Skip to comments.Showtime's 'Sleeper Cell' has Muslims as terrorists but goes beyond
Posted on 12/01/2005 12:35:35 PM PST by Millee
Hollywood's favorite bad guy is a Muslim terrorist, preferably one who looks like he's come from the Middle East, is accompanied by a mysterious-sounding Arabic soundtrack and ends up on the losing side."The Siege" pitted Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, and Bruce Willis against Muslim fanatics who wanted to take a bite out of the Big Apple. "Executive Decision" paired up Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal to take on Arab hijackers.
The small screen has followed the big screen, from Fox-TV's breathless "24" series to the CBS CIA drama, "The Agency."
Now it's Showtime's turn, with a 10-hour project called "Sleeper Cell" that will start airing Sunday.
But along with the all-too-frequent f-words, cable-allowed sex scenes and graphic violence, "Sleeper Cell" offers at least some hints of texture to what has been years of copycat, cookie-cutter portrayals of evildoers in the name of Allah.
The bad guys in "Sleeper Cell" are Muslims. But so is the hero. Undercover FBI agent Darwyn Al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy) is an African-American Muslim, born into the faith in the USA, who infiltrates a secret cell of extremists in Los Angeles plotting much mayhem.
Advertisement The show also captures the real-life ethnic diversity of the world's second largest religion (in the U.S., for example, only about 25 percent of Muslims are of Arab descent). The cell includes a blond-haired convert from Berkeley, a French-born tour bus driver, a Bosnian school teacher and the leader, an Arab masquerading as a Sephardic Jew.
The creators of "Sleeper Cell" argue that there are other differences worthy of notice.
"One of the things we really wanted to do is just sort of portray this issue in a much more complex way," said Cyrus Voris, who discussed the show with co-producer Ethan Reiff during a recent seminar on Islam at the University of Southern California's Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism.
"Yes, we are showing Islamic extremists," Voris told journalists from around the country gathered for the weeklong conference. "But we're also showing a moderate Islamic character, Darwyn, who is the hero of the show, who is very much anti-extremism and is trying to stop the extremists."
Perhaps its best attribute is the show's pivotal subtext: the struggle within Islam itself for who will speak for the faith.
This struggle is highlighted in the fourth episode when a Yemen scholar comes to the U.S. to denounce violence and preach to other Muslims that extremism is not the real Islam.
"They (terrorists) are using the label Islam to kill and murder innocent people something that the prophet would never condone," the Yemen scholar says.
Reiff said illuminating this struggle was "incredibly important" to him and Voris (neither is Muslim; one is Jewish and the other Episcopalian).
"That's the only way you can formulate a strategy to win the so-called war on terrorism if you can find a way to helpfully aid those people within the Muslim world, all around the world, who are on the same side as you are," Reiff said. "I don't think we're concentrating on that to the degree that we should be."
Muslim writing, acting
Pakistani-born screenwriter Kamran Pasha is particularly happy with that episode. He wrote it.
"It is painful for me as a believer to see people who reflect very poorly on my faith," said Pasha, who joined the "Sleeper Cell" team after the pilot was approved.
"I'm deeply proud of this show," he said in an interview. "What I'm proud of is I got a chance to show what Islam means to me."
The producers said that when it came time to cast the role of the Yemen shaikh, there was a line of Muslim actors clamoring for it. Egyptian-born Marc Casabani, whose credits include appearances on "Without a Trace," "LAX," and "24," got the job.
"I wanted that part because he is a positive role model for all people, not just people of Middle Eastern descent, not just for Egyptian Americans," said Casabani, who makes a point of saying he's from Alexandria, birthplace of movie legend Omar Sharif.
Casabani credits Showtime with trying to show the other side. "There is nowhere in the Koran and the prophet, peace be upon him, that advocates this kind of behavior," he adds.
The actor, by the way, played a terrorist on "24," the Fox-TV series whose fascination with Islamic extremists drew protests from the Muslim community. Last season, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, convinced Fox to air public service announcements depicting positive images of Muslims. Actor Kiefer Sutherland, the star of "24," also read a disclaimer saying that "it is important to recognize that the American Muslim community stands firmly beside their fellow Americans in denouncing and resisting all forms of terrorism."
Casabani, who is currently in a play about the war in Iraq ("What I Heard About Iraq") at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, downplays the decision to take that role on "24." It was early in his career, he said. "Since then, I have become very selective."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations is troubled by "Sleeper Cell," despite its attributes.
"It's wonderful to have finally a Muslim good guy on the good side I do have to applaud them for that," said Sabiha Khan, communications director for the council's Southern California office.
But she said the show continues to feed into the distrust many Americans feel toward their Muslim neighbors. She wonders if they are always going to be seen through the lens of violence. "Are we only going to have Muslim characters come up, good and bad, when we're talking about terrorism?"
