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Showtime's Homeland and the US Media

[Screen shot of website for [Screen shot of website for "Homeland." Image from sho.com]

I took advantage of a recent promotion by my cable company to power-watch both seasons of Showtime’s Homeland. Before taking this plunge, I had purposely stayed away from Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, which have Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) heroes pitted against Muslim enemies. I never tuned into any of the seasons of 24, a show that shares the same producers with Homeland, who have teamed up with the Israeli crew who created Homeland’s precursor, Hatufim (“Hostages”). I did watch Covert Affairs while it remained a silly look at a CIA operative’s activities around the world. I had to stop when the main character successfully convinced a Yemeni official to be a double-agent in order to make the world a better, American-style place, and when the show moved to using drone attacks against its targets. Maybe if I had watched these other movies and shows, or continued with the last, I would have been more immune to Homeland’s atrocities. Regardless, I was not prepared for what Homeland had to offer, and with each episode I grew more disturbed by what I was seeing and what this show says about the depiction of the Muslim world in the US media.

In a brief summary of the Homeland plot-line, US Sergeant Nicholas Brody was captured in 2003 by forces in Iraq and held prisoner until his rescue by US Marines eight years later. As is typical for this show, it is unclear exactly who held him for that time, since Muslims are apparently interchangeable. In different episodes, characters say he was held by al-Qaeda or the Taliban, sometimes in Syria and sometimes in Iraq, notwithstanding the fact that the Taliban are present in neither one of those countries. The only identifiable kidnapper is Abu Nazir, an al-Qaeda leader who, we find out in season two, is a Palestinian. He wants to attack the United States because of what his family suffered in 1947 and under “the occupation,” but the audience receives no explanation for what happened during those events or how the United States might be involved in them.

Around year six, after years of torture, Abu Nazir showed kindness to Brody by bringing him into his own home so Brody could teach his youngest son, Issa (pronounced Ice-a), how to speak English. Over the next few months, Brody learned to love the boy so deeply that by the time Issa was killed in a US drone strike, approved by the then-CIA director and current vice president, he is ready to work with Abu Nazir to exact revenge.

On his return to the United States, CIA agent Carrie Mathison immediately suspects Brody has been turned by al-Qaeda. To verify her suspicions, she sets up an illegal surveillance operation so she can follow all of his moves. In the process of doing so, she becomes so obsessed that she falls in love with him and he agrees to a romantic tryst in a lake-side cabin.  There, Brody admits that he has converted to Islam (which the audience already knows, since we have seen him praying), while vehemently denying that he is working for Abu Nazir. At just that moment, Carrie discovers that Brody’s partner in 2003, Sergeant Tom Walker, was not killed as Brody and everyone else suspected, but has miraculously returned to the scene, alive and apparently transformed into a robot-like operative for Abu Nazir.

Notwithstanding all of his denials, Brody has in fact been turned. The audience knows this, because on a family trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he receives a bomber vest from a Syrian tailor, with plans for using it against the vice-president. On the appointed day of the attack, Tom Walker distracts the CIA operatives with his sharpshooter skills and paves the way for Brody to perform the most vital part of the mission: the bombing in the State Department of the vice-president and his chief advisors. However, Brody has second thoughts about what he is doing and chooses to abort the mission. He later meets with Walker and kills him on behalf of Abu Nazir. The plan now is to have Brody use his returning hero status for entrée into the highest reaches of the US government. Carrie, believing she was wrong about Brody, stops taking her medications and receives electroshock therapy for her bipolar disorder.

The second season opens with an off-screen Israeli bombing of five Iranian nuclear sites, together with the inexplicable decision by the Shi`i Hizballah and the Sunni al-Qaeda to team up together to attack the United States on its own soil. Despite her breakdown, Carrie is brought back into the CIA when an old confidential informant—the wife of a Hizballah leader—tells her about a planned meeting between Abu Nazir and Hizballah leaders on Hamra Street in Beirut. The US attack against Abu Nazir and his Hizballah colleagues fails when Brody is able to warn the participants at the last second.

