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Nuance, Depth and the Relative Islamophobia of Homeland

17 January 2013 General No Comment Email This Post Email This Post

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by Christian Christensen

Several years ago the highly-acclaimed – and supposedly über-liberal – television series The West Wing aired an episode in which President Bartlet had to address a diplomatic crisis involving Turkey. The story was that a woman in Turkey, found guilty of having sex with her fiancée before marriage, had been sentenced to death by beheading under religious laws implemented by a newly-elected Turkish government. The crisis for Bartlet was that he supported Turkish efforts to join the EU, but, naturally, opposed the beheading of women by rabid Muslim lunatics. In the end, Bartlet, while condemning the execution, maintained his support for Turkish EU membership. The sheer idiocy of this episode prompted me to publish a commentary in which I pointed out that, in reality, not only is Sharia Law a non-factor in the Turkish legal system, but Turkey – unlike the United States that President Bartlet presides over – does not even have the death penalty.

In broad strokes, conservatives hated the show because of a perceived liberal bias; liberals loved the show because it had a Democratic president with backbone, intelligence and ethics. The West Wing undoubtedly provided a kind of political pacifier to US liberals suffering through the darkest days of the George W. Bush administration. What made The West Wing Turkish story so egregious was the fact that the show was hailed as some kind of benchmark for “thoughtful” scriptwriting on behalf of the political left (US left, that is). The injection of a blatantly ill-informed, Islamophobic storyline into what was spun as an intelligent program only highlighted the extent to which, once one cracks the veneer of enlightenment encasing shows like The West Wing, what lies beneath is often little better than cheap xenophobia.

And this brings us to Homeland. Winner of back-to-back Golden Globes for “Best Television Series – Drama” the show has garnered positive feedback, including the following in a December 2012 Guardian editorial entitled, “In Praise of…Homeland”:

The presentation of good and evil is far more nuanced than in a conventional political thriller. One minute, the war on terror is depicted as a sad necessity; the next, terrorists show their human side. Herein lies Homeland’s strength: it is difficult to know where one’s sympathies should lie. The truth, as in life, hovers in the grey areas in between.    

Similarly, Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker lauded the show for being the “antidote” to superficial shows about terrorism such as 24 (in fact, Homeland creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa were both writers on 24), findingHomeland to be, “surprisingly grounded in the world we live in.”

Therein, I would argue, we find the heart of the problem. The West Wing and Homeland may very well do a better (but not necessarily good) job of reflecting the nuances of politics or counter-terrorism in the United States than blunt fare such as 24, but these are, as Nussbaum put it, reflections of the world “we live in.” And which “we” is that, exactly? As Laila Al Arian notedHomeland repeats so many Muslim stereotypes, and contains so many errors in fact and detail about Muslim and/or Arab culture, that she labels the program “TV’s most Islamophobic show.” (Reading Al Arian’s piece provides many excellent examples.)

Yes, The West Wing and Homeland contain dialog about the US political process and the War on Terror seldom, if ever, heard on US television. But if that dialog contains basic factual errors or crude stereotypes, then it is worth asking what, precisely, the show contributes to broader understanding of the issues in question? If the writers ofThe West Wing tell viewers that Turkey has a system of quasi-Sharia Law in place where women are beheaded for adultery, then no amount of sharp, intelligent writing can overcome the damage done by the use of that dramatic vehicle. Similarly, and as Al Arian points out in her Salon article, Homeland is based upon a single, overarching premise: that it is Brody’s conversion to Islam which enables his planned attacks against the United States. There are other factors (such as the death of the boy Issa), of course, but the core of the show revolves around his conversion.

And this is where Nussbaum’s notion of Homeland being “grounded in the world we live in” returns. The program is grounded, yes, but it is grounded in the America Americans live in: an America where an understanding of the nuances of Islam and countries with predominantly Muslim populations remains at a fairly elemental level. What makes programs such as Homeland dangerous is the idea that they represent a deeper, more mature analysis of these geo-politics, when, in fact, they represent a deeper analysis of a particular, limited understanding of geo-politics. Similarly, when critics hail programs like The West Wing and Homeland for their depth, intelligence and grounding in reality, the impact of Islamophobic content is all the more damaging. No-one expected 24 to be culturally-aware in relation to Islam, so when Islamophobic content emerged in the show, it was hardly a surprise. But, when Islamophobic material crops up in Homeland, it is easier to deflect critique of this material by pointing out the relative depth and relative broad-mindedness of the show. That is the problem with relativity in this context: when 24 or Jerry Bruckheimer are your bias benchmarks, then all is takes is content that is a bit less ethnocentric and a bit less xenophobic to make yourself look enlightened.

When critics hail Homeland, they would do well to ask themselves how they would react to a program where a Muslim captive at Guantanamo Bay succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome, converts to Christianity, returns to Kabul/Tehran/Riyadh, rises through the political ranks to a position of authority, and, with the help of a radical Christian CNN journalist, plots a campaign of terror in his home country at the behest of a Christian extremist. I think I can guess some of the words used to describe such a program, but “nuanced” and “grounded” would not be among them.

Original post: Nuance, Depth and the Relative Islamophobia of Homeland

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