Islamophobia in "Homeland"? Analysis of the Popular US TV Series

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

30 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Understanding Islamophobia

3. The Media and (Fictional) Stereotyping

4. Islamophobia in TV and Film?

5. Homeland and Islamophobia

6. Conclusion

Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Following the events of 9/11 the increasing number of Muslim immigrants living in western countries were met with a growing hostility. “Islamophobia” has become a wide known word and phenomenon in the last few years; many academic and non-academic works have been published on it. As data from the American National Corpus suggests, the term’s use has nearly increased incrementally over the last decade (cf. Davis). Political institutions such as the EUMC (European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia) or the UN have acknowledged and warned about the rising problem of islamophobia (Esposito xxiii).

In public discourse, being Muslim is sometimes considered as something inherently “bad” and it is connected with stereotypes such as “terrorists” or “female oppression”. This is especially evident in the run-up to the US presidential elections, in which Republican candidate Ben Carson suggested that a Muslim would not be fit to be elected as president (cf. Bicker 2015). The Media has long been said to influence stereotyping, but what scientific evidence is there to be found for this claim? What is the relationship between stereotyping and islamophobia? And would fictional media, such as TV series or movies, have a different or even no effect at all on stereotyping? And if it has an effect, how are Muslims or Islam depicted in the entertainment world?

This essay’s first aim is to establish a closer definition of islamophobia. After that it will seek to address the aforementioned questions and investigate how Muslims are portrayed in US TV series and movies. Finally, it will analyse one episode of the popular US TV series “Homeland” and try to determine if it can be classified as islamophobic using the previously established definitions.

2. Understanding Islamophobia

Many scholarly works have been written about islamophobia; the authors work in a variety of different fields: There are sociological, historical, political, theological and even pedagogical studies about islamophobia (cf. the large variety of works and authors contained in Esposito and Schneiders). Unsurprisingly, a large number of definitions of what exactly constitutes islamophobia, exist. “Islamophobia” in its modern meaning is a rather recent creation: First mentioned in Dinet and Ibrahim’s 1925 work Accès de Délire Islamophobe about Muhammed (cf. Allen 5), the term was not used in the same context as it is used today. It did not resurface in the main public and political discourse until the 1997’s report of the “Runnymede Trust Commission” (cf. Allen 15). Islamophobia is a complex phenomenon and multi-layered concept; it cannot be explained by one definition alone. Thus, in the following, I will provide a closer discussion of “islamophobia”. Firstly, common definitions of islamophobia will be established and discussed. Secondly, historical factors and their relevance towards modern islamophobia will be investigated.

When the question of defining islamophobia arises, the 1997 report of the Runnymede Trust Commission is often mentioned (Allen 3, Zebiri 12, Taras 3-4, and Esposito xxii). In this report, the most basic definition of islamophobia is given as an “unfounded hostility towards Islam” (The Runnymede Report Commission 4) [1] and the exclusion of Muslims in political and social life. The authors argue that while the term is not the most ideal - critics suggest that it hinders criticism of Islam - it is needed to describe the rising hostility of anti-Muslim sentiments (RTC 4). A fundamental problem exists when defining islamophobia (cf. Schneiders 14-15, Zebiri 5, and Runnymede 4): How do you separate legitimate criticism and disagreement of Islam from an “unfounded hostility” (RTC 4)? The RTC suggests using the classification of “open” (4) and “closed” (4) views to differentiate between the two[2]: “Phobic dread if Islam is the recurring characteristic of closed views. Legitimate disagreement and criticism, as also appreciation and respect, are aspects of open views.” (RTC 4) The report then states eight different points of comparison (see table 1) that can be either measured in their degree of openness or closeness of views about Islam. E.g. the first element says that closed views see Islam as one single entity that is not subject to change whereas open views include seeing Islam as “diverse and progressive, with internal differences, debates and development” (RTC 5). Other closed views of the RTC’s report include seeing Islam as an aggressive enemy, acting as a separate entity and sharing no roots with Western civilization, inferior and deceiving. These eight views are not to be seen separately, rather they are closely interconnected. (RTC 4)