After these organizations have agreed to join forces, the action escalates with a Hizballah hit squad attacking CIA and FBI agents in the tailor shop in Gettysburg, so the bombs hidden in the wall can be handed over to Abu Nazir’s team. Before those bombs can be used against Americans, Carrie confirms that Brody is an operative for Abu Nazir and she succeeds in turning him into a double-agent for the CIA. Oh, and he is also by this point a US Congressman and possibly the next candidate for vice-president of the United States, running on the same ticket as the vice president who ordered the drone attack on Issa.

Through CIA action and Brody’s intelligence information, a joint al-Qaeda-Hizballah attack on the vice-president and three hundred returning soldiers and their families is thwarted. The attacks continue, however, with Abu Nazir forcing Brody into getting the serial number for the vice president’s pacemaker. Brody does so, and then watches over the vice-president as he succumbs to an Abu Nazir-remotely-induced heart-attack, happy that he has finally wreaked his revenge for Issa’s death. Soon thereafter, a CIA team finds and kills Abu Nazir.

At the memorial service for the vice president at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Brody’s car blows up and kills at least two hundred people. Brody and Carrie escape that fate because they have conveniently left the service moments earlier to profess their love for each other in an office on the other side of the building. Abu Nazir’s successor claims responsibility for the attack, and then someone leaks to the US press the suicide video Brody had prepared for the aborted attack on the vice-president in season one.

Needless to say, embedded in this short summary, as well as the detailed elements of the show, are innumerable cultural and historical inaccuracies, not to mention thoroughly absurd plot-points that could never exist in any real world. The odes to Homeland’s greatness that appear throughout the US media have criticized the truly fanciful elements of the show—how convenient for Brody to be in the security briefing room at the exact moment when the dreaded Abu Nazir and Hizballah were meeting in Beirut?—but have generally passed these off as silly plot devices. These reviews have failed to examine the world in which Carrie, her colleagues, and the Muslims live. A small number of articles have dissected the racism, Islamophobia, and politics embedded throughout the show. In January 2012, Shiva Balaghi wrote a critical review on Jadaliyya. In addition, Joseph Massad and Laila al-Arian each did so for al-Jazeera English (October 2012) and Salon (December 2012), respectively. Furthermore, a number of writers have discussed how badly the show represents Beirut, and particularly Hamra Street. A side-by-side comparison of two different Beiruts has shown up all over the internet:

Notwithstanding the excellence of these articles, the plaudits and awards this show has garnered have drowned their messages out. It is both shocking and disturbingly understandable to me that this show has become so popular. It peddles in the Islamophobia that has become far too common in the US media, while also stretching the limits of what even most mainstream media usually depict about Islam and the Muslim world.

Certain conventions have been established over the last few years whenever TV shows or movies discuss the actions and beliefs of Muslims. A grab-bag of negative traits appears regularly: Muslims do not treat women well; Muslims kill innocent people; shar`ia law dictates unnecessarily harsh punishments for infractions; and Muslim sleeper cells exist throughout the United States. Amidst this barrage of negative elements, many shows offer some kind of disclaimer, even if it is overwhelmed by all the other images and statements proffered at the same time. One such tactic is to have a character say something about Islam being a peaceful religion, in order to differentiate the majority of Muslims from those the particular show happens to be targeting. Another method is to have a friendly Muslim character serve as a personal counter-weight to whoever the show is targeting, either because that character displays a deep sense of morality not possessed by the antagonists, or helps to stop other Muslims from engaging in anti-American activities. The scales certainly tip toward representations of evil in Islam, but many shows at least attempt to present an alternative image.

Homeland does not even bother with these conventions, however ineffective they might be. The perfect entry point for a discussion about Islam could have been the reasons why Brody converted while in captivity. All the viewer will ever glean about his beliefs is that he converted because a Muslim—Abu Nazir—extended friendship and kindness to him. When Brody’s wife accuses him of believing in a faith that would stone his daughter in a soccer stadium if the fact became known that she was having sex with her boyfriend, Brody stands silent. He never explains to his wife why her statement is wrong or why Islam as a faith might appeal to him. He also never explains why he has no compunction against drinking alcohol and engaging in extramarital sex, despite Islamic prohibitions against these acts.

