Muslims: TV’s Dependable Villains

No matter how intelligent or sophisticated the latest crop of US drama series might be, they too often rehash tired Muslim stereotypes.

 By Osama Al Sharif

Ever since US TV producers lost the Soviet Union as an archenemy, they’ve shifted to presenting Muslims as the new evil threatening the survival of Western civilization. Spy thrillers like 24 and Homeland have whole storylines built around threats posed by Muslim jihadists who are on a collision course with the United States—and by extension, the West’s—way of life.

Since the first Gulf War in 1990, Hollywood has stepped in with many films and TV series centered on the conflict between Arabs and Muslims on one side, and America and the West on the other. This confrontation deepened following September 11 and America’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The international manhunt for jihadists like Osama bin Laden inspired scriptwriters and producers. The recent rise of ISIS has added a new twist to the perceived clash.

In the hit TV show 24, counter terrorism agent Jack Bauer battles terrorists threatening the United States. In the show’s fourth season, which came under significant criticism for its depiction of Muslims, Bauer foils the plans of Habib Marwan, a Turkish-born terrorist trying to launch a nuclear attack on a major US city.

In Homeland, which is based on an Israeli drama series, CIA agent Carrie Mathison is caught up in foreign conspiracies involving Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The other side is almost always portrayed as evil and radical. There are very few mentions of the causes for such extremism. Producers prefer to avoid delving into complex ethical and historical situations. But there are moments when the protagonist utters some sobering words about the reason why such a confrontation is taking place.

One other series that used the Middle East to spin off a tale about an inevitable confrontation between East and West is Newsroom, another prize winner which is actually a deep and thought provoking series based around a cable news channel. In one season, the producers focus on the 2013 Boston Marathon attack and the way the channel’s news team covers the event. But very little attention is given to the motives of the attack; not that they would justify the carnage that ensued.

But can Hollywood scriptwriters really be blamed for homing in on a new villain? It’s just entertainment, at the end of the day, and the War on Terror and the challenges presented by Islamist extremists have provided ample material for writers and producers looking to build a plot on the premise of good vs. evil.

Radical Islam is presenting itself as an ideal villain which Hollywood is using to maximum levels. In many ways such a threat is real and Islamist radicals in Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Syria, and elsewhere have become a new global challenge.

There has been no challenge by audiences in our region to these drama series. There are no market studies on how Arab viewers perceive these programs. One would like to think that there is little sympathy for extremists, but it is unlikely that viewers aren’t taking sides or feeling indifferent. On the other hand, while some plots are based on real events, the reality is that these series remain a work of fiction. It’s not the responsibility of Hollywood to adhere to objectivity or to present facts on the ground. The conflicts are much more complex than these series portend to present.

But what’s dangerous is that such programs may end up stereotyping Muslims and their faith as both being predisposed to violence. This is a risky game that promises to fluster Western societies and alienate millions of Muslims who have chosen to live peacefully in the West.

For now, Islamist extremism will continue to attract Western script writers who will find ways to present jihadists as a true enemy of the West. But vilifying Muslims will not spare these societies from addressing the real issues that face them. Drama series that aim to demonize Muslims will only create more problems for multicultural societies.