The Night Of's Timely Portrayal of Islamophobia

The HBO miniseries portrays religious hatred as just one ever-multiplying cause and effect of injustice.

Chandra and Nasir of 'The Night Of'
Craig Blankenhorn / HBO

HBO’s The Night Of has been in production for nearly four years, but by grim luck—or, more likely, the intractability of the issues it deals with—it has proven eerily relevant for the summer of 2016. Just as the crime-and-justice miniseries gets around to focusing on Islamophobia while portraying the story of a young Pakistani American accused of murder, real-world headlines about religious hatred seem to support the show’s contention that injustice will only ever perpetuate itself if people don’t rise above their impulses.

Reports say that alleged hate crimes and profiling against Muslims have risen following the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Just in the past week in America: a Lebanese American man was shot and killed on his porch by a neighbor known to have ranted about “dirty Arabs” and “Mooslems”; a rally was held for two Chicago women who said they were assaulted by someone who accused them of being part of ISIS; and an imam and his assistant were murdered in broad daylight in what their community suspects is a hate crime, although police have yet to ascribe a motive to the perpetrator.

That last incident happened in Queens, New York, where The Night Of’s fictional protagonist Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed) and his hardworking first-generation immigrant family live. In the show’s premiere, Nas was harassed on a Manhattan street by a passersby who called him a terrorist. In the most recent episode, sixth in the eight-part series, viewers learned that Nas’s trial inspired someone to drag a Pakistani driver out of his cab and beat him with a brick—a development that also has parallels in actual news events.

Some critics have wondered whether the show’s portrayal of Islamophobia has been cartoonish. Would, for example, a witness in a murder investigation really be so openly prejudiced as to refer to “this towelhead” in an interview with a detective? But the recent spate of real-world hate crime allegations, and the statements of some Donald Trump supporters this election season, remind that particular bias does frequently get aired without any filter at all.

The Night Of’s insights include pointing out the American tendency to classify entire swaths of the world with one label, erasing enormous ethnic and religious differences to the extent where Sikhs and Hindus are targeted in anti-Muslim crimes. Nas’s lawyer Chandra (Amara Karan) is Indian, but her boss, Alison (Glenne Headly), selects her to work on the case because her ethnicity is “close enough” to Pakistani. In the social backdrop against which the case unfolds, Alison isn’t necessarily wrong: Chandra tells Nas that she, like him, has had to deal with Islamophobia. Even her ally, the lawyer John Stone (John Turturro), assumes she doesn’t drink alcohol. “That’s Muslims,” she replies. “I’ll drink anything.”

This latest episode also delved into the long-term effects of living as a feared minority. In high school, it was revealed, Nas threw a classmate down a flight of stairs. Explaining to Chandra what happened, he said, “I was in 5th grade when the towers came down. I didn’t understand why I was getting beat up, why my little brother was, why my dad got jumped in his cab twice. Pakistani kids, North African kids, any type of Muslim, it was a slaughterhouse. You tried to fight back, it only made it worse.”

Nas continued, “I didn’t have a fight with Steve Diaz, I just shoved him down those stairs. Why? Because I just did. I wish I could tell you something else, but I just did it. It was like pushing open a door. You just push it.”

It’s a remarkably frank piece of writing, one that doesn’t point blame but rather sketches a web of recrimination familiar to real cycles of violence: Unthinking cruelty begets unthinking cruelty begets unthinking cruelty, on and on. In this, Islamophobia and its effects are part of The Night Of’s larger exploration of how negative events multiply almost automatically. The exact circumstances around the plot’s inciting murder remain murky, but the chain of events following Nas’s arrest have been meticulously documented to seem near-inevitable. Like clockwork, he’s denied bail and sent to prison. Like clockwork, prison turns him into a criminal. Like clockwork, his family’s lives unravel.

And, like clockwork, a Muslim being accused of murder inspires anti-Muslim crimes around the city. The senselessness of this is profound. Even if Nas did commit murder, it almost certainly wasn’t for religious ideology. Whatever his tendency toward violence may turn out to be, it seems rooted in his mistreatment by society—the exact sort of mistreatment now further perpetuated on other Muslims.

But any grinding chain of causation can be momentarily rerouted, the show suggests, by individual decisions. Sometimes it’s in small ways, like when a police detective gives Nas his asthma inhaler on the night of his arrest. Sometimes it’s in bigger ones, like when Nas ignores Alison’s advice and chooses not to take a very generous plea deal that would force him to falsely confess. These moments bring risk, but also opportunities for grace. When Alison quits because Nas defied her, in step the scrappier John and Chandra, partly out of material need and professional obligation but also, it seems, out of a genuine desire to help.

You wish that such humanity were on display from the employers of Nas’s mother, who fire her because of the murder case. Or the colleagues of Nas’s father, who won’t bargain with him to sell his portion of their taxi medallion to a third party at its full price. But they have a grudge against him, and if the tangle of The Night Of’s plot has made anything clear it’s that grudges—whether based in personal betrayals or prison politics or religious resentment—are nearly unstoppable sources of greater misery.