TV’s one major Muslim character is a secret Al-Qaeda agent
Mainstream popular culture in the period since 9/11 has remained slavishly faithful to the official narratives of the war on terror. While at the margins—for example, in underground hip-hop—a radical critique can be found, a narrow and limited consensus has suffused the cultural center ground of the US and the UK.
Spaces for questioning have been made available only on entirely pragmatic matters—for example, on whether torture and war actually work as means for preventing terrorism or whether they end up making the problem worse. Films such as Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Britain’s Channel 4 production Complicit (2013) consider the use of torture an acceptable topic of discussion—an indication that the terror war has permanently broken the earlier consensus that torture is an absolute wrong.
The limits of acceptable discourse are illustrated even more starkly by considering what passes for a “liberal” take in popular cultural depictions. If 24 was the quintessential television drama of the war’s early phase—with its ticking-time-bomb scenarios glorifying torture, its mass killings of US civilians by weapons of mass destruction, and its constant stream of one-dimensional terrorist enemies—Homeland is hailed as a liberal alternative, more appropriate to the Obama era, and its focus on the psychology of radicalization. Indeed, the show—broadcast on Showtime in the US and on Channel 4 in the UK—is said to be the president’s favorite program.
Homeland’s key plot themes are the infiltration of the US administration by Muslim extremists (a nod to Islamophobic conspiracy theories); suspicion of ordinary Muslim Americans, especially converts; and the psychological turmoil of the leading Muslim character, who is caught between his all-American family and the pull of extremist indoctrination.
Nick Brody, a white American marine, is captured and held prisoner by Al-Qaeda in Iraq (later this becomes the Taliban in Afghanistan—the two are apparently interchangeable) until he is freed eight years later. Returning to the US as a war hero, Brody tries to maintain a normal family life while hiding the fact that he has converted to Islam. The CIA’s Carrie Mathison, whose character is reportedly based on an actual CIA analyst (who also inspired the lead in Zero Dark Thirty), suspects Brody has been won over to the terrorist cause and begins a rogue surveillance operation to prove her theory; she also has an affair with her subject.
His suicide mission to kill the vice president and a host of other government officials is abandoned after a last-minute conversation with his daughter. He then plots to get elected to Congress and take a senior role in the administration in order to subvert US foreign policy.
Mathison induces Brody to confess during an interrogation, and he agrees to work as a double agent. Meanwhile, Abu Nazir, the Al-Qaeda leader who recruited him, enters into an implausible alliance with Hezbollah to avenge an Israeli strike on an Iranian nuclear facility by attacking the US. Nazir somehow manages to enter the US with teams of heavily armed commandos, who engage in various confrontations before kidnapping Mathison and forcing Brody to kill the vice president. Season two ends with a car bombing at the CIA’s headquarters.
Brody’s character has more emotional depth than any other terrorist on US television. And there is a strand to the plot that tries to acknowledge the ways foreign policy decisions made in Washington can end up being counterproductive. Brody’s indoctrination is presented as bound up with his anger at a US drone strike on a school that resulted in the death of Issa, Nazir’s son, whom Brody had taken under his wing.
These aspects of the show—which point to terrorism as not a pure evil but rooted in psychological processes—are the basis for its liberal credentials. They are also consistent with the discourse of radicalization that shapes the current phase of the war on terror.
Like official accounts, Homeland presents radicalization as closely tied to Islamic culture and identity. All of the major Muslim characters are terrorists: from convert Brody to Roya Hammad, a Palestinian television journalist based in Washington who has easy access to the corridors of power and secretly plots on behalf of Al-Qaeda, to Professor Raqim Faisel and his blond American wife, Aileen, who converted to Islam while living in Saudi Arabia as a teenager.
The series’ lack of concern for the differences between Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda, or between Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with its ridiculous portrayal of Beirut as a terrorist enclave, give an impression of terrorism as a general cultural problem in the Middle East disconnected from specific political contexts.
On multiple occasions in Homeland, terrorists struggle between an attraction to Western culture and their commitment to terrorism. A source of intelligence on Hezbollah shares information because of her love of American films. A Saudi diplomat working for Al-Qaeda agrees to share intelligence so that his daughter can receive the benefits of Western culture. Brody’s inner conflict between his love for his children and the pull of his indoctrination is depicted as an identity crisis, a battle between American values (symbolized by his family life) and Islamic values (presented as implying terrorism). Implicitly, Homeland is suggesting that the more culturally Muslim you are, the more likely you are to be a terrorist.