However, Allen sees faults in the concept introduced by the 1997 report (cf. 71). He argues that the terms “open” and “closed” are quite similar to markers like “us” and “them” and that this differentiation leads to the construction of a new bipolarity, islamophobia and “islamophilia” (71). Allen himself does not disregard “islamophobia” as a term but the existing definitions: Arguing that the RTC’s report offered few analyses on the subject matter (cf. 65), he explores a new definition of the term using Robert Miles work on racism and aims to arrive at a definition that is more closely backed by empirical research (cf. 159). This new definition (cf. 190) sees islamophobia as an ideology that acts similar to racism in its theory, purpose and function. Not necessarily equal to older, historical discourses, it influences social (inter-)action, attitudes and perception in the “social consensus” (190), which affect the way that Islam and Muslims are constructed as the “Other” (190). Furthermore, islamophobia is not restricted to forms of explicit dominance (e.g. by the government) but may appear (more importantly) in contemporary daily life. It manifests itself in “exclusionary practices” (190) in the social, economic and political life. However, for an exclusionary practice to be classified as islamophobic, a link to the element of either “Muslim” or “Islam” must have been established (cf. 190).

Schneiders first defines a “hostility of Islam” (14), which is akin to the “closed views” of the RTC’s report. The opposite of this is defined by him as a “glorification of Islam” (14) which serves to silence legitimate criticism of Islam. In this construction, it is similar to the “bipolar” or “binary” concept of islamophobia / islamophilia that is criticized by Allen.

The original RTC’s report mentions that there have been anti-Muslims sentiments in past times (4), yet it does not elaborate on these findings further and purely concentrates on islamophobia in the modern age (1). However, as highlighted by various sources and later acknowledged in the 2004 follow-up report to the RTC’s report (cf. Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia 7), the past plays an essential role in the creation of modern islamophobia (Al-Shaik-Ali 145 and Allen 25). With a more concise definition of islamophobia established, a brief look at the historical or theological backgrounds of it shall be made because of their significance towards a more in-depth understanding of islamophobia.

Naumann, an evangelical theologian, states that islamophobia incorporates fears of the Western world that date back to the rapid Muslim expansion of the 7th century which resulted in a shock for the Christian countries that still resonates today. He also stresses the significance of “pre-made beliefs” (Naumann 20) as they shape and influence our perception and view of the world. (Naumann 19-22) Höfert locates the roots of seeing Islam as something fundamentally different in the early modern age: Firstly, the “Turks” (Höfert 63), a term used synonymously for all Muslims, were seen as harbingers of the apocalypse after the conquest of Byzantium. (Höfert 60-63). Secondly, using ethnographic discourses about the Ottoman Empire, differences in the two religions were highlighted to distinguish between “true” and “false” beliefs (Höfert 68).

Similar themes were brought up by the Elizabethan Arthur Dent, who warned of the dangers of the “cruel Turk[s]” (qtd. in Taras 3) for Christianity and their “barbarous inhumanity” (qtd. in Taras 3). Not only limited to theological or historical discourses, the origins of islamophobia can also be found in artistic or literary works. Books like the (still popular) 19th century German Karl May novels portrayed Muslims as “brutal, backwards and depraved” (Naumann 33), served to establish Europe’s political and economic feeling of superiority and continue to influence modern views on Islam (cf. Naumann 33). Anas Al-Shaikh-Ali examined “classical works” (Al-Shaik-Ali 147) of literature that are not known for their exceptional style or artistry, but because of the impact they had and continue to have on islamophobia (cf. Al-Shaik-Ali 147). While these authors constitute just a small sample size of the historical and literary research, the prevailing idea is that islamophobia has its origins in centuries old discourses. Stereotypes have been handed down over the centuries and are revisited in modern times.

3. The Media and (Fictional) Stereotyping

As mentioned in the introduction to this essay, the media has long been said to influence the creation of stereotypes. Because stereotypes also play an important role in islamophobia (as shown in Chapter 2), the question on if and how the media influences stereotyping is not without interest. But what scientific evidence is there for the alleged role of the media in the construction of stereotypes?

Constructivists have argued that there is no “pure” (Murphy 167) perception of the world; rather perception is said to be an individual process. However, the sharing of similar stereotypes among different people may imply that there are similarities in the way that the world is being perceived. Research suggests the mass media contributes to the even distribution of these stereotypes. (Murphy 166-167) Murphy argues that many studies were concerned with proving the extent of stereotyping in the media but few researched its impact (168). A 1996 study by Power, Murphy and Cover proved that people are influenced by a stereotypic or counterstereotypic portrayal of a group (in the study, women and African Americans) in any subsequent, unrelated evaluation of the group. The opposite results were found with counterstereotypic portrayals, assigning the blame more often to external reasons. Persons who read a stereotypical biographical account of a woman or African American were more likely to assign blame to other members of this group in unrelated media cases (or, additionally for women, in general views on the topic of spousal abuse) and vice versa. (Murphy 167-169)

Power, Murphy and Cover’s study clearly shows the effects that (counter-) stereotyping has. However, it can be quite understandably argued that this study only proved the effects of non-fictional media on unrelated cases. The participants were given no reason to believe the text they were given was fictional. As this paper focuses on the construction of stereotypes in fictional media (such as TV series and movies), does this not discard the relevance of Murphy's findings?

