In defense of “Homeland” (spoiler alert!)

I’ve encountered the argument that Homeland is Islamophobic among friends and on the interwebs. And while I do think there are certain elements of the show that can be read as anti-Muslim, I also think the show should be credited for exposing and critiquing the very Islamophobia it may perpetuate. This doesn’t mean the show is perfect. And Laila Al-Aryan rightly calls out Homeland for “getting it wrong” (mispronouncing names, giving Arab characters Iranian names, or fictitious names, misrepresenting Beirut)  But I would even argue that, overall, Homeland is more sympathetic to Muslims than phobic of them. And in a country where anti-Islam and homeland defense are national obsessions of both policy makers and the public, this is significant.

The subject of the show, Islamic terrorists, makes it easy to write it off as Islamophobic from the get-go. But I think that we have to acknowledge that a show can be about Islamic terrorists without being Islamophobic per se because Islamic terrorists exist. The danger and Islamophobic addendum to this would be the inisistance that all terrorists are Muslim and all Muslims are terrorists. The show doesn’t make either argument.

Yes, there are bad Muslim characters on Homeland. But there are also bad non-Muslim characters. And part of what makes these non-Muslim characters bad is their atitude and behavior towards Muslims.  It is the director of the CIA and the Vice-President, after all, who order and cover up the drone strike that kills 82 innocent children. The CIA is portrayed as dishonest and sinister largely because  of its actions against Muslims in general and its attempted action against Nicholas Brody, a Muslim. On a symbolic level, the show demonstrates the CIA’s immorality through the character of the CIA director, David Estes. And it’s hardly subtle. When Peter (“shwing”) Quinn threatens to return to Estes’s house unless calls off Brody’s assassination, he reminds the CIA head, “I kill bad guys.” Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson are indeed symapthetic characters who work at the CIA, but they are the exception to the rule and constantly oppose the CIA’s official line and leadership. The Vice-President is also portrayed as evil. We see him as an immoral person in the dishonest and irresponsible way he deals with his son’s hit and run, but also in the way he orders and then denies the drone strike. Through his character, the show further demonizes killing of Muslim civilians.

Unlike the bad non-Muslim characters, who have no traumatic back story to make us sympathize with them, the bad Muslim characters are humanized in a way that makes what they do understandable. We feel no sympathy for the Vice President or the CIA director. We do, however, feel sympathetic, on some level, towards Abu Nazir and Roya Hammad. We know that Hammad and Nazir come from a family of refugees and the show manages a dig at the Israeli occupation by even acknowledging the existence of refugees. The show takes a great risk by making terrorism at all conceivable. We understand, on a gut level, Abu Nazir’s anger and pain and we expreience the drone strike that kills his son as immoral, tragic and unjustifiable. We see it as that much more hypocritical when the U.S. denies it even happened.

Islam is actually shown as a beautiful religion. The scene in which Brody is praying in the woods is extremely serene and tranquil. It is shot beautifully and his praying is hypnotic. Even the prayer delivered when Abu Nazir is buried at sea sounds  beautiful. When Brody’s wife attacks him for having a Koran, she comes off as ignorant and hysterical, not rational and symapthetic. We experience her physical attack on the Koran viscerally.

Homeland challenges the effectiveness and morality of racial profiling. The show overtly demonstrates the practice of racial profiling when Carrie, trying to figure out where Nazir is hiding, thinks a CIA operative named Galvez is hiding him because “he is Muslim.” Not only is Galvez not hiding Nazir, but he is suffering from broken stitches he incurred during an attack by Abu Nazir. This Muslim on Muslim attack further complicates Muslim identity and rejects the notion that all Muslims are a monolith. When Galvez is roughly and forcibly removed from his car he is further hurt and we see on a literal level how racial profiling is not just inaccurate but damaging.

Even if Homeland is Islamophobic on some levels, it exposes and criticizes  the anti-Muslim foreign and domestic policy of the United States in a way no other show has.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted December 18, 2012 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand how a non-Muslim could defend a television show from accusations of Islamophobia leveled by Muslims who have actually experienced said discrimination. Wouldn’t that be analogous to me telling you that real sexism doesn’t exist in the media? Isn’t that what you call “mansplaining”?

    • Posted December 18, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Given that I explicitly acknowledge there is Islamophobia in the show, I don’t understand your comments. I have to assume you haven’t read what I’ve written. Also, I find your logic problematic. If a Jew who has experienced anti-Semitism claims that a comment or analysis critical of Israeli policy is anti-semitic, no non-Jew can defend the person who made the comment from the accusation of anti-Semitism? Sucks for Edward Said.

      • Posted December 18, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        Your comment is awaiting moderation.

        I think the nuance of Junaid’s argument that needs to be addressed is that, just as men don’t get to decide what is considered misogynistic,white people don’t get to decide what is racist, and people in power don’t get to decide *what is considered* oppression,
        non-Muslims do not get to decide what is considered Islamophobic.

        As a Muslim woman, I understand that you acknowledge that there IS Islamophobia, but deciding its extremity and what constitutes Islamophobia is completely different.

      • Posted December 18, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        I didnt know anything about Homeland when I watched it but after the first episode I felt that yet again, actors who look like me and my family are being portrayed as terrorists. ugh. You reference Laila’s article early on but really don’t address the very clear points she has raised. I understand the argument you’re trying to make but it seems like it’s more a justification of why you like a show that has been labeled Islamophobic. Yes, a huge chunk television has issues with representation and stereotyping, despite great writing and interesting characters. We deal with it and analyze and write about it and maybe things will change.

        I read your article and disagreed with it but respect your right to have an opinion. However, I take issue with your response to Junaid. Just because you acknowledge there is Islamophobia in the show does not mean you are really addressing the concerns of Muslims and Arabs who feel that yet another prime time television show is portraying an entire religion and region of people as terrorists. And though there are some “good” characters, it is still the same dichotomy that we keep seeing in media, “bad terrorist” and “good, faithful Muslim.” After the last election, hearing so much anti-Islam hate-sppech and seeing the number of hate crimes against people perceived to be Muslim in the US, I think this article and your response do feel like “mansplaining.”

  2. Posted December 18, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I think the nuance of Junaid’s argument that needs to be addressed is that, just as men don’t get to decide what is considered misogynistic,white people don’t get to decide what is racist, and people in power don’t get to decide *what is considered* oppression,
    non-Muslims do not get to decide what is considered Islamophobic.

    As a Muslim woman, I understand that you acknowledge that there IS Islamophobia, but deciding its extremity and what constitutes Islamophobia is completely different.

    • Posted December 19, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Precisely. I don’t understand why something so unbelievably simple is so hard to understand.

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