Brody is the only significant Muslim character on any US television drama program. He also happens to be a terrorist. Aspects of Muslim life, such as praying and reading the Qur’an, receive one of their only portrayals in US television drama in a storyline that is all about whether a convert to Islam should be suspected of terrorism.
Brody’s wife, Jessica, for a while embodies traditional American family values in the series: Upon Brody’s unexpected return from captivity, she abandons her relationship with his friend Mike for the sake of her marriage vows, and thereafter struggles against the odds to hold the family together. She reacts angrily when she discovers Brody is a Muslim, not because of the deception but because “these are the people who tortured you” and who would “stone” his daughter “to death in a soccer stadium.”
The true hero of Homeland is Saul Berenson, Mathison’s thoughtful CIA mentor whose cultural knowledge and fluency in Arabic are presented as enabling him to pursue terrorist enemies by cultivating reliable informants rather than launching gung-ho missions. Yet he also believes in racial profiling when necessary, on one occasion giving his team instructions on how to conduct an investigation: “We prioritize. First the dark-skinned ones.” At this point, we have already been reassured that he has no problem with dark-skinned people.
Following the usual cliché, his career with the agency has wrecked his relationship with his wife, Mira, who is Indian. In other words, profiling is seen as necessary for operational reasons and not the reflection of an individual agent’s racial prejudice.
Galvez, a Muslim member of the CIA team, has a negligible role until he is suspected by Mathison of working with Al-Qaeda, largely because of his religion. Thus both of the series’ CIA heroes find it necessary to profile on the basis of race or religion, at least on occasion. Racial discrimination is presented as a regrettable but understandable tactic that even America’s best agents are likely to succumb to when investigating terrorist threats.
Torture is not the universal solution it was on 24, but it can still be an essential item in Homeland’s counterterrorism tool kit, so long as it is used in conjunction with Mathison’s soft skills. Brody is stabbed through the hand by an interrogator, but only so that Mathison can step in afterward and present herself as the good cop, using empathy rather than force to win his cooperation.
US policies in Homeland are essentially benign but occasionally undermined by rogue cliques, who lead the government astray into counterproductive excesses. The show gives Mathison and Berenson multiple opportunities to voice their concerns about such excesses from within the national security system. But the only Muslim voices raising political issues do so as terrorists. The show’s depictions of Muslim opposition to US foreign policy involve characters trying to justify terrorism, from Brody’s martyrdom video to Mathison’s interrogation of Hammad to Nazir’s angry exchange with Mathison during her kidnapping. In line with the official radicalization narrative, political dissent and terrorism are collapsed into each other: the only Muslim voice is the terrorist voice.
Indeed, Brody’s prominence as the kind of Muslim who can make it to mainstream television is telling. The reality television series All-American Muslim, which tried to portray the everyday lives of Arab-American families in Dear- born, Michigan, was taken off the air after conservatives pressured advertisers to pull their support. And for a number of years until the launch of Al Jazeera America in August 2013, deep opposition prevented Al Jazeera’s English-language news channel from being allowed access to US cable networks.
Welcome, then, to the latest stage of the war on terror. Muslim Americans are not automatically to be considered terrorists, but their culture remains a source of suspicion for its radicalizing effects. Their vulnerability to radicalization is understood as tied to identity conflicts and inner psychological processes that need to be tracked with widely deployed surveillance and an intelligent understanding of cultural context. The hard power of overwhelming force is complemented with soft-power techniques and cultural knowledge to secure cooperation.
With a liberal gloss of nuance, the War on Terror continues to sustain Islamophobia, but in ways that are less susceptible to political challenge. Occasional pragmatic criticism of individual US actions as counterproductive insulates the wider structures of policy from substantial opposition. Above all, Muslim criticism of US policies is seen as no more than a precursor to terrorism, rendering absent any notion of Muslim political dissent.
Arun Kundnani is an adjunct professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, and teaches terrorism studies at John Jay College. This is an excerpt from his book The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror (Verso).