Muslims on TV seen through terror prism

Whether they're good characters or bad, Muslims on TV are seen through the lens of terror.

On Dec. 4, as cable news was filled with live images of reporters tearing through the apartment of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the husband and wife who killed 14 in San Bernardino, Calif., some Muslims were sharing pictures of their cats on social media in response.

"Visually, I was troubled by the footage when journalists entered the couple's home. It was troubling to see how simply a Quran or a prayer rug was seen as evidence of terroristic tendencies," said Evelyn Alsultany, director of Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan.

"Someone actually sent me a link where Muslims were responding on Twitter and showing images of their cats, saying, 'Here's my Muslim cat who's a terrorist,' trying to poke fun at the way in which it was portrayed."

While Alsultany laughed at that response, she used it to illustrate a serious finding at the heart of her research into media images of Arabs and Muslims since 9/11: No matter how varied or even sympathetic depictions might appear to be, Arabs and Muslims are almost always linked in some way to terrorism.

After 14 years of such depictions in prime-time series and TV news, that's a lot of imagery and a strong linkage in the public mind — a psychological connection that's not likely to be broken by a few words from the president calling for tolerance in a TV address.

Media attention turned this week to the inflammatory words of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as he proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country. Yet there has been almost no analysis of the media imagery since 9/11 that has colored the mindset of those hearing his words.

If you are wondering how a leading candidate for the highest office in the land could talk the way Trump has about Arabs and Muslims and still be atop the polls, Alsultany's 2012 book, "Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11" (New York University Press), starts to offer some nuanced answers. It also suggests how difficult it is to change attitudes once they have been shaped and hardened by a wall of consistent media imagery over a period of years.

"After 9/11, I had expected there to be more stereotypical images of Muslims as terrorists in the media, and there have been," Alsultany said in a phone interview this week. "But I was surprised when I also saw more sympathetic images as well."

In puzzling out that counterintuitive finding, Alsultany said she "identified a new trend, which is that if there is a terrorist theme with a Muslim or Arab as a terrorist, the writers and producers will typically throw in another Arab and Muslim character to try and defuse the stereotype."

One type of character added for balance, she said, "is usually someone who is extremely patriotic in this very narrow sense."

She offered Fara Sherazi (Nazanin Boniadi), a CIA financial analyst in Seasons 3 and 4 of "Homeland," as an example.

"She's working for the CIA. She did risk her life — she's killed on the show — to help the United States fight terrorism," Alsultany said. "It's not a complicated portrait of patriotism. It's just someone who is 100 percent pro-government-U.S.A."

The other character type often added "is an innocent Arab-American who's been victimized by post-9/11 hate."

Sherazi, whose Muslim garb initially triggered hostility in Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), embodies both.

"There are other things writers and producers have done to make their characters more complex," Alsultany said. "They have white characters as terrorists instead of always Arab and Muslim. They've made an effort to avoid the blatant stereotypes. But the big question is: What kind of impact is it having?"

The post-9/11 history of Muslim and Arabs in entertainment television is mixed.

Fox's "24" debuted in November 2001, and spoke directly to the anger many Americans were feeling in the raw aftermath of 9/11. It was by far the most one-dimensional and anti-Arab of the major TV productions.

Some weeks, it seemed to be only about avenging that 2001 act of terrorism, as it reveled in the violence and torture Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) inflicted on Arabs, Muslims and anyone else identified with terrorism. And it ran for 192 episodes in eight seasons.

But by 2005, Showtime was offering America's first Muslim hero in "Sleeper Cell" with Darwyn Al-Hakim (Michael Ealy), a blue-eyed African-American Muslim who was a federal undercover agent. Al-Hakim was a multi-layered, complex character, and the series included Muslim writers on staff.

"Sleeper Cell" lasted for 18 episodes in two seasons, which is not a bad run in premium cable. But it never caught on in a major way.

More daring in its assault on stereotypes, but less widely known, was Comedy Central's "Axis of Evil" show and tour featuring Arab and Muslim-American comedians.

"There's a part of us that does comedy because we're angry at several things, not only some of the policies of our government, but the way we're portrayed in the world," Ahmed Ahmed, an Egyptian-American comedian, said in a 2007 Sun interview. "So every time we go onstage, we say, 'OK, here's our 15 minutes to really tell the people we're talking to who we are and what we're about.'"

"Homeland" debuted in 2011 and raised the dramatic bar considerably. There's a reason it won Emmys for best writing, best lead actress, best lead actor and best drama in 2012. It was and still is an outstanding production.

Muslim and Arab identity is always seen in the context of terrorism on "Homeland" — that's a virtual given with the premise of the series. And just like the MSNBC reporters in the apartment of the dead terrorists, the producers of "Homeland" used a Quran and prayer rug to signify the radicalization of Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis).

But a snapshot of how intelligent "Homeland" could also be in its storytelling comes from the first episode in Season 4 titled "Drone Queen." Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), the station chief in Kabul, calls in an airstrike on a suspected terrorist.

As villagers begin the rescue and cleanup, they place bodies on biers. Viewers of "Homeland" see the biers on a big screen in the CIA war room in Kabul. The point of view is from a camera on a drone hovering over the village.

As we look down on the carnage the airstrike caused, a young man standing next to the bier of his mother looks up at the drone and seems to make eye contact with the U.S. officials in the war room — and those of us watching at home. It is a complex, brilliant and unsettling moment that flips point of view and makes American viewers complicit in the deaths caused by U.S. drones.

Said Alsultany: "It's not necessarily that I'm criticizing 'Homeland' for doing something bad. ... I think the writers and producers have been trying to do innovative things. But somehow the impact isn't there. And I think the reason the impact isn't there is because there are just too many story lines of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists."

For some viewers, those recurring story lines from the past 14 years of entertainment TV are finding resonance with the recent news out of Paris and San Bernardino. And that's an even more powerful one-two punch.

This week, you couldn't go online without seeing the ominous images of Farook and Malik and reading or hearing about pipe bombs, assault rifles, ISIS and death.

"And now, we have instances that confirm the idea of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists, which is then leading to more Islamophobia, more hatred against Arabs and Muslims, putting Arabs and Muslims in the position of having to defend their identity and explain to people they are not terrorists," said Alsultany.

From his reality-TV roots to his constant appearances on CNN, MSNBC and Fox, Trump is the purest TV candidate the nation has ever known. It is no coincidence that the fear he taps into with his anti-Muslim rhetoric is a fear TV has amplified, if not instilled, in the minds of its viewers.

In part, that's how Donald Trump says the kinds of things he does about Muslims and Arabs and stays atop the polls. TV has prepared the ground for his ugly message.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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