Sleeping Cell

The Showtime show Sleeper Cell, is yet another example of the growing dichotomy of “good Muslim” versus “Bad Muslim;” it behooves us to look deeper, Wajahat Ali, writes.


Sleeping Cell
January 15, 2006
Wajahat Ali

Friends. Neighbors. Husbands. Terrorists. Muslims. Darkies.

The last two descriptive nouns (Muslims and Darkies) were added for dramatic effect by yours truly, however the first four (Friends. Neighbors. Husbands. Terrorists.) accompany the faces of four non-Muslim actors playing Al-Qaeda-esque would be “Islamist?, terrorist, fundamentalist, Mohammedan Jihadis (pick adjective of your choice) on the poster for Showtime’s new, not so original series, “Sleeper Cell.?

In the past century, Hollywood’s illuminating portrayal and characterizations of Muslims, Arabs, and token Darkies have comfortably existed somewhere between grossly racist, obscenely simplistic and laughably absurd. Responding to the evolving cultural-political ramifications of the “War on Terror,? the two co-creators of “Sleeper Cell? (both non-Arab and non-Muslim) decided not to board the stereotype train, and instead held auditions for a new, multicultural, United Colors of Benetton- terrorist squad. The hooked, bulbous nosed scimitar wielding ogre from the “Aladdin? cartoon and irrational, darkie Palestinian terrorist has transformed into a more heterogeneous, chameleon personality: the hero (Darwyn), an African American convert to Islam playing an undercover FBI agent infiltrating the terrorist cell; the cell’s leader, an Arab extremist posing as a Jewish security analyst (played by Israeli born Jewish actor Oded Fehr, whose resume includes exotic but heroic Arab darkie in the mind numbingly inane blockbuster “The Mummy?); Tommy, the white convert and obvious John Walker Lindh foil, whose liberal, Berkeley parents failed him; a former European skinhead who finds “peace? by embracing extremist ideology; a Bosnian ‘mujahid’; and finally an Egyptian-American who also conveniently teaches high school science. The kicker? The respective members of this multicultural death squad all seamlessly blend in American society as high school teachers, tour guides, security consultants, and grocery-store employees – basic all American jobs held by average Americans who all happen to be Muslim…. and potential holy warriors. The point? Your neighbor could be your enemy. The enemy is here. But where?

(Cue dramatic music, extreme close up, and a flash of thunder).

Structurally, the show resembles a routine fast paced, race against time suspense thriller. Our hero, Darywn, concealing his secret identity as an FBI agent, acts as willing participant in the cell’s increasingly illegal and violent activities with the intent of ascertaining and stopping their final “passport to heaven? suicide mission (releasing toxic, deadly gas in the middle of a packed, baseball stadium to inflict maximum damage to the “infidels.?)

Showtime took a page from Fox’s “24? public relations snafu and wisely decided to repeatedly highlight that “Sleeper Cell? is not meant to defame or dishonor Muslims and Islam. Before the show’s premier, Showtime aired a 30 minute “making of? special entitled “Sleeper Cell: Known Your Enemy.? Alongside the “rah-rah-rah? publicity boost for the upcoming show, this special included a ten minute not so subtle “We swear we love Muslims, please believe us? segment, which included the translation and proper pronunciations of words such as “Allah hu Akbar? (God is Greatest), “Al Qaeda?, and “Jihad.? Furthermore, the interviewees, composing of actors, the creators, and special advisors, regurgitated the recycled, fossilized theme of “See? We’re showing there are bad Muslims, but also GOOD Muslims, too! We love darkies also!? Robert Greenblat, president of Showtime, recently stated that in the show “there are positive portrayals…and negative portrayals, which is reflective of the world? advocating the need for people to realize the complexities of our social, world climate consisting of “good Muslims? and “bad Muslims.? Noble intentions, indeed, but how to celebrate and highlight the “good? Muslim, when the good Muslim’s entire actions, existence, rhetoric, and behavior are juxtaposed as defensive and offensive reactions to the overwhelming focus on the irrational violence, seething hatred, anti Americanism, and obscurant fanaticism of his “bad Muslim? peers?

One of the hired writers, an American Pakistani Muslim Kamran Pasha, at least acknowledged this predicament: “Of course the risk always is, even if we show a positive Muslim hero, some people may walk away thinking their next door neighbor is a sleeper cell member.? To say that “some people? might think this is an understatement considering the non stop barrage of negative images of Islam, Muslims, and Arabs has so thoroughly penetrated the psyche of Americans that merely mentioning “Islam? and Arab? elicits a mental image of “terrorism? and “?extremism.? As an example, a recent poll showed that 50% support the President’s controversial secret wiretapping of private conversations, which arguably, lies outside the proper scope and procedure as outlined by the 4th amendment. As HL Menken once wrote, people would rather feel safe than be free. Americans would readily barter their own civil liberties such as the right to privacy, in exchange for the mere illusion of safety and comfort, even though this gamble might jeopardize their guaranteed freedoms. (We are a “freedom loving? country are we not?)

