Fear and loathing in Homeland
I started watching Homeland, knowing that the high-energy political thriller had won critical acclaim and several Emmys last month. I got hooked right away – pulled in by the fast-paced story, compelling performances, and the unrelenting tension between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” – as they are so aptly called in the show. As a viewer, I could never put my finger on what was coming next, or how the story would shift.
However, as an American Muslim and keen observer of international politics, I could not ignore the troubling and reoccurring factual errors about Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East. These manifest in the dialogue and plot, making it difficult to discuss the show without addressing its problematic narrative which required suspension of disbelief about the Muslim community.
Showtime’s runaway hit Homeland focuses on Nicholas Brody and Carrie Mathison, played by Damian Lewis and Claire Danes respectively. Brody is a sergeant in the US Marine Corps – recently returned to his wife and two children in suburban Virginia – who had been stationed in Iraq. During a mission, he was captured by Al-Qaeda and held in an underground torture chamber for eight years. Carrie, a CIA agent who has also worked in Iraq, has received intelligence from an Al-Qaeda member after months of interrogation that an American who has recently returned to the US from Iraq had been “turned.” Carrie suspects Brody is now actively planning a terrorist attack on American soil while working with the head of Al-Qaeda, a Bin Laden-esque figure named Abu Nazir.
Homeland is based on the Israeli TV series Hatufim (Prisoners of War) which was created by Israeli screenwriter, director, and producer Gideon Raff. The series is about a group of Israeli soldiers who are captured as POWs in Lebanon in 2008 and the difficulties they face trying to readjust to civilian life. It is not surprising that the series would be easily adaptable for U.S. audiences as Israel and the U.S. share a similar stance when it comes to Middle Eastern affairs.
In another instance, Beirut is shown as a dusty, medieval bazaar, instead of the bustling metropolitan city it is, where armed militias in jeeps terrorize dilapidated neighborhoods and Hezbollah commanders leave their top-secret battle plans at the kitchen desk. Iraq is shown as a demonic hell-hole where Americans are tortured and killed. Needless to say, any American watching the show will not be inclined to think well of Muslims, much less visit a Middle Eastern country. This type of scene is recycled time and time again in mainstream media portrayals of Muslim-majority countries.
Sure enough, the Israeli series’ influence on Homeland is indubitable. Interestingly, the scenes representing Lebanon and Iraq were shot in Israel. What was even more fascinating was that six supporting actors, who are not of Arab ethnicity, play Arabs in the show. The actor playing a Saudi prince is an Israeli American named Amir Arison. Why was a Saudi actor not hired?
Yusuf Swade, who plays Hasan Ibrahim, Abu Nazir’s bomb-maker, is also Israeli. And what about Abu Nazir, a Palestinian being played by an Iranian actor named Navid Negahban? Raquim Faisel, another Saudi national in the show, is also played by an Iranian, actor Omid Abtahi. Hrach Titizian is of Armenian descent but is playing Danny Galvez, a character of Guatemalan and Lebanese origin. Zuleikha Robinson, who plays Roya Hammad, a Pakistani-British character, is of Burmese-Indian and English descent.
As I researched the characters’ backgrounds, I couldn’t help but question why Arab or Pakistani characters in Homeland are not being played by Arabs or Pakistanis? Wouldn’t it be more authentic, honest, and believable if Arab voices were heard in a show about Arabs? Is it that Arab actors refused to be part of Homeland or that the people behind Homeland purposely chose to not have Arab actors portray significant characters in the show? This could be comparable to actors who are not black playing African Americans on television, which is considered deeply offensive to the African American community today. Or could it be that the Arab American narrative is considered un-American and unpatriotic in popular culture, so much so that we require non-Arabs to tell us what Arabs’ lives are like?
This was not the only problem I have as a fan of Homeland; I also have trouble accepting Carrie and Brody as entirely credible characters.
I enjoy watching them play off of each other as Homeland’s crux is the dynamic between Carrie and Brody. The writers intelligently construct the entire show around a single relationship; to simply call it complicated would be an injustice to the show itself. Lewis plays Brody with a delicious duality, lying without a second thought to Carrie, his wife, his children, and even to himself. He keeps everyone under the dark about where his loyalty truly lies and yet maintains a respectable appearance, wearing a military uniform ironed to perfection. He is vulnerable yet dangerous, a loving father yet a terrible husband, claims to love his country yet actively assists Abu Nazir (who reportedly hates America) undergoes severe emotional and physical trauma, yet does not think twice about inflicting said trauma on others when necessary.