Near the end of the second season, Abu Nazir briefly evades capture by the CIA, and Carrie immediately accuses an agent of Lebanese descent of helping him. “He is a Muslim,” Carrie responds when another agent questions whether this character could be a traitor. When they chase down the Lebanese character, they discover he had absolutely nothing to do with Abu Nazir’s escape, despite being a Muslim. But this fact does not serve in the place of the usual disclaimer, because the accusers feel no guilt whatsoever at their accusation: they immediately move to find Abu Nazir via other means. Tom Walker’s automaton sharpshooter is a jihadist for no reason the producers feel the need to explain.

Another tactic that appears regularly across the US media spectrum is to have American characters act as badly as the Muslims do, in order to arrive at some kind of moral balance between the two societies. Syriana is the perfect example of this method because none of the characters display much in the way of moral fiber, regardless of their country of origin or religious belief (although the movie’s depiction of Beirut is as ludicrous as the one in Homeland). The characters in Homeland are certainly unpleasant: Carrie is so obsessive about the possibility of an Abu Nazir attack in the United States that she spends most of her time screaming at the other characters so they will take her fears seriously; Brody cheats on his wife. Saul’s wife leaves him because he is a workaholic; the assistant director of the CIA cheated on his wife with Carrie years ago; and the vice-president’s son shows little remorse after a hit-and-run accident kills an innocent woman; and so on and so forth. Syriana’s pivot point was the international oil industry. In the movie, only unsavory characters exist in this world, so nationality and religion are of little consequence. Homeland’s focal point is the evilness of Muslims and their overriding desire and ability to attack Americans on their home soil. In Homeland’s world, it is unnecessary for any character to explain core Islamic beliefs, because the desire for attacking the United States is sufficient background information for understanding how the plot moves forward. Equally, the show’s writers and producers indicate no desire to explain what US values are or why US actions might cause problems for Muslims, because it is taken as a given that the United States must be defended from this unremitting and unexplained aggression.

A critique of what I am saying could be, “but this is only a TV show; lighten up,” or “only three to five million people watch the show each week, as compared to the 19.7 million who regularly watch NCIS.” The problem is that the show’s plots do overlap with political policies being enacted and discussed by the US government, and the same schizophrenia exists in the news, whereby the most egregious elements of Islamophobia frequently receive approbation while many actual policies fail to generate much in the way of critical reporting. When members of Congress and others give press conferences about Muslim cells operating in the United States, and when states try to pass laws prohibiting the use of shar`ia law in the US court system, many a critic rises up to point out the paranoia and ignorance that underlie these claims. A great deal of press has been given to critiques of the US government’s covert surveillance program and the expansion of the drone program to not only areas of the Middle East, but also Africa and in the United States.

However, during the recent ten-year anniversary of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, few US media outlets went beyond a cursory examination of the events or made any attempt to explore their own culpability. This failure came despite the apologies, however half-hearted, newspapers like the New York Times made for their own mistaken reporting in the run-up to the invasion. And few connections are being made in this same media to the fact that a starkly similar campaign is being waged in favor of a possible attack against Iran. After spending the last month in the United States, Rami Khouri published an article in Lebanon’s The Daily Star on 6 April, where he said the US media fails to report real news about Iran; rather, it repackages ideological positions put forward by the US and Israeli governments and sells them as news.

A fascinating case study of the schizophrenia of the US news media concerning the Muslim world appeared just this week in the New York Times and the Boston Globe. On 7 April , in a New York Times article entitled “American Children Reported among Dead in U.S. Strike”, reporter Azam Ahmed provides details about a US drone strike against a Taliban commander that also killed ten children and wounded five women. In the article, Ahmed gives a short but adequate discussion about how drone strikes have become a “thorny issue” between the US and Afghan governments. After going through some of the history of drone attacks and reporting on the Afghan government’s reaction to this latest one, Ahmed moves in the thirteenth paragraph to report on an Afghan attack at the same time that killed three US soldiers and a US diplomat. When the Boston Globe reprinted the article the next day, however, the title had been changed to “US Airstrike Kills Taliban Leader, Afghan Children,” and the paragraphs detailing the reasons why drone attacks are a “thorny issue” had been moved to the end of the article or deleted altogether. In this new version, the article moves from the drone attack to the Afghan suicide attack against US forces in the fifth paragraph. Anyone reading the shortened version of this article would have to read until the very end to find out some of the history of US drone attacks in Afghanistan. Cause and effect have been eliminated.

