HOMELAND: Islam is a red herring

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I would like to start of with this review by first pointing out that Showtime’s Homeland has been (unfairly) branded as “TV’s most islamophobic show” that reinforces the already existing stereotypes. This simply is not true. A careful look at the show and everyone who has in fact seen it or let me rephrase it, anyone who actually paid enough attention to details will support me on this one. First of all, not everything is black and white and second, every story has two sides or in this particular case, three. I am not being blindsided by neither the Arab nor the American “truth”. I am a Serb, who was like it or not, wronged by both sides during the Civil War I have fortunately survived. But what is that have to do with the show? Absolutely nothing. Not a damn thing. And this is where the problem originates. One side is accusing, the other is defending. In all honesty, it becomes really boring. Anyhow…

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The show starts with the CIA top agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), receiving a piece of information from one of her main informants that “a US soldier has been turned”. Around the same time, after eight years missing-in-action Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) has been rescued. Subjected to unthinkable torment at the hands of America’s foes, he’s finally coming home. Coincidence? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But better be safe than sorry. Therefore, Carrie, convinced that Brody – America’s latest, most glorious mass-media-anointed-poster-boy war hero – is in fact the soldier who’s been turned; who in reality is part of a terrorist plot to be carried out on US soil – Carrie goes on into a business of old school spying via hidden cameras in Brody’s apartment in a desperate hope that he will give himself away in the privacy of his former-new home. By the way, Carrie is bipolar, a little detail that doesn’t really help her case, and to say that her stance doesn’t prove popular among her fellow CIA comrades – including Saul (Mandy Patkin), her boss and mentor – is a wild understatement. Regardless, cameras are placed and Carrie is watching, like a hawk, day and night. Cameras are placed, that is, everywhere but in the garage, which Brody – unknown to Carrie but known to us, the audience – uses as a hideout place for his secret Muslim rituals. Yes, Brody is a Muslim. But is he a terrorist?

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Two articles caught my attention. First one was written by Laila Al-Arian who dubbed it “TV’s most islamophobic show”. Second one comes from Columbia University professor Joseph Massad who claimed that Homeland “demonizes Arabs and prepares Americans for bombing Iran”. But they do not stop here. They claim that all Arabs and Muslims on the show are either terrorists or otherwise disreputable. These are damning accusations and they are true insofar if you discount all those characters that do not support this thesis. Let’s take for example one of the top CIA analysts, Danny Galvez (Hrach Titizian), who happens to be omitted and conveniently overlooked in all of these articles.

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Galvez for example takes a bullet in a terrorist attack organized by the show’s main antagonist Abu Nazir. Upon his recovery Galvez is wrongfully accused of aiding Abu Nazir simply because “he is a Muslim” of Lebanese and Guatemalan descent. However, mere seconds later, we are shown that the accusations brought against Galvez by Carrie were in fact false and shamefully prejudiced. Therefor, Galvez was used to show us how prejudice work and that being a Muslim doesn’t necessarily mean that you are by default a traitor, a terrorist or THE ultimate bad guy. Not one of these reviewers see fit to mention Galvez in their articles, a character that appears in almost every single episode. Likewise, there is no mention of Carrie Mathison’s long-time Muslim informant in Beirut, or the wife of a local imam in Washington DC, or US army Muslim chaplains who, at the end of second season’s finale, performed last rites over the body of Abu Nazir before his burial at sea. All of this was conveniently left out. Gee, I wonder why.

Now let’s take a look at a dialogue happening in Dana’s (one of the show’s main cast members and the daughter of main character, Sgt. Nicholas Brody) new school.

Student #1: “I think sometimes military force is necessary. I mean, the Iranian president keeps saying he wants to wipe Israel off the map, so they have every right to defend themselves.”

Student #2: “Plus, the Arab religion doesn’t value human life the way we do. I mean, we’re the infidels, right? And these Arabs believe if they kill us, they get to go to heaven.”

Dana: “They’re not Arabs. Iranians aren’t Arabs, they’re Persians.”

Student #2: “Persians, Arabs – what’s the difference? They both want the same thing, which is to annihilate us. Why shouldn’t we hit them first? Maybe with a nuke or two of our own.”

Dana: “Douche.”

Teacher: “We don’t tolerate name-calling.”

Dana: “And what about mass murder? Do we tolerate that? I mean, because that’s what he’s really saying, isn’t it? He’s talking about turning Tehran into a parking lot.”

From this dialogue it becomes clear that Homeland doesn’t tolerate stereotypes or jingoistic rationales for the use of force against Muslim countries or any country for that matter. But, this is of course conveniently left out from all of the critiques of Homeland I have read so far. They are not only missing what makes this show valuable but they are also reinforcing another form of a stereotype – a black-and-white portrayal of “good” Americans versus “evil” Muslims. In fact, Homeland is just the opposite – it challenges the prejudices rather than reinforcing them.