In a follow-up study, Murphy used simultaneously gathered data to explore the effects of fictional and non-fictional media on men and women in their evaluation of unrelated media cases. Some of the participants were informed about the fictional nature of the “autobiographical” female sketch. The results suggest that even fictional (counter)-stereotyping has a significant influence in the perception of unrelated cases, albeit the effects vary according to the gender of the participants: Having been exposed to the fictional nature of a stereotypic female portrayal, men were still considerably influenced by the fictional account. However, being exposed to the fictional origin of the counterstereotypic account led to dismissal and a higher attribution of blame to women. For women, the opposite was the case. They slightly dismissed the fictional female stereotypical account. Also, the fictional counterstereotypic portrayal led to a larger impact than the factual one, resulting in the highest attribution of blaming men. (Murphy 170-173)

While the results may suggest a difference in the perception of men and women of fictional media, the differences (e.g. female dismissal of stereotypic fiction) are likely to exist because of the topic of the study and the impact of the participants’ own group identity of men or women. Murphy concludes:

The extent of the influence may be a function both of individuals’ pre existing cognitive schemata and their motivation to maintain a particular worldview. Indeed, the idea that media content may be understood in similar ways based on group membership or ‘interpretative communities’ (see Power, Murphy, and Coover 1996 for a review) may account for the widespread gap in perceptions of O. J. Simpson's’ guilt between Anglos and African Americans. (173)

While the differences in the results of men and women may not be as relevant in supporting this paper’s explorations on the alleged role of the fictional media in stereotyping (although it may be interesting to see if gender differences were of any influence on the topic of Muslim portrayal), the results clearly suggest that fiction has an effect on stereotyping, too. Evaluating the results, Murphy answers her original question on the effects of fictional media on unrelated cases: “[The data suggests] ...that unrelated media images may indeed produce such unintended and insidious effects” (173). Thus, TV series and other forms of fictional media cannot be excluded in the construction of stereotypes. As shown in Chapter 2, the reiteration of stereotypes throughout history is a larger factor that contributes towards islamophobia. Consequently, the media also plays a potential role in the construction of islamophobia. Zebiri even suggests that the media is the “most powerful driving force of anti-Muslimism” (16). Said dedicated an entire book on the question of how the media influences views on Islam. While Said concentrates more on the portrayal of Muslims in non-fictional media such as newspaper or news broadcasts, this paper will focus on how Muslims are portrayed in the fictional media.

4. Islamophobia in TV and Film?

With the potential link from stereotyping in the fictional media established to islamophobia, the question on how Muslims are portrayed in entertainment world arises. Is there any evidence for an existence of islamophobia? Are Muslims depicted as “cruel and backwards” (see Chapter 2) or do they follow a counterstereotypic narrative? What are common themes that Muslims are associated with?

Before these questions can be answered, a general look on the TV and movie industry’s history of Muslim depiction has to be made. Chester outlines the developments of Muslim portrayal in US TV series and movies. He recounts that Hollywood was “caught in between” (139) during the 2003 widespread support for the Invasion of Iraq and rising islamophobia in the United States (cf. 139). While it was reluctant to produce feature films portraying Muslims it was also “keen to serve a familiar function as propaganda warrior in time of war” (139). He cites Jack Valenti, then head of the Motion Picture Association, that Hollywood wanted to “avoid repercussions” (qtd. in Chester 139) from the “hard-working” (qtd. in Chester 139) Muslims in the country. While the feature films were slower to pick up Muslim portrayal, it was different for series and movies produced for the TV. Series like 24, The Agency or Threat Matrix featured the portrayal of Muslims (and Muslim terrorists) at an early stage. (cf. 139-140)

Interestingly enough, Steinberg argues that cinematic movies were quicker to pick up Muslim portrayal than their TV counterparts & series (cf. Steinberg 84), apparently contradicting Chester’s claims. However, this discrepancy is easily solved by examining Steinberg’s selection: While Chester purely concentrates on US movies and movies where Muslims are portrayed as violent extremists or terrorists, Steinberg also considers international movies and movies which depict Muslim life in a (multicultural) society (e.g. the 2001 BBC’s East is East or Disney’s Aladdin). She criticises East is East for its “racist, Islamophobic depictions of Pakistanis and Muslims” (84); Aladdin for representing Arab people as people with bad hygiene, dirty clothes and spreading stereotypes of Arab people to “lie, cheat and steal” (86).

