NUMB3RS Tackles Government Islamophobia

by Guest Contributor S. M. Ayoub, originally published at Islam on My Side

After watching last week’s episode of NUMB3RS, “When Worlds Collide,” I was certain I wanted to write a post on it for [Islam on my Side]. The problem was, I couldn’t quite figure out how to approach it. The episode featured Pakistani Muslims targeted by the U.S. government for believed terror associations. The thing was [spoiler alert], the Muslims weren’t the terrorists. In fact, it was ultimately decided that there were no terrorists at work at all, a conclusion I’ll wrangle with later.

My responses to the episode ranged greatly. As the scene for conflict was set, a Pakistani mother, daughter and son get ready for dinner and their husband/father’s arrival home. They aren’t dressed in any way that marks them as particularly “ethnic” or even Muslim. I’m so used to seeing Muslim women scarved and exoticized by cultural clothing that I wrongly assumed the characters weren’t Muslim. I believe what ran through my head, and this is really telling of post 9/11 culture on my mindset even though I am Muslim, was, “Oh. Normal people who are also brown. Awesome!” Forgive the color label please. This is how my Desi friends refer to themselves. It’s not meant to be offensive.

Then it turned out that they were Muslim. And the mother does show up in a head scarf, but it’s a black scarf draped gently over her hair and revealing a good portion of it in a way that both suggests culture and mourning rather than religion. It turned out that her husband, whose kidnapping she witnessed, had been tortured and murdered. The FBIs assumption? He was in collusion with a terrorist cell based on his involvement with the Pakistani Relief Fund (he visited Pakistan and helped build a school and roomed with a man who shared a name with a terrorist). The PRF was suspected for funding terror. No proof was given, but for the terror specialists in the FBI, no proof was needed.

Charles Eppes, the mathmetician and FBI collaborator around which this show is built, took strong issue with this case. One of his professor friends was arrested in front of him for sending scientific files to Pakistan. This friend also contributed to the PRF. Sharing those files was illegal, it turned out, but there was no way the professor could have known that because the information on what can and can’t be shared is classified. It turned out the files were research on how to better crop yields in an area suffering from food shortages. But the man, ultimately, was still jailed and had to await trial. In an act of solidarity and rebellion, Charlie sent the remainder of his friend’s files to a scientist in Pakistan. His punishment? He lost his FBI privileges, but he was not detained. Actually, he went home and had a beer and thought about how his life would be different now that he wouldn’t be working with the FBI. Presumably, his friend was still in detention awaiting a trial for doing the same thing.

I realize this synopsis is a bit detailed, but bear with me. There were several threads happening here. There were Pakistanis whose ethnicity, religion and charitable donations warranted their arrest. A Pakistani whose actions, though identical to those of Charlie’s, landed him in detention. There was also a point where Charlie connected the case leader to a terrorist in three points, and pointed out that no one was throwing him in jail. And there was an incredibly curious twist.

Remember I said that no terrorists were at work here? Well, the assumption that it was terrorism stemmed from the fact that Pakistani Muslims involved in the PRF were kidnapped, tortured and killed. The idea of a terror cell was discarded when it turned out that the mind behind the crime was a member of the IRA who was, I kid you not, disguised as a Pakistani complete with accent. Think blackface. The man had made a place for himself in the PRF and was redistributing funds for his personal use running guns. In the meantime, he had planted some blueprints of schools to throw officials offtrack. It was really simple for him to make his escape (they caught him eventually under one of his known aliases). All he had to do was throw the suspicion onto Muslims. And some FBI members were ready to route through PRF files, bring in all the Muslims and, as they conceded, ruin their lives by implying accusations of terrorism on them.

I have to say that as a Muslim I was thrilled that is wasn’t the Muslims at fault here. And I was thrilled that Charlie took an anti-FBI stance. NUMB3RS is a liberal show and it often questions the Patriot Acts, but they took it to a new level with “When Worlds Collide.” I thought of this all when I read the following quote on Racialicious regarding “The Visitor”:

Overall, the characters’ Muslim background and immigrant status seem to outweigh their racial differences. And, in a post-9/11 world, a world in which the fact that Barack Obama’s estranged father was born into a Muslim family is a liability, it’s definitely refreshing to see Muslims shown as three-dimensional, loving people.

The opening scenes of NUMB3RS do what Miss Kareem is talking about here. The family is, as I noted, normal. There’s nothing to say they’re anything other than ordinary. Just people in their home living their lives. It’s only after their lives are upset that we learn they are Muslim, and then the complications of being Muslim and involved in a crime–even when you are a victim of it–begin to be revealed. First with racial/religious profiling. Then prejudice based on professional experience. Then through a refreshing twist: it wasn’t the Muslims after all. It was a greedy former member of the IRF (who btw was not a terrorist because he was working alone and was only distributing automatic weapons . . . or was it because he was White?).

I’ve been a big fan of NUMB3RS since it’s inception. I like the way the characters reflect on the choices they are asked to make in the name of protecting the innocent. The show constantly redefines innocence and guilt among both the accused and the accusers. I recommend watching the episode. You can find it here, on the CBS website.

My feeling on this condemnation of Islamophobic impulses on primetime TV is that a large number of Americans have reached a point of consensus that the selective persecution of Muslims based on faith and minority status is no longer acceptable. I would love to know what viewers and readers thought of this episode.