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Now let’s take a look at Sgt. Nicholas Brody. Brody is a fantastically written character who doesn’t really know what he wants, a character that constantly fluctuates between Abu Nazir (going against the USA) and CIA (aiding the USA). He has no peace. He is tormented. He is a hero. He is a traitor. He is a politician. He is a marine. He is a killer. And not just any killer but a killer who murders his friend Tom Walker not once but twice. The fact that Walker is African American only spices the things up. But Brody is also a savior. Crude and gentle. He loves his wife. He loves Carrie Mathison. He is loyal to both sides. He is loyal to neither. He is an American. He is a Muslim. And while the character oscillates between this and that, his Muslim faith is the only thing that remains constant throughout the show and is shown to be completely independent of his political allegiances. To be fair, converting to Islam and becoming a terrorist were, at first, equated, however in the end, it shows that the two are undeniably distinct insofar that after assisting the CIA in finding and killing Abu Nazir, Nicholas Brody is shown absorbed in his morning prayers. Therefor, Islam is the only thing he holds on to, no matter what, the only thing that can actually keep him sane.

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Apart from differentiating between religion and political belief – something that doesn’t happen that often – what is also remarkable about Homeland is just how many non-Arab and non-Muslim villains it features, most notably the Vice President William Walden (Jamey Sheridan), white American, who publicly lies about a drone strike that killed 83 children; CIA director David Estes (David Harewood), black American, who helps him cover it up; Peter Quinn (Ruper Friend), white American assassin hired by these two to exterminate Brody, who in the course of events has a sudden change of heart; Walden’s wife, Cynthia (Talia Balsam) who orchestrated a cover up of the hit and run murder committed by their sixteen-year-old son Finn (Timothee Chalamet) and so forth. Of course, some villains are Arab and are Muslim, but let’s be honest, how can a show that ultimately tells a story about modern war on terror, leave out the Middle Eastern terrorists? That would be just unrealistic and dishonest.

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Not everything is ideal, however, and the show gets some details of Islamic faith and Arab culture all wrong. First there is the question of the pronunciation. Considering I do not speak Arabic, I can only paraphrase what I have read so far. For example, the name of Abu Nazir is according to professor Massad all wrong because the name of Abu Nazir means “the father of Nazir”, Nazir being his eldest son and therefore Abu simply cannot refer to the first name, because it is not a name at all but a noun.  He also makes a comment as to how different characters pronounce the name differently – sometimes it is Nasir but most likely it should be Nadhir. Well, this is just laughable I must say for it is nitpicking. If I would start nitpicking all the films/series that are featuring Serbian characters it would take me days, if not months to get to the bottom of things. And I am talking about fabricated names, Serbs who are speaking Croatian (which is basically the same language but still it uses slightly different words, accent and features many different dialects), Serbs who are featuring characteristics of Croatian, Muslim and Serbian culture and all at once, something that is highly improbable, not to mention the distortion in portrayal, that of course differs from my own personal point of view because in case you didn’t know, every story has two sides. But who is speaking for Serbs? No one. Moving on. Also, there is the question of Brody’s “badly pronounced” Arabic as shown during his prayers. Apparently he says “al-rakhman al-rakhim” instead of “al-rahman al-rahim”. For what is worth, at least they took time to learn it. The accent is wrong? The pronunciation is wrong? So what? I for one would like to see which Arab, Russian, Chinese or a Serb, with no previous knowledge of English, could pull of the perfect pronunciation of American English, especially if their tutor is not a native English speaker. Error-ridden portrayals or religion and language are a common offence in Hollywood and this ignorance should not be mistaken for bigotry.

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What I do have a problem with are the following things:

– The portrayal and representation of Beirut (shot in Tel Aviv) and the fact that Carrie is forced to become a brunette and wear brown contact lenses during her trip there to avoid detection makes little to no sense.

– The complexity of individual cultures is reduced to frivolous representations. Equating them is the biggest mistake because it looks sloppy. Therefore, this is something the show creators and producers should think about. Making the room for certain improvements in the future would certainly not hurt.

– Then there is the infamous scene of Quran burial. After Jessica finds out that Brody is a Muslim (dialogue I will discuss in a minute) she throws Brody’s copy of the Quran on the ground, and the episode bizarrely ends with Brody burying the holy book, telling his daughter he had to so because it had been “desecrated.” Growing up surrounded by Muslims, I must admit, I have never heard of this custom and truth be told it seems a bit unbelievable and funny.

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On the other hand, however, this scene, becomes Al-Arian’s strongest example of the show’s Islamophobia. Albeit, this is completely missing the point and in my eyes insisting on this interpretation, which was not read properly, discredits her as the viewer for she is apparently not able to grasp the scene in its entirety. When Brody’s wife discovers that he is a Muslim, she points angrily at his Quran and shouts, “These are the people who tortured you!” These are the people who, if they found out Dana (Brody’s daughter )was having sex, “would stone her to death in a soccer stadium!” Yes, this statement is obviously Islamophobic. But in the context of the episode, the viewer sympathizes with Brody, not his wife Al-Arian! It is Brody’s wife and her statements that in fact repulse the viewer. If we were meant to sympathize with Brody’s wife, she would be a more likable character, which she is absolutely not. Sleeping with her husband’s best friend doesn’t help either.