Taking a closer look at US television, Steinberg states that after 9/11, the TV industry generally was “silent” (87) on Arabs or Muslim. In some instances however Muslims would be portrayed in dramas such as Law & Order or NYPD Blue. In these cases, Muslims were depicted in a counterstereotypic way (“hardworking and honest” (87) ) and victims of racism (cf. 87). Steinberg's hopes that this development of a growing confrontation of islamophobia would serve to “equalize the overt racism associated with cinematic Muslims and Arabs” (88) were turned down when shows portraying Muslims as villains emerged. Shows like 24, Sleeper Cell and in some episodes, Law & Order, served to further anti-Muslim sentiments (cf. Steinberg 87-94). 24, a with no doubt very popular series which received a myriad of awards (cf. IMDb n.d.) featured Muslims as villains on several occasions[3]. By its depiction of Muslim terrorism it established several themes:

[Season 4]

- Muslims are in our midst, hiding among us, they can be upscale; can be our next-door neighbours
- They would do anything; even kill their own child for the cause
- Occasionally there are good Muslims who step up to serve the greater good of America (Steinberg 89)

[Season 6]

- They can be anywhere, hiding in our best neighbourhoods
- Even the youth are involved in terrorist endeavors; they will kill you, even a best friend who has saved your life
- Suspension of habeas corpus is justified because in the 21st century world of jihad, it works to identify Muslims and Arabs, thus possibly stopping the terrorists and thwarting their actions
- Even if some innocents are involved - it is indeed, for the greater good (Steinberg 91)

As evident from the established themes, the main message of 24 is that Muslim terrorists are in the United States and secretly act in preparation of terroristic acts. The need for unlawful actions, such as the detention of the innocent, is seen as needed to protect America and its people. The latter is a widely established theme of the series: Jack Bauer can be seen breaking laws and torturing villains to reach his aims, a fact also picked up by the media (cf. Freedland and Buncombe).

Sleeper Cell: American Terrorist takes 24’s depiction of homegrown terrorism further; it centers on the lives of several homegrown terrorists planning terroristic plots living in the United States. Steinberg characterizes Darwyn, the man working undercover for the FBI to foil the cell’s plan as “the Muslim Jack Bauer” (93). Classifying the terrorists as “non-privileged combatants”[4] (93), they are not handed over to the police, but held by the Department of Defense and 24’s themes are “refined” (93) further. Setting Sleeper Cell into context with growing anti-war sentiments in the US, Steinberg also sees a political agenda of the series. (cf. 93) It establishes these themes:

- They are everywhere, they have penetrated to every part of our society
- Even vehicles are suspect; an official vehicle can easily masquerade as an emergency vehicle.
- There may be good Muslims, but there always will be bad Muslims
- We are in Iraq for a purpose, to avenge the 9/11 attacks and to keep Middle Eastern terrorists from American soil. (Steinberg 93)

Reflecting on her own experiences of her changing perception of Islam, Steinberg attributes a large part of her views on Islam as created and formed by the media. She stresses the impact that “dangerous themes” (95) in the media may have on children and adults as “little or no way to read these themes” (95) is provided. Her analyses of 24 and Sleeper Cell show that fictional media may convey strong images that associate Muslims mainly with stereotypes (terrorists, homegrown threat). As previously found out, stereotyping in fictional media also does have an effect on unrelated cases, e.g. the perception of Muslims in daily life. With 24 and Sleeper Cell then potentially increasing islamophobia, are there any other series that could affect islamophobia?

5. Homeland and Islamophobia

Showtime’s 2011 Homeland drama series shares several aspects with the aforementioned 24 and Sleeper Cell. Like both of these two series, Homeland features Muslim terrorists and the work of different agencies to combat the threat. However, Homeland has “stepped up the game”: While 24 portrayed terrorism mainly in terms of immigrants or external threats (cf. Steinberg 89 - 90), Homeland’s first season introduces its viewers to returning war veteran Sgt. Nicholas Brody who takes part in a terroristic plot to kill the political elite of the US. Besides terrorism, Homeland also portrays elements of Muslim faith: Brody has not only been turned by Abu Nazir but apparently converted to Islam. This leads to the question on how Homeland portrays Islam and Muslims in the series. What kind of image of Muslims is conveyed through the series? Does Homeland contain similar stereotyping or themes like in 24 and Sleeper Cell ?

