Fans of 24, myself included, are eagerly looking forward to tomorrow's installment of Fox's hit counterterrorism drama. This season, only a week old, has already attracted a lot of controversy over its negative portrayal of Muslims. In a show whose plot focuses on a terrorist attack against the United States, it is reasonable to expect Islamic extremism to play a part. Even then, through the show's first four episodes, I've found myself wondering whether the show had gone too far in caricaturing American Muslims.
The story centers around an upper-class Muslim family that is in fact a terrorist sleeper cell. Last week, the mother poisoned her teenage son's non-Muslim girlfriend. The son, who for all appearances on the outside is a good high-school student, is helping carry out the family's plot, which thus far includes an attack on a commuter train and the kidnapping of the Secretary of Defense. While all the villains are Muslim (not unexpectedly), there has been only one "good" Muslim character thus far. This was a minor, unnamed character given only a second or two on-screen to complain about how terrorists are giving Muslims in America a bad name.
In light of this negative portrayal of American Muslims, I was not surprised to read that complaints by Muslim groups have caused Fox to respond: "Fox Cuts Anti-Muslim Scenes From 24". Fox has agreed to air PSAs by the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) showing how Muslims in America have contributed to their society. I assume that upcoming episodes of 24 will also tone down its depiction of Muslims.
I've heard some people argue that all this fuss is unnecessary. Does every potentially offensive book or TV show or movie need to go to extra lengths to appease its critics? After all, The Godfather painted Italian-Americans in a bad light, and no one thought a disclaimer from the Pope was necessary. That's what artistic license gives you the freedom to do.
I think the situation here is different. My problem is not that the villains in 24 are Muslims. In all honesty, that is a completely fair and reasonable decision given current events. I think the problem though is that the show is relying too much on Islamophobic stereotypes to create its characters and plot.
This is not a major offense, but still an understandable issue of concern to the Muslim community. The public's attitude toward Muslims is influenced in large part by what is shown on television. Given that a recent study by Cornell University showed that nearly half of all Americans believe in restricting the civil liberties of Muslim Americans, they have a right to see that they are better treated in the media.
CAIR's Rabiah Ahmed pointed out that "There aren't any positive or even neutral portrayals of Muslims on TV." She raises an excellent point. That is something that should be remedied. And while we're at it, I'm going to suggest that more Muslims should go into the entertainment business. Reversing their underrepresentation in that field is one way for Muslims to help shape the public's perception of them.
In any case, I know where I'm going to be tomorrow night--parked in front of the TV to catch the new hour of 24!