Homeland peddles in the worst aspects of this US media coverage about the Muslim world. The drone attack on Abu Nazir’s son has immediate ramifications, as Abu Nazir and Brody pledge revenge against the vice-president and his aides. However, since no other drone attack is discussed, this one appears as a discrete event. Furthermore, Abu Nazir was already planning an attack on US soil, so the real take-away from this event is that an American has been convinced of the evilness of this one act. The Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear sites finds Hizballah and al-Qaeda teaming up to attack the United States in retribution, but that alliance can only happen in the minds of the show’s producers. Instead of examining the relationship between such groups or the larger ramifications it might spawn, the show focuses on the fact that the attack had not been effective enough in destroying all five Iranian nuclear targets, because Israel did not have a bunker-buster bomb for the last site.

The policy discussions on Homeland are in line with the least-informed reports disseminated throughout the US media, while at the same time they are not offset by any of the conventions that exist for critiquing the dominant policies and narratives. I would suggest that the show does not even go so far as to stereotype Muslims or Americans, because that would require more work than the writers and producers seem willing to undertake. A cardboard cut-out of Muslims is attacking a cardboard cut-out of the United States. That is the only plot point worth knowing for the world of Homeland to seem logical. Muslims act and then CIA operatives respond with whatever reaction is required, however illegal or histrionic it may be.

If anything, the most fully fleshed-out “actors” on set seem to be the different technologies wielded by the Muslim attackers and the CIA defenders. On the CIA side, the agents have the ability to watch over and follow any of their suspects with amazing accuracy. Furthermore, no person under surveillance ever seems to notice the big black van parked a half-a-block away from his or her home. That same van can even find a parking spot next to the State Department on the day the vice-president is going to announce his candidacy for president. Amidst this orgy of technological sophistication, at key moments a piece of technology inexplicably fails so that the story can move forward. For example, the CIA is incapable of following the path of a helicopter as it whisks Brody off through the Virginia countryside to meet with Abu Nazir. In addition, for that meeting to take place at all, Abu Nazir has successfully found a way to enter the United States without the CIA being aware of his movements.

On the other hand, Abu Nazir’s crew is so technologically perfect it can completely fool the CIA into thinking that Tom Walker’s failed attack on the vice-president outside the State Department was the only assassination attempt that day. In reality, it was a planned diversion so Brody could get into the building and past the metal detectors with his suicide vest on. Abu Nazir can kill a man remotely merely by knowing the serial number of his pacemaker. Even more dastardly, Brody posits the theory at the end of season two that Abu Nazir planned all the events of the past few episodes. He wanted the first attack on the vice-president and the three hundred returning soldiers to fail so he could wage a more direct attack on CIA headquarters. In killing the vice-president through his pacemaker, Abu Nazir could then use a bomb in Brody’s car to kill the people he knows will inevitably hold a memorial service for him at Langley. His expertise is so thorough that Abu Nazir can even plan all of this knowing that he will be killed half-way through the project. The balance of power in Homeland is in the Muslims’ favor. They have better technology and more effective operatives working inside the US government than anything or anyone in the CIA can use to stop them.

Many reviewers of Homeland complained about how the quality declined from the first season to the second season. Given that the writers and producers felt the need to ramp up the action and the Islamophobia in order to keep up the intensity in the second season, I have no hopes for what the third season might bring. I would suggest instead that if viewers are interested in a sleeper cell story, they turn to The Americans on FX. A previous CIA case officer created and writes for the show, which establishes a fictional backstory for the real Russian agents who were living in suburban America before they were arrested and deported in 2010. (Interestingly, scripts are submitted to the CIA Publications Review Board before they are filmed.) For decades, US media outlets demonized Russians as they now do Muslims, but since the end of the Cold War a good deal of introspection has shown how paranoia and ignorance fueled more of the animosity than actual plans made by the governments of either side. The Americans does not cater to knee-jerk racism or bigotry to convince the audience to follow along the plotlines, but serves as a venue for studying that fraught relationship. It would be nice to see Homeland and other US media venues take this lesson to heart.

If you prefer, email your comments to info@jadaliyya.com.

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