5 most racist shows ever.

  5. Taye T January 8, 2014 at 2:35 PM #

    I totally agree with Christy K. I watched the first 2 episodes too and am unable to watch the rest. Being Muslims is portrayed as being a terrorist. I don’t understand why so many people in the world are so close minded! there’s always good and bad in the world. We have good Muslims and bad Muslims, good Christians and bad Christians, good Hindus and bad Hindus etc… having a hand full of bad people does not mean that ALL Muslims are bad and that is exactly how Homeland has portrayed Muslims which really upsets me. Why do people have to be so religiously discriminating?

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  1. Is Homeland Racist? | Pragmatic Middle East - November 12, 2012

    […] Read more Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Media, Middle East and tagged al qaeda, beirut, homeland, islamophobia, israel, showtime, stereotypes on November 12, 2012 by maxalexandermarder. […]

  2. Is Homeland Racist? « mediapov - November 30, 2012

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