Opinions in the media hint at possible instances of islamophobia. Al-Arian is probably the most vocal critic of Homeland. Calling it “TV’s most Islamophobic show” (cf. Al-Arian 2012) she sees it as a growing collection of stereotypes about Islam and Muslims that serves to warn of dangers that Muslims supposedly possess. She concludes that Muslims are portrayed as inherently dangerous to other people (cf. Al-Arian 2012). Homeland’s message is that of warning about homegrown terrorism: “Muslims, no matter how successful, well-placed and integrated, are a hidden danger to their fellow Americans” (cf. Al-Arian 2012). Furthermore Al-Arian criticises several technical errors, like a false depiction of Lebanon's Hamra Street or an allegiance between the non compatible Islamist groups of Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah[5] (cf. 2012). Similar to Steinberg’s findings on Sleeper Cell, Shabi argues that Homeland (including Hollywood's Zero Dark Thirty and Argo) embodies US foreign policy as it is a “cultural reflection of actual US policy in the Middle east” (2013) trying to seize “moral high ground” (2013) .

Rosenberg disagrees strongly on the notion of islamophobia, suggesting that “ ‘ Homeland ’ Is Anything but Islamophobic’ ” (2012) . He argues that by letting Dana Brody, “ of its sympathetic leads...” (Rosenberg 2012), speak up against stereotypes and aggressive foreign policy it becomes clear that Homeland does not approve any of these forms. He states that Homeland is a show “...that challenges the prejudices of its viewers rather than affirming them.” (Rosenberg 2012) and cites several examples of the show to support his view: Counterstereotypical Muslims and a depiction of Muslim burial rites for terrorist Abu Nazir are given as evidence that the show presents Islam “ good faith...” (Rosenberg 2012).

The selections of media samples show that the opinions on Homeland are indeed diverse and polarized. The authors who argue that Homeland is islamophobic mention that it supports stereotyping and wrong depictions of the Middle East and Islam. As it was found out in Chapter 3 and supported by Steinberg’s conclusion in Chapter 4, even fictional media can contribute to the construction and continuation of stereotypes. If Homeland then reinforces stereotypes, would Homeland not be contributing towards contemporary islamophobia? Would it not serve a familiar function akin to older literary works, reiterating or creating new stereotypes about Muslims (cf. Chapter 2)? To answer these questions, a thorough examination of Homeland would be required. As such an analysis is out of this scope of this paper, the following will focus on one episode of Homeland. This analysis will focus on the issue of islamophobia and try to determine - using the previously established definitions and further input - whether or not it can be classified as islamophobic


[1] For reasons of better readability, “The Runnymede Trust Commission” is abbreviated to “RTC” in following citations.

[2] The 2004 follow-up report offers more background on the background of the “open” and “closed” views, which are based on The Open and Closed Mind by social psychologist Milton Rokaeach. (cf. Commission 23).

[3] Steinberg only analysed Season 2 and 6. Season 2 already featured Muslim terrorists at an early stage (again, in the depiction of homegrown terrorism). Both Season 8 and the newest addition to the franchise (24: Live Another Day) feature Muslim terrorists. The latter features a female terrorist as the main villain for the first time.

[4] A description coined by the US administration in the 9/11 aftermath. It serves to e.g. hold prisoners at Guantanamo Bay indefinitely and without trial.

[5] This opinion ties in with the Runnymede’s closed view of seeing Islam as monolithic. By merging the Sunni Al-Qaeda and Shiite Hezbollah into one threat, Homeland defies reality and neglects the complexity of the middle east. This is especially evident by looking at current events: in the Syrian Civil War, Shiite Iranian militia and Hezbollah support the armies of Bashar Al-Assad. In doing so, they also fight the group of Jabhat Al Nusra, which is a Sunni Islamist group that is affiliated with Al-Qaeda. (cf. Cafarella n.d.)

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Islamophobia in "Homeland"? Analysis of the Popular US TV Series
Bielefeld University  (Fakultät für Linguistik und Literaturwissenschaft: Anglistik)
Analyzing and Interpreting Literary Texts: US American Literatures
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islamophobia, homeland, analysis, popular, series
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Gernot Meyer (Author), 2015, Islamophobia in "Homeland"? Analysis of the Popular US TV Series, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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