Despite accusations from critics and scholars, the show doesn't reinforce stereotypes about "good" Americans and "evil" Arabs and Muslims—it challenges them.
This year's season premiere of Homeland, the award-winning Showtime drama about America's war on terror, features a telling exchange. At school, students discuss whether Israel was right to bomb Iran, an action it had recently taken in the show's fictional storyline. Several pupils line up to defend the strike:
STUDENT #1: I think sometimes military force is necessary. I mean, the Iranian president keeps saying he wants to wipe Israel off the map, so they have every right to defend themselves. STUDENT #2: Plus, the Arab religion doesn't value human life the way we do. I mean, we're the infidel, right? And these Arabs believe if they kill us, they get to go to heaven.
At this, Dana (Morgan Saylor), one of the show's main cast members, objects:
DANA: They're not Arabs. Iranians aren't Arabs, they're Persians.
STUDENT #2: Persians, Arabs—what's the difference? They both want the same thing, which is to annihilate us. Why shouldn't we hit them first? Maybe with a nuke or two of our own.
TEACHER: We don't tolerate name-calling.DANA: And what about mass murder? Do we tolerate that? I mean, because that's what he's really saying, isn't it? He's talking about turning Tehran into a parking lot.
By placing these sentiments in the mouth of one of its sympathetic leads, Homeland establishes from the outset that it has little patience for ignorant caricatures and stereotypes of Muslims, or for jingoistic rationales for the use of force against Muslim countries.
But you won't find this scene anywhere in Columbia University Middle Eastern Studies professor Joseph Massad's critique of the show. Massad's piece, published at Alternet under the title "Showtime's 'Homeland' Demonizes Arabs and Prepares Americans For Bombing Iran," is one of several recent attacks on Homeland that accuse the show of racism, Islamophobia, and knee-jerk militarism. In Salon, Al-Jazeera producer Laila Al-Arian dubbed it "TV's Most Islamophobic Show," while Peter Beaumont, the foreign affairs editor of The Guardian, claimed in a stinging column that "both Arabs and Islamists have been portrayed thus far as violent fanatics, some of whom are powerful and influential infiltrators."
Yet none of these critiques—all written long after the episode quoted above aired—make any attempt to grapple with the counter-evidence to their allegations of bigotry. In doing so, they miss what makes this show so valuable. That's because Homeland, which wrapped up its second season on Sunday, is no gung-ho salute to U.S. militarism and tactics in the war on terror, nor a black-and-white portrayal of "good" Americans versus "evil" Muslims. In fact, a closer look at the drama reveals just the opposite of what its critics claim: a show that challenges the prejudices of its viewers rather than affirming them.
First, is it really true that all Muslims and Arabs on the show are either terrorists or otherwise disreputable? Only if you discount all those characters who don't fit the thesis. To start with, there is Danny Galvez (Hrach Titizian), one of the CIA's analysts, who takes a bullet in a terrorist attack and is wrongfully suspected of aiding Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban)—the show's terrorist kingpin—simply because he is a Muslim of Lebanese descent. Tellingly, the name "Danny Galvez" appears in none of the critiques that accuse Homeland of peddling anti-Muslim tropes.
Likewise, the show's CIA protagonist Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), is aided by a longtime Muslim informant in Beirut, as well as the wife of a local imam in Washington D.C. (the imam himself refuses to assist Carrie not because he sympathizes with terrorists, but because he distrusts the authorities given their mistreatment of Muslims). And in its second season finale, the show makes a point of showcasing the U.S. Army Muslim chaplains who perform last rites over the body of Abu Nazir before his burial at sea.
Homeland also gives sympathetic treatment to the Muslim faith of Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis). While the character—an imprisoned marine who is initially turned to terrorism—oscillates between aiding Abu Nazir and ultimately siding with the CIA, his Muslim faith remains constant throughout and is shown to be independent of his political allegiances. To be fair, Homeland walks a fine line by having Brody take up both terrorism and Islam, but in the end, it shows that the two are wholly distinct. Thus, after Brody assists the CIA in finding and killing Abu Nazir, he is shown absorbed in morning prayers—a sight that deters a black-ops U.S. government assassin from shooting him.
Now, naturally, any television show about the modern war on terror in the Middle East is going to have Middle Eastern terrorists, both Arab and Muslim. Homeland certainly has those. But what's remarkable about the show is how many non-Arab and non-Muslim villains it features, including in the highest echelons of the US government and its security agencies. Most notably, there is the corrupt Vice President William Walden (Jamey Sheridan), who publicly lies about a drone strike that killed 83 children to further his political career and ultra-hawkish foreign policy, and the CIA counter-terrorism director David Estes (David Harewood) who helps him cover it up. In a conspiracy worthy of the feverish imagination of America's worst foes, the two even plot to assassinate Brody, who has knowledge of the strike, to prevent their wrongdoing from coming to light.
In other words, the show questions the security state, reveals the horrific collateral damage of America's drone program, and pointedly demonstrates how such unaccountable power can lead to corruption. In episode after episode, monochromatic moral thinking—an "us or them" mentality—is shown to be the true villain, rather than one particular nationality or ethnic group.
Yes, the show gets details of Islamic faith and Arab culture wrong. There are mispronunciations of Arabic names and phrases, flawed representations of religious rituals (as when Brody tenderly—but unnecessarily—buries a copy of the Qur'an that was thrown on the floor), and simplifications of the complex realities of the Middle East. But ignorance should not be mistaken for bigotry, any more than the show's mangled rendition of the Jewish mourning prayer of Kaddish in its season finale—recited by CIA officer Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) without the required prayer quorum, and with a line of nonsensical Aramaic at the end—should be mistaken for evidence of anti-Semitism. Error-ridden portrayals of religion are a common offense in Hollywood. More important, though, is whether faith is presented in good faith—which it is.
The best response, then, to perceived flaws in a well-intentioned show like Homeland is not shrill accusations of prejudice, but constructive suggestions for improvement. Because while there are shows that traffic in ethnic and religious stereotypes and promote superficial moral thinking, this simply isn't one of them.