A blonde, white Red Riding Hood lost in a forest of faceless Muslim wolves: This is how “Homeland’s” creators have chosen to represent their show as it begins its fourth season, which sees CIA officer Carrie Mathison stationed in Pakistan. It is also the perfect encapsulation of everything that’s wrong with this show.
Since its first episode, “Homeland,” which returns Sunday, has churned out Islamophobic stereotypes as if its writers were getting paid by the cliché. Yet the show, created by “24” veterans Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa and former Israeli paratrooper Gideon Raff, continues to rack up awards, critical praise and millions of viewers.
For starters, the show is riddled with basic errors about Islam and the Middle East. Laila Al Arian points out some of the more obvious ones: You don’t need to bury the Koran after someone’s dropped it on the ground; Issa, the son of terrorist leader Abu Nazir, has his name mispronounced by everyone on the show; Roya Hammad — there to remind us that even a Westernized, business-suit-wearing Arab is not to be trusted — is supposedly Palestinian but has a Persian first name.
More broadly, “Homeland” carelessly traffics in absurd and damaging stereotypes. The show hit peak idiocy, for instance, at the beginning of season two, when Beirut’s posh Hamra Street was depicted as a grubby generic videogame universe of Scary Muslims in which Mathison must disguise herself to avoid detection. The real Hamra Street is a cosmopolitan, expat-filled area near the American University, where Western chains like Starbucks and Gloria Jean’s compete for customers and no one would look twice at a blonde, blue-eyed white woman with uncovered hair. Islam itself is presented as sinister and suspicious: Brody secretly prays in his garage to foreboding music, and an imam who’s outraged that worshippers were shot during a police operation at his mosque turns out to be hiding information about Brody’s fellow POW-turned-terrorist Tom Walker.
These errors all add up to something important: The entire structure of “Homeland” is built on mashing together every manifestation of political Islam, Arabs, Muslims and the whole Middle East into a Frankenstein-monster global terrorist threat that simply doesn’t exist.
The arch villain of season one is Abu Nazir, a member of al-Qaeda (and obvious bin Laden stand-in) who’s plotting an attack on the United States with the possible help of Marine-turned-terrorist Nicholas Brody. At the beginning of season two, we see Abu Nazir meeting with a Hezbollah leader (who’s also a wife-beater, naturally) in Beirut. And in season three we learn that a deadly bomb attack on CIA headquarters was in fact financed by the Iranian government, and that terrorism suspect Brody is being hidden in rogue state Venezuela.
In just a few steps, the show has neatly stitched together all the current bogeymen of U.S. foreign policy. (The ISIS tie-in is presumably coming in season five.)
There’s just one small problem: Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah don’t actually like each other. Hezbollah is currently fighting the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Iran and al-Qaeda were on opposite side of the sectarian war in Iraq in the mid-2000s. And at the moment, the United States is de facto cooperating with Iran to prop up the Shia central government of Iraq against the Sunni forces of ISIS.
But all of this is way too nuanced for “Homeland,” in which Muslims can play one of exactly two roles: terrorists or willing collaborators with U.S. intelligence forces. (This latter role is repeatedly filled by women on the show, who of course need the CIA’s protection from their violent Muslim husbands, epitomized by the murderous Majid Javadi in season three.) When Brody’s wife discovers he’s a Secret Muslim and waves the Koran at him, shouting, “These are the people who tortured you!” she’s not just being melodramatic. She’s expressing the show’s core philosophy. Muslims — be they Arab, Iranian or Pakistani — are brutal terrorists who can’t be trusted, and they’re all out to get us.
It’s easy to argue that “Homeland” is just a TV show, a thriller that naturally demands diabolical villains and high stakes. But these same stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims are used politically to justify actions in the real world — U.S. wars, covert operations and drone strikes; CIA detention and torture; racist policing, domestic surveillance and militarized borders. In this context, “Homeland” is not just mindless entertainment, but a device that perpetuates racist ideas that have real consequences for ordinary people’s lives.