The ‘Homeland’ Syndrome: Television, Ethnic Demonization, and the Rise of Islamic Extremism...

The ‘Homeland’ Syndrome: Television, Ethnic Demonization, and the Rise of Islamic Extremism in the West

By Kate Moran

Photo Credit: Flickr/GlobalPanorama

If you’re like millions of Americans, you were anxiously anticipating the Season 5 premiere of Homeland, which aired last night on Showtime. I too, couldn’t wait to tune in. For months, I’d been looking forward to Carrie Matheson’s return to primetime with her motley crew of CIA agents and agency assets.

But despite my love for the show, I’ve always been rather uncomfortable with Homeland’s portrayal of the Muslim world—from Arabs to Iranians and Pakistanis, the show’s most ubiquitous archetypes consist of angry, radicalized, bushy-browed men with hooked noses, and beautiful, veiled women who seem desperate to break free of the bondage of their fathers and brothers. It’s assumed that these caricatures are synonymous with Muslim culture at large.

And with the Season 5 premiere opening in predictable fashion—an ominous-looking man of clearly Middle Eastern descent skulks through a German train station and finds his way to a brothel—it got me thinking about the ways in which Western media and entertainment demonize minorities and perpetuate the cycle of marginalization that has led to a rise in Islamic extremist attacks in Europe.

Almost every crime and drama show produced in the post-9/11 era has contained some form of ethnic demonization—often blurring the lines between religion, culture, and nationality to forge a grotesque stereotype of “Muslim.” To those seeking to make a profit, misrepresentation of Muslims and an ever-increasing portrayal of a singular storyline—namely Muslim terrorist—is of no consequence. But what producers and screenwriters and even the actors themselves don’t realize—the vast majority of whom are not of Muslim heritage—is that the continued demonization and marginalization of Muslims in entertainment fuels extremist ideology and perpetuates a culture of “otherness” that is a main reason for the lone wolf attacks we’ve seen in recent months carried out by Islamist militants. Studies as early as 2007 show the negative effects of such social marginalization in EU member states; in every instance, increased marginalization was linked with upticks in violence by members of marginalized communities.

Sure, Homeland (and the dozens of shows like it) might make great television. But if these shows are also sowing seeds of extremism, is it worth it? A recent study published by Pew reveals that by 2050, Muslims will make up 30% of the global population, with 2.8 billion adherents. This number will essentially be on par with the global Christian population, which will comprise 2.9 billion followers at 31% of the population. By 2070, the world’s Muslim population will eclipse that of Christians. And in places like Europe, where birthrates have been rapidly dropping (and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future), these demographic shifts will appear even more drastic. By 2050, the Muslim population on the Continent will have doubled—to almost 10%; that’s 7.8 million believers.

Practically speaking, these numbers mean that continued marginalization and demonization of Muslim communities is a bad idea. This is neither new nor revolutionary information, but it seems to be the case that it must be reiterated nonetheless. Simply put, we are directly and significantly contributing to a culture of Islamic extremism in Europe and the United States by continuing to endorse and financially support the marginalization, discrimination, and misrepresentation of Muslims in our media and entertainment.

We cannot escape the implications of our actions; by watching television shows and movies that seek to portray Islam in a negative light and by failing to take a stand against blatant Islamophobia in our culture, we are paving the way for increased attacks—not just abroad, but in our own communities. By refusing to educate ourselves and provide a better path forward for the generations who will come after us, we are perpetuating a world order in which ignorance will fuel greater discrimination and greater violence. And this is why, despite my love and devotion to the first four seasons of Homeland, I won’t be tuning in to Season 5. Sorry, Carrie, but Islamophobia’s not cool. Instead, I’ll be putting my money (and my Netflix binge sessions) to better use by supporting filmmakers and arts projects that promote cross-cultural dialogue, not division, and who refuse to take the easy way out by relying on old, tired tropes that were never relevant in the first place.

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