Homeland, Showtime’s highest-rated drama, returns to edify American viewers about jihadist motivation this month. A Hollywood-style take on a POW turned Muslim subversive, the producers call it “an exploration of terrorism, intelligence analysis, and paranoia in the post-9/11 era.” Though Homeland makes for titillating television, viewers should beware of its questionable political agenda and puerile take on radicalization.
Homeland is based on the Israeli Prisoners of War (POW), a wrenching examination of three captive soldiers and the complexities of their re-entry into the world. Homeland’s Muslim subversive, U.S. Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, is an awkward amalgamation of three prisoners profoundly contrasted in POW who have different demeanors and return to different family realities (one in a coffin). In lieu of these riveting characters, Homeland features paranoid CIA agent “crazy Carrie” Mathison, and the tired theme of U.S. government malfeasance. In the end, Homeland bears little resemblance to POW, where national security implications play (thus far) a secondary role. In fact, the whole idea of Homeland’s turned-Muslim subversive may have been plucked from the last few minutes of the Israeli POW’s season finale.
The characterization of Brody and his path to radicalization is rife with “teachable” moments rendered in a persona with whom Americans can readily identify. The premise is that, after years of barbaric torture, Brody is given a luxurious bath that somehow washes away his identity as an American soldier with a wife and kids. He then embraces Islam and befriends his torturer’s son.
Brody bonds with the boy, and pursuant to the boy’s death from an errant U.S. missile, Brody pledges allegiance to his bin Laden-like terrorist father, Abu Nazir. Why Brody should blame the United States rather than the father, a targeted terror mastermind with few qualms about exposing his child to harm, is never explained. Yet co-producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa ask us to accept that this is what animates Brody’s path of revenge. Ironically, in reality several U.S. strikes against Osama bin Laden were aborted for fear of collateral damage.
“We wanted to, as much as possible, decouple the association between terrorism and Islam,” declares Gordon. The “decoupling” is performed by portraying Brody’s conversion to Islam as purely spiritual. “You live in despair for eight years, you might turn to religion, too. And the King James Bible was not available,” Brody tells Carrie. Islam “wasn’t a stepping-stone toward any terrorist behavior. It was a way of maintaining his sanity…,” notes Ganza. Brody may be both a Muslim and a terrorist, but he’s not a terrorist solely because he is Muslim.
Rather than “decoupling” Islam from terrorism, the bias is re-enforced since Brody turns out to be both. Although we first learn that Brody is a Muslim, and only discover in a later episode that he is a terrorist, setting these two events in different episodes does little to “decouple” them. The producers hope that if viewers spend some time contemplating only his Muslim faith, it will engender the perception that Brody’s transformation into a terrorist is entirely coincidental to his newfound religion.
The storyline errs in its eagerness to convey that the zeal for avenging injustice has more staying power than religious motivation, which remains the elephant in the living room of Homeland. Brody is not a jihadist but a seeker of vengeance with a “legitimate grievance,” extending beyond his release and driving his actions. However, absent the religious component, the goal of empathy with jihadists fails, since they do commit terror in the name of their religion, Islam.
This concept of an anti-American terrorist who is only incidentally Muslim isn’t the only thing about Brody that makes little real-world sense. The hope of retribution supplants the hope of reuniting with loved ones, widely recognized as vital to surviving captivity. Following his release, Brody is indifferent to his family and even has an affair with the CIA agent tracking him. By contrast, the Israeli POW emphasizes the crucial role of hope when a fiancé who since married is asked to remove her wedding ring and reside in another home to ameliorate the returning POW’s rehabilitation.
The ideological feat of Homeland is that it is well-received by hawks and doves alike. One “hawkish” writer believes that “Homeland is in some ways a truer depiction of the All-American Muslim”; while a “dovish” one claims, “Homeland … feels surprisingly grounded in the world we live in.” The former focuses on Brody’s actions, while the latter appreciates the empathy story elucidating his motives. They succeed in creating a politically acceptable Muslim protagonist who pleases everyone and offends none, an understandable ambition after the criticism that these two 24 producers endured.
In explicating the thinking behind Homeland, Gordon opines that since 24 came out, “the world is more complex, and our understanding of it is more nuanced… and there’s a gray space of not knowing who the good guys and bad guys are.” Therefore, he asks, “Should we be afraid of the same things we were afraid of 10 years ago?” The answer is yes, we should still be afraid. We are no safer by empathizing with pseudo-jihadists or accepting blame. We can only hope that our intelligence agents do not watch Homeland.
Homeland succeeds as a thrilling series if one suspends disbelief about its premise. While it makes for great television, it should not be considered a plausible tale of the path to Islamic radicalization.
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