Breaking Down The Criticism Against 'Homeland:' Is It Islamophobic?
You’d think a show that revolves around Middle Eastern terrorism would be more careful about how they portray and engage with Muslims, but sometimes things slip up in a big way. This week, Showtime’s hit show Homeland made headlines for a recent episode’s curious use of graffiti plastered on the wall of a fictional Syrian refugee camp. The art is only visible briefly as C.I.A. officer Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) walks past the camp, but attentive viewers fluent in Arabic were quick to take note of the writing. It translates to some less than friendly messages about the show: “ ‘Homeland’ is racist,” “There is no ‘Homeland’ ” and “ ‘Homeland’ is not a show.”
As the discussion reignites over the show’s often-controversial portrayals of the Middle Eastern community and the Muslim religion, it’s important take a closer look at the critiques levied against the show and discuss the pop culture influence Homeland has had on Islamophobia.
The Graffiti Artists Who Sparked A Dialogue
As social media began erupting over the graffiti messages on Wednesday, a trio of artists stepped forward to claim credit. Heba Y. Amin, Caram Kapp, and Stone released a statement on Amin’s website explaining their decision to infiltrate the show to voice their frustrations. The protest against false and misleading stereotypes perpetuated on the show began when the producers sought out “Arabian street artists” to create Arabic political graffiti for the show. The trio threw out the images of graffiti supporting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria that they had been provided with, and instead used their paint to air out grievances with the show.
Throughout filming and post-production, nobody on set seemed to notice that the graffiti was a direct criticism of the show. This mistake came as no surprise to Amin, who explained that “Arabic script is merely a supplementary visual that completes the horror-fantasy of the Middle East, a poster image dehumanizing an entire region to human-less figures in black burkas and moreover, this season, to refugees.” This biting critique takes aim at a longstanding frustration that has plagued the show since it began in 2011.
Unpacking the Criticism
Four years and nearly five seasons of watching Danes run around the Middle East to hunt down terrorists has, naturally, brought about a fair bit of backlash. Amidst claims of Islamophobia and stereotyping, three scholars have been at the forefront of critiquing the show’s representation problem. Deepa Kumar, an Associate Professor of Media Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University; Laila Al Arian, a journalist and co-author of the book “Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians;” and Laura Durkay, a New York City-based writer, filmmaker and activist, have all spoken out about the show on a number of occasions. The show has been called out on a list of problems long enough to make Santa Claus sweat.
Homeland has been relentless in its perpetuation of negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims that began taking hold in post-9/11 America. The first season’s narrative reinforced the belief that anyone who can be identified as “Muslim” is not to be trusted—no matter what their actual race or creed is. Over the years writers seem to have tried working on this problem, but lowkey Islamophobia is still a visible plot device. Arian, Kumar, and Durkay have all levied heavy criticism against this issue and helped point out that the entire concept of the show is based on fallacy. As Durkay explains:
“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 misrepresentation isn’t contained to just the people inhabiting the region, either. Just like the show’s current situation with a fictitious Syrian refugee camp, Homeland faced intense scrutiny and backlash after they portrayed the city of Beirut as an orientalist nightmare filled with gun-touting men in checkered headdresses and women in head-to-toe hijab outfits. The reality is that the city is lined with Starbucks, H&M’s, cafes, nightclubs, and men and women wearing all manner of outfits. The lazy portrayal of the city as a terrorist hotbed pissed off Lebanese officials so much, they threatened a lawsuit.
Homeland’s International Influence on Islamophobia
Add all of these criticisms together, and you’ve got a recipe for disastrous storytelling, and the very real possibility that the show is contributing to a culture of Islamophobia. In the aftermath of 9/11, violence against Muslims or people perceived as Muslims has skyrocketed, and shows no sign of waning. One need only look at the controversial marketing for the fourth season of the show to see how anti-Muslim sentiment has become central to its narrative. The poster serves up heavy Little Red Riding Hood vibes that left many wondering what message the producers were trying to achieve. Danes is the wide-eyed image of white innocence, surrounded by a sea of black-clad Muslim women—she is the visual antithesis of the dangerous Middle Eastern wolves that surround her.
The common argument against the type of cultural criticism leveled toward Homeland is that it’s just a TV show. Supporters of the show may argue that it doesn’t need to be realistic because it’s a fictional drama, but I would assert that that rationale is not only lazy, but dangerous. Mosques have burned and people have been murdered because of the Islamophobia perpetuated through news media and pop culture. Refugees have been turned away because of this senseless fear and hatred. In a year where anti-Islam rallies have become commonplace, it’s time for shows like Homeland to take responsibility for the message they broadcast to viewers.
Images via Showtime, Heba Y. Amin, and Jim Fiscus.