by Guest Contributor Jehanzeb Dar, originally published at Islam on My Side
I felt my heart drop when my professor for “Mass Media and Society” announced that we were going to watch “24” for the entire three hours of class. It took me a moment to overcome the shock and sort things out in my mind: “This is the same ‘24’ I’m thinking about, right? The television show where American-Muslims are illegally locked up in detention centers?” After self-confirmation, I confidently raised my hand.
“May I ask why we’re watching ‘24’?” I asked politely.
My professor kindly explained, “I believe ‘24’ had some positive influences on how the U.S. government treats prisoners and I also would argue that it played a huge role for the Obama campaign since the show has an African-American President. I really believe it helped prepare the country for that.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s what she basically said. I was sure she was referring to Guantanamo Bay when she mentioned the U.S. military’s treatment of prisoners, but it confused me how criticism of prisoner abuse would cancel out the show’s stereotypical portrayal of Muslims and Arabs as terrorists? And the Obama thing was just absurd in my opinion.
“It’s just odd to me,” I said, “because more than anything, I strongly feel that the show vilifies Muslims and the religion of Islam. These stereotypical images are very hurtful to the Muslim community.”
As I said this, I saw heads turning and eyes staring at me. I don’t know anyone in the class because we only meet once a week, so I wasn’t expecting any support, but after the professor responded and said something completely irrelevant to what I said, I couldn’t believe people remained silent.
She mentioned the film, “Crash,” and expressed that she felt discriminated against since there were no Jews in the film. My initial reaction was: what does that have to do with “24” and the representation of Muslims? Was she suggesting that every group is fairly misrepresented in the media or was she just trying to dodge my points?
“I understand that,” I replied, “but at least the movie doesn’t depict the Jewish people as terrorists or in a negative light.” Then I brought us back on topic, “In ‘24’, we only see Muslims being associated with terrorism.”
She interrupted and said there were episodes where a “good Muslim” helped the American protagonists fight against the Muslim terrorists. I knew she was referring to Alexander Siddig’s character who is an “ex-terrorist” and pretty much represents every stereotype that right-wing pundits want us to think about “moderate Muslims,” i.e. (1) they’re at first resistant to help the U.S. because they’re worried about being “puppets”, (2) they’re paranoid about speaking out against “Islamic jihadists”, and (3) they’re considered ‘traitors’ by fellow Muslims if they condemn terrorism. I skipped this critique of Alexander Siddig’s character and just simply said, “but the bad guys are still Muslim, and having a ‘good Muslim’ character doesn’t mean the show is exempt from being racist or Islamophobic.” As usual – whenever I feel it is relevant – I mentioned Spike Lee’s film, “Bamboozled,” where a female White media consultant says to the Black characters that she can’t be racist because she has Black friends and a Ph.D. in African-American studies. Of course, this is untrue; anyone can be racist, no matter what.
I observed my classmates around me. They were giggling, laughing, scoffing, whispering, or giving me looks that suggested that they anxiously wanted me to shut up so we can just watch the show. This made me feel very uncomfortable, but I told myself to stand my ground.
Again, she went off topic and spoke about Italians and Jews being stereotyped in Hollywood films. I quickly interjected and said, “but there are many positive representations of Italians and Jews as well. Some of the greatest actors, actresses, and filmmakers in Hollywood are Italian or Jewish. The difference with Muslims is that there aren’t any memorable and positive depictions of them. If you’re going to show ‘24’, then are you going to show an Arab film or a film with Muslims? I think that would be fair.”
At this point, I could hear my voice strain. I was frustrated that she was not understanding and empathizing with me. I mentioned statistics of hate crimes and discriminatory acts against Muslim-Americans ever since 9/11, I spoke about the Islamophobia in the recent presidential elections, and I reemphasized how offensive television shows like “24” are.
“There are no Muslim characters in the episodes that I’m showing” she responded. “If I felt they were going to be anti-Islamic, I wouldn’t show them.”
Was this supposed to make me feel better? Regardless if there were no Muslim characters in the episodes she was showing, the association is still there. I simply nodded and said “ok.”
Two or three years ago, I would have walked out of class, but I chose to stick around just to watch what “progressive” message she was pulling out of these shows. But there were none. I only saw sexism and stereotypes.
There were no Muslims in the episodes she showed, but there was a White female terrorist who has sex with a man in the bathroom of an airplane just to nab his ID – basically suggesting that women have to use their bodies to get what they want. Then the camera lingers on her bare legs and almost gives us a peak beneath her skirt – this is known as the “Male Gaze” (women being depicted in a way that men want to see them). Meanwhile, the protagonist’s daughter sneaks out of her house to party with guys, but then realizes that she made the wrong decision and that she should have listened to her parents – apparently, the writers don’t think women can make smart decisions on their own. Oh and the protagonist’s female partner turns out to be the villain at the end of the episode – of course, women are not be trusted!
I remember sitting there and thinking: How is this academic material? What’s the point? We don’t even learn much about the African-American President because he’s too busy receiving assassination threats.
I left the class feeling ignored and pushed out. I heard other students speaking to my professor about some upcoming episode, and my professor responded cheerfully about when and where she bought the second or third season on DVD. She did not bother to speak to me after class, write me an e-mail, or talk to me on our last class. I walked to the campus parking lot that night feeling very alone and unsupported. Later on, I thought perhaps there were a few students who agreed with me and just didn’t speak up, but at the time, I felt like no one cared. It really hurt me, and I don’t know if others will understand, but I felt very insignificant. No human being should feel marginalized or alienated just because of their race, religion, culture, gender, sexual orientation, etc. No student should ever feel shut out.
I was happy to receive support from my inter-cultural communication’s professor, who even suggested that we address this issue professionally by writing to the education board. I pray that all students, no matter what their situation is, are blessed with the kind of support that my inter-cultural communication’s professor showed me. She ended class a half hour early just to speak to me. Like her, we all need to understand that it’s important to empathize with individuals. We shouldn’t just react to their words, but their feelings. We need to be strong for them. We need to be supportive for them.
Otherwise, what does it mean to be an educator?