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And if we are to pinpoint every “islamophobic” moment in the show based on dialogues and images out of context then we could argue that the show is likewise anti-Semitic or anti-American. How? Well, anyone who watched the second season finale of Homeland can argue, following Al-Arian’s lead, that the show is shamelessly anti-Semitic. All along, it has been Saul Berenson, the show’s only Jew, who crafted an elaborate plot to secure power for himself at the expense of American lives and the national security of the United States. It was Saul who passed the razor blade to Hamid, one of Brody’s guards when he was in captivity, to avoid the CIA interrogation; it was Saul who failed the polygraph when he was asked about this razor blade incident; and finally it was Saul who helped Aileen Morgan kill herself by “forgetting” his eyeglasses in interrogation room of high-security terrorist prison.

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As the final episode of second season approaches it conclusion, Saul ends up standing in the midst of his victim’s bodies and recites the Kaddish – the Jewish mourner’s blessing. The message is obviously clear: Saul, the Jew, should never have been trusted. This is what happens when Jews get into power. Ridiculous.

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As for the anti-American aspect of the show, well, I don’t even know where to begin. Maybe with the obvious one, marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody, American-Muslim-terrorist-Congressman endorsed for the position of the USA Vice President. Wait what?! And this is the part of its genius – making an All-American poster boy war hero into a terrorist running for office. Brilliant. This singlehandedly does exactly the opposite of what al-Arian condemns: Homeland challenges the stereotypes of who is a terrorist and what it means to be one. Brody’s conversion to Islam is, like it or not, a red herring. Islam, itself, is a red herring. If the show was Islamophobic, as vast majority claims, Brody’s martyr tape would focus on Islam. But it doesn’t, in fact, it does not even mention the word Islam. Instead, Brody explicitly states political reasons for his terrorism: “This is about justice for 82 children whose deaths were never acknowledged and whose murder is a stain on the soul of this nation.” Furthermore, when Abu Nazir tells him how these attacks they are planning is the “will of Allah” Brody objects by saying how no one, not even the two of them, knows the will of Allah and how everything we do here on Earth is our own will for every human being has a choice. These words and larger themes, are however, lost on both Massad and Al-Arian.

And don’t get me started on Aileen.

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But also, let’s make one thing clear, I am not choosing sides here because I believe that both of these sides are the “bad” guys (and I am not universalizing here), both sides spread terror across the world, the difference is, one is doing it via the illegal means – attacking subways, schools, malls, hijacking planes, and as of recently massacring the people with machetes and chainsaws in the broad daylight of the busy street.  And the other, equally terrifying, are doing something similar – bombing, destroying cities, civilians and cultural heritage, waterboarding, pissing on hostages and putting it on tape – and they do it within law, which is utterly absurd. And while they do it, a third party is cruising on their yachts, drinking expensive wines and eating rare sea creatures. If we are so lucky we might even get a recipe via Top Chef or the Travel channel.  In this context I am a defender of the show, which, accept it or not, points fingers at both. But I digress.

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As for the show itself, I really enjoyed watching it. Unlike, Hanibal – another show I started watching around the same time – Homeland is not pretentious and is everything but boring. Sure the plot has holes, but the pace is just right, directing is smart and two main characters are beautifully written. They are human, something I find the most intoxicating about them. Then there is also the question of casting, which in all honesty made everything a whole lot better. Both Lewis and Danes are ridiculously good. Their teeter-like relation is what takes things on a new level by keeping you emotionally invested but not in a cheesy way. Can they trust each other? How could they after everything that has happened? Are they strong enough to overcome the fact that not so long ago Brody put a suicide west and Carrie ended up on a lobotomy because of him? Will Brody go back to his old ways? Will Carrie ever let go? We are getting personal. We are put in the position from which we can relate to or even in certain moments recognize and identify ourselves with the problems they are dealing with – two people from opposite sides and different religions get closer together over the shared experience and fall in love. In the end the true villain of the show is the blunt, ignorant, monochromatic moral thinking of “us vs. them” and not one particular individual, one particular nation or one ethnic group.

And last but not the least, the most likable character of the entire series is not a Caucasian Christian, Carrie Mathison, the CIA agent, or a Jew, Saul Berenson, her CIA mentor, but, believe it or not, a Muslim – Sgt. Nicholas Brody. What?! No way….So much for the Islamophobia. Have a nice day.

Text written by: Monika Ponjavic

4/5

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2 thoughts on “HOMELAND: Islam is a red herring

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