Furthermore, Carrie champions American nationalism with a self-righteousness that is frankly nauseating. She has no problem installing video and audio surveillance in Brody’s home to gather evidence against him, but does not forgive him when he lies to her about his identity. Her strongest conviction is that she, and only she, must defend America from all threats, internal and external, the foremost threat being Abu Nazir, whose name Claire Danes mispronounces with relish. Keep in mind that this character is a CIA agent, fluent in the Arabic language. As someone who has studied Arabic, it was annoying to hear Carrie speak as if she did not know the pronunciation of Arabic names. Surely, could the show afford an accent coach?
As we find out over the course of the first season, Carrie is volatile and unpredictable. Even after she finds out that Brody has been turned into a “terrorist”, (as he decides to change foreign policy from the inside out through becoming a congressman than through Abu Nazir-like violent revolution) she does not stop loving him. This was a very difficult pill for me to swallow, as I would expect a CIA agent to be a bit more logical. Even after she undergoes self-imposed Electro Convulsive Therapy after an emotional breakdown brought on by Brody’s violent rejection to her “spying” on him based on suspicion that he is a terrorist, she still goes back to working for the CIA. Even after suffering humiliation by her boss, David Estes, she risks her life to go to Beirut to investigate a link between the Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, which might lead to Abu Nazir.
Because according to the show, there is no other choice to save America; there is no one more skilled or more intuitive or even more emotionally stable in the entire Central Intelligence Agency than Carrie Mathison. As a person who is a critical thinker, this is truly difficult to buy.
One cannot help but question whether Carrie is a sadomasochist, who revels in the pain she actively puts herself through in the name of work because of her disorder or whether this is how the creators of Homeland believe CIA agents would be. Even more worrying, however, is the thought that this is how said creators believe CIA agents should be. And if that is truly their belief, are they selling us near-lies in the name of entertainment?
I agree that the premise is fascinating, designed to keep the audience on its toes, with deeply flawed and still likeable characters, uncomfortably involved in each other’s lives. However, as I quickly realized, and as you might have guessed by now, the show is engineered to appeal to a certain demographic, one which does not require much critical thinking or deep understanding of international affairs, instead requiring the audience to stomach giant leaps in implausibility.
For example, Carrie is not alone in the mispronunciation camp; often, Brody mispronounces the Arabic prayers which he learned from Abu Nazir. Surely Abu Nazir knows the correct way to pray in Arabic, considering he has been Muslim much longer than Brody! In one scene, Brody offers salaah with shoes on, which is a huge blooper. It would only take a quick Google search to confirm that Muslims must not wear shoes while praying. This is not to mention that Isa (pronounced Ee-saa), the Arabic name for Jesus is pronounced Ah-i-sa, repeatedly. In the first episode of the second season, Brody’s wife Jessica throws his copy of the English translation of the Quran on the floor, after finding out that Brody has converted to Islam. Aside from the fact that I flinched instinctively at this disrespect, albeit coming from a fictional character, I was taken aback by what Jessica says at this moment and by her sheer disgust at Brody’s new identity.
“This can’t happen. You have a wife, two kids. You’re in the running to become congressman. This can’t happen, you get that right?”
Yes, because being Muslim and an American politician are incongruous, right? You can’t possibly be human or sane if you’ve converted to Islam. I could only wonder what the writers were trying to say in this scene.
Jessica goes on to argue that Brody being Muslim would jeopardize their daughter Dana’s relationship with her boyfriend because, in her view, Dana would be stoned to death for pre-marital sex if she was Muslim. And let’s not get started on how it would affect the kids’ future if anyone found out their father was a Muslim. Jessica is more terrified at Brody’s new-found faith, than hurt that he has lied to her countless times.
This is what truly makes me nervous about Homeland’s premise, not the mispronunciations or the easily avoidable inaccuracies, but that it actively perpetuates Islamophobia. Carrie and Brody’s relationship is built on fear and distrust; both of them represent the “us vs. them” attitude.
Every Muslim character in the show is suspicious at best, a terrorist at worst. None of the Muslims, according to Homeland, can be trusted to run their households, much less run for political office. This propagates further misunderstanding and fear of Muslims in the minds of the audience. Instead of dispelling stereotypes, Homeland promotes them, actively selling Islamophobia in the name of thrill and action.
As a fan of the show, I feel compelled to discuss these inaccuracies and problems. As an American, I feel it both misrepresents Muslims in America and abroad and promotes Islamophobia to audiences worldwide. I hope that in the future, Homeland’s writers and directors prove to be less concerned with gimmicks than with fact. A nuanced, balanced, and fair representation of Muslims would only add credibility to the show and increase viewership. Who knows, maybe more Muslims like me would even like to watch it without having to criticize every episode.