In the wake of sweeping Emmy wins for Homeland, Showtime has decided to pick up its hit show for a third season—exciting news for the millions of viewers who tune in each week to watch the show, but not so exciting for Lebanon’s Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Homeland tells the story of CIA agent Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) who becomes convinced that Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a newly released prisoner of war, is not only affiliated with Al Qaeda, which he is, but also a chief participant in a terrorist plot planned to take place on American soil, which he is.
In response to a recent episode, “Beirut is Back,” Abboud, along with other Lebanese officials, has threatened to sue the show over its negative depiction of Beirut as a war-torn hub for terrorist activity. And they are right to be upset. In Homeland, not only is Beirut the setting for an underground meeting between Al Qaeda leader Abu Nazir and his Lebanese accessories, but it is also a seemingly uncontrolled terrorist hangout—as depicted in the almost unwarranted mob attack on an American Intelligence car parked outside a Beirut home.
Such a portrayal is so infuriating to Lebanese officials because, as Abboud said in an interview with Executive Magazine, “Beirut is one of the most secure capitals in the world,” and the depiction is “not fair to us and it’s not true”—a completely reasonable claim. Even in a fictional show, with fictional terrorists and a fictional American government, the portrayal of a real location as laden with terrorists is damaging in its overt misrepresentation and its ability to fuel American prejudice.
What makes this show so thrilling, so hair-raising, is its ability to sophisticatedly breathe life into all the entrenched misconceptions, fears and mysteries that surround the Middle East—a terrorist-laden Beirut seems, quite honestly, to just make sense to American viewers.
Yet, this misrepresentation of Beirut only begins the long list of misrepresentations perpetuated by Homeland. Although the show does a good job of humanizing Abu Nazir, the aforementioned Iraqi Al Qaeda leader, all other Arab villains are one-dimensional—either faceless, voiceless terrorists or corrupt, unlikable Arab elitists. And although Homeland has its fair share of white terrorists—Sergeant Brody and Aileen Morgan to name a few—Homeland takes time to explore the intricate psychologies of white terrorists. Aileen Morgan was motivated into treason by love, Brody a crusader against the appalling negligence of U.S. Foreign Policy. Their stories are worth telling whereas the Arab terrorists’ are not. The Middle Eastern terrorists are plain, homogenous, all driven by one irrational and angry cause.
In “Beirut is Back,” Matheson gets a tip about Nazir’s whereabouts from one of her informants, an unhappy wife who gives up Nazir and her husband to the CIA. And why does she do this? Because he is abusive and cruel. What a surprise. Hasn’t this characterization—the abusive Middle Eastern husband—been used enough? And what’s worse is that he never appears in person on the show; we are forced to believe that he is, in fact, a horrible, woman-hating man.
Like so many other Arab villains in the show, Nazir’s character is pre-established, un-nuanced and voiceless. Although his role within Homeland’s plot is so small as to be almost negligible, his role as an abusive Arab husband nevertheless kindles misconceptions.
Perhaps the most dangerous stereotype, however sophisticated its portrayal may be, is Sergeant Brody’s conversion to Islam, as if he could not fully align with Al Qaeda without a necessary switch in religion as well. Although in many cases, Islam represents a positive, empowering force in Brody’s life, he is nevertheless a terrorist and a Muslim; the association is clear and direct, deliberately connecting Islam with terrorism.
And the worst part about all of this is that Homeland is an amazing show in itself. The acting is excellent; the two leading characters, agent Matheson and Sergeant Brody, are emotionally complex, conflicted and fascinating to observe; the subject matter is relevant and compelling. Yet, in spite of its critical acclaim, Homeland has major flaws within the broader context of today’s political climate; though a remarkably sophisticated series, Homeland successfully perpetuates American prejudices, which we easily accept and quickly absorb without even noticing.