It is President Obama’s favorite television show. It has accumulated dozens of awards in just its first two seasons, including Golden Globes for best male and female lead and best drama. Despite all this praise and endorsement, a sobering fact remains. Homeland’s bad guys, the terrorists threatening the United States, are all Muslims.
Homeland is addicting. I subscribed to Showtime recently just to watch the second season before the DVD release. I have struggled to balance my love of the show and its characters with my aversion to such a potentially marginalizing characterization of Islam. Homeland’s depictions of Muslim terrorists indicate Islamophobia in American culture and engage in an overly broad generalization of the Middle East, Islam, and terrorism. However, Homeland’s more subtle characterizations of terrorism are actually indicative of a more progressive turn for American popular culture.
And now, a word of caution. The following analysis contains spoilers for the first season and part of the second.
Homeland portrays Muslims as synonymous with terrorists. The primary goal for Carrie Mathison, the female protagonist, is to take down the fictitious terrorist leader Abu Nazir. Nazir who, along with all the other “bad guys” in the show, are Muslims. These terrorists hold Sergeant/Senator/prospective Vice President Nick Brody captive for eight years. Through flashbacks the audience sees these terrorists in only two settings–torturing Brody and praying. In this portrayal of prayer and violence, Homeland connects Islam and terrorism. The audience begins to discover that Brody is a terrorist at the same time that Brody’s religious conversion to Islam comes to light. Homeland links Brody’s his transformation from US Marine to terrorist with his change in religions from Christianity to Islam.
Homeland’s Islamophobia appears in more subtle ways as well. Early in the second season, Carrie and her CIA counterparts are watching 43 different people for possible links to Abu Nazir. In order to “prioritize” they decide to focus on only the “dark skinned ones.” They then add that this is not racial profiling, but “actual profiling.” Homeland dismisses and excuses racism and prejudice. Meanwhile, this quote about focusing on the “dark skinned ones” comes just after the government has been confronted with proof that Brody, white and, to their knowledge, Christian, is a terrorist. When Saul, a Jewish CIA operative, attempts to leave Lebanon, a country with a Muslim majority, a Lebanese customs official accosts him, comments on his Judaism, steals a government-classified computer chip, and demands that Saul never enter again. Saul later reveals he expected the customs official to steal the chip, and therefore planted a fake chip, indicating this level of corruption and anti-Semitism is to be expected of Muslims in the world of the show.
When I was confronted with these many instances of Islamophobia, enjoying Homeland seemed illicit and wrong. However, Homeland’s depiction of Islam is not as black and white as these surface facts make it seem.
While the bad guys are Muslim, Homeland works hard to make the United States government officials as unlikeable and corrupt as possible. The black and white, good and evil understanding of this show blurs further and further with every episode. The Vice President and the CIA cover up drone strikes that killed 80 children in Afghanistan, a result that they expected when they issued the order. Suddenly, the perspective in Homeland shifts. The “good guys” are child killers and the “bad guys,” Abu Nazir and comapny, are avenging the deaths of their children. Brody, the sleeper agent/terrorist, is not motivated by hatred or violence. Instead, he has been manipulated into paying the United States back for the deaths of 80 Afghan children. This complexity that Homeland adds to terrorism provides a more personal, multi-dimensional depiction of the Muslims in the show.
Homeland also brings depth to the portrayal of Islam by showing both the comfort that religion brings to Brody and highlighting the prejudiced nature of American thought toward Islam. Brody, a deeply troubled character, is most at peace in his prayers. His family and peers clearly do not understand him anymore, and every interaction he has with them in the beginning of the show caused me strong discomfort and unease. Brody is safe, serene, and comforted when alone and engrossed in prayer. In allowing the audience to see the positive impact of Islam in Brody’s life, however misinformed, Homeland adds a perspective different than Islamophobia. When Brody’s wife discovers that he is Muslim, she tells Brody: “These (Muslims) are the people who tortured you, these are the people who if they found out Dana (his daughter) and Xander were having sex, they’d stone her. . . in a soccer field!” After seeing how prayer has comforted Brody, this ignorant quotation by Brody’s wife is greatly affecting, both because of the hurt it causes and because it is reflective of American rhetoric about Islam.
In much of American popular culture, the enemy is often a caricature of the ethnic stereotypes associated with our country’s presumed rivals. How many Russian and German villains have we seen in movies, even in stories that take place after World War two and the Cold War? In the era of the Iraq War and the operations in Afghanistan, many of the current bad guys are Middle-Eastern men, presumably Muslim, whose job in popular television and film is to tout machine guns, look threatening, then be killed by our heroes. Homeland gives these caricatures another layer, adding depth and feeling to these once purely static archetypes. The show presents a more progressive American outlook on Islam. However, it still has a ways to go before its portrayal of Muslims is not ridden with prejudice. So, is it okay to watch Homeland? I vote yes, conditionally. I will continue to watch the show, mindful of the show’s potential for both great progress and great prejudice.