She argues two points: Only a tiny fraction of the world's billion-plus Muslims are involved in acts of terrorism, and that she'd rather Islam be portrayed as a part of the fabric of American life.
Khan shakes her head, "We're not saying there are no bad Muslims. . . . We need some shows, some balancing aspects, because people get their information from the media."
The show's creators, however, did sit down with Muslim advisers during the development stage to get their feedback. Edina Lekovic, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, was among those who read and commented on the scripts.
"It is rare that writers and screenwriters reach out and ask for input," said Lekovic. "We were thrilled by the opportunity."
While she hasn't seen the finished product, she's optimistic.
"I think this is an earnest attempt at showing another face of Muslims and of Islam and seeing that there is genuine conflict within," she said.
Lekovic, who grew up in Carmel Valley and also wears a hijab, or scarf, was also struck by the episode featuring the Yemen scholar. The greater jihad isn't holy war, the shaikh tells people, it's the inner struggle within each Muslim.
"I think it's a positive thing that American viewers can see that there is discussion and dialogue within the Muslim community itself," Lekovic said.
Is there a struggle for the soul of Islam?
Muslim leaders and scholars who spoke to journalists at the Knight Center conference emphasized that "Islam is Islam," no matter where it's practiced. That said, however, many conceded that the face of Islam in America is being sculpted by the second and third generations who are growing up here.
"There is a need for understanding, developing our own American identity," said Imam Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County and chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, a group of Islamic scholars that decides judicial issues for Muslims.
Siddiqi, who was educated in Saudi Arabia and Harvard, said the Islamic Society of North America is considering starting a seminary in Indiana to train imams, rather than continue to import them from Muslim-dominated countries.
Another debate centers around whether there should be a centralized authority for Muslims to turn to in this country.
"There is a competition for ownership in Islam in America," said Sherman Jackson, an expert in Islamic Law and theology from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "Who will own Islam? Who will have the authority to define and speak for Islam?"
Fathi Osman, another well-known scholar of Islam, has spoken out for a reviewing or rethinking of the classical interpretations to fit contemporary understanding. "I believe that Muslims are going now through a genuine reformation," he told journalists during a visit at Masjid Omar Ibn Khattab, a mosque and education center near the University of Southern California campus where Osman is the resident scholar.
This won't change the essence of Islam, Osman insisted, but instead will provide a contemporary practice "according to our understanding of modern times."
Young Muslim Americans appear most willing to accept this contemporary exploration. At least one survey shows them to be supportive of pluralism and less attached to the cultural clingings of their parents and grandparents.
All these nuances are too much to expect from a shoot-'em-up television show. The showbiz folks themselves admit that "Sleeper Cell" is really about entertainment. "Ethan and I are doing a thriller, first and foremost," said co-producer Voris.
Several of the journalists who saw previews complained that the characters are melodramatic caricatures wrapped around gratuitous sex and violence.
But the story line does begin to raise atypical questions about who are the real Muslims.
Many Americans are wary, their trepidation fed by too-frequent incidents of destruction from the USS Cole attack and 9/11 to the London subway bombings and, most recently, the hotel explosions in Jordan. Other Americans understand that evil people can do bad things they don't blame the religion; they blame the people.
Showtime viewers will find out soon enough how "Sleeper Cell" ends (the two-hour finale airs Dec. 18). In real life, the story isn't finished. Stay tuned.
Did this person actually see The Siege? Tony Shaloub as Washington's Arab-American partner whose son is put into detention at Yankee Stadium is portrayed as a sympathetic character.
The author makes a statement about Hollywood's favorite bad guy, and then cites two ten-year old movies to prove the point. What a joke. If Hollywood's favorite bad guy were really the Muslim/Arab terrorist, there would probably be some more recent examples don't you think. The reference to 24 was a joke too. Yes, the plot STARTED with arab islamofascist terrorists, but soon we found that a whole lot of white non-islamic domestic military and former military and defense contractors were involved as well. No, if you look at recent movies you'll find that Hollywood's favorite bad guy is a white male Christian, except Hollywood's version of a white male Christian is also a white supremacist, and an active republican.
"(in the U.S., for example, only about 25 percent of Muslims are of Arab descent)."
a) I find this hard to believe;
b) Ah, but what about the "non-Arab", but Persian or Indo types who on the surface look much the same dressed in turbans?
""They (terrorists) are using the label Islam to kill and murder innocent people something that the prophet would never condone," the Yemen scholar says."
BS. Then you are a bad Moslem.
"Reiff said illuminating this struggle was "incredibly important" to him and Voris (neither is Muslim; one is Jewish and the other Episcopalian)."
Oh. That figures. Leftist outsiders.
Hogwash! Everyone knows that Hollyweird's favorite terrorists are those evil incarnate white Christian males, especially if they're family men.
Hmmm, all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists looked the same to me. That's the real tragedy of September 11 -- that the hijackers didn't reflect diversity. (/sarcasm)
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