But it’s ok. Why? Because the President is going after “them? and not “us,? even though “us? includes Muslims, Arabs, Hindus, Sikhs, light skinned blacks confused as Arabs, Mexicans confused for Middle Easterners, and pretty much anyone with the slightest, vaguest connection to “questionable activity.? It even includes someone like international renowned peace activist and former singer Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), who was denied entry into U.S. in 2004 after being placed on a “national security watch list.? What were they watching? A repeat of the VH-1 special highlighting Islam’s conversion? Or maybe a hidden Al Qaeda message encrypted in Islam’s famous hit ironically titled “Peace Train?? No one knows, but you can rest assured dangerous elements such as Yusuf Islam, who never received a proper, official reason for being included on this list, are being vigilantly “watched.?

In fact, the Showtime special unknowingly and ironically emphasizes this fear-inducing ignorance while attempting to educate the public about Islam. During the “making of special,? the strong, comforting but purposeful narrator informs us that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, with 1.2 billion faithful worldwide, and 6 million practicing in America. Then, the narrator’s voice turns deadly serious and foreboding, and the voice warns us “The number of terrorist? Unknown.?

(Cue hysterical shrieking and mass panic now).

One can never know whether entertainment puff pieces like this sincerely wish to “bridge cultures? together by juxtaposing “good minority? against “bad minority? to emphasize the “true peaceful? nature of Islam, or to merely avert a potential PR disaster thus offering this type of verbal fellatio instead. However, this method and technique of subtly advocating an agenda though frivolous entertainment, which masks a potential Public Relations “accident,? is nothing new.

The time tested strategy goes something like this: Identify, Categorize, and Exalt the character traits of the model minority by pitting “the good? minority against the “bad? minority as a learning template for all minorities to follow. Examples: Asians are model minorities compared to Blacks and Mexicans. Why? They are supposedly apolitical, culturally assimilated, passive, successful, and they don’t rock the boat. Blacks, and now Mexicans and Middle Easterners, are violent, aggressive, breed- happy, and anti-intellectual. In the realm of cinema and television, characterizations of “good darkie? include the passive, happy, dancing darkie whose sole existence serves to help white people with their golf swing (Will Smith in “Legend of Bagger Vance?), their romantic pursuits (Aunt Mammy fussing over Scarlett in “Gone with the Wind?), or act as a colorful sidekick accessory (Hajji Baba for Johnny Quest, Kato for Green Hornet, Colin Powel and Condi Rice for George Bush).

However, in their sincere but short sighted attempt at fairness, the creators of “Sleeper Cell? use a serious, practicing African American Muslim, Darwyn, played well by Michael Ealy, whose greatest career accomplishment, according to this writer, is dating Halle Berry (On behalf of all men, we salute you, Ealy). The actors, trying their best with a flaccid script, interject the script occasionally with “Islamic infotainment? pop ups to teach the non Muslim audience about Islamic culture and religion (Jihad, The Battle of the Trench, The 15th night of Shabaan are explained), and also to differentiate b/w the “good? and “bad? Muslim. Sadly, the convenient infotainment mixed inelegantly within the script comes off as unrealistic and trite. Why would a practicing Muslim “fundamentalist? feel the need to explain the significance of the 15th of Shabaan to fellow Muslims who already know? It’s reminiscent of a recent movie “Stealth? where intelligent, military advisors are reminding each other what a prime number is. Again, these robotic conversations remind Muslims of no other Muslims, because no one, and I assume even terrorists, talks like a walking Wikepedia. Furthermore, the 15th of Shabaan (“Layatal Baraa?), a night primarily used for prayer and reflection, is used by the terrorists in the show for the “unveiling? of their terrorist plot. Again, a peaceful, spiritual tradition is juxtaposed to a violent terrorist act.

This methodology of using “good minority? to fight “bad minority? in order to celebrate diversity perpetuates the illusion of inclusiveness and fairness, but in reality puts a colorful, Flintstones, “don’t worry be happy? band aid on the festering sore that is racism, stereotyping and bigotry. Also, it simultaneously forgives and condones certain unsavory and “dirty? policies of the administration.

See? Blacks never had it that bad during slavery or the racist, post Reconstruction South. They just complain too much and want reparations and fried chicken.

See? We always loved Asians, so much so we passed multiple exclusion acts, such as Chinese exclusion Act of 1882, even though the Chinese composed only .002 percent of the nation’s “then? population. (The Act was passed to assuage concerns about maintaining white “racial purity.”)

See? Muslims, Arabs, minorities, and darkies just whine and whine and nag, life is good – relax! Allow for the extension of the Patriot Act, Secret wiretapping, Guantanomo detentions, and racial profiling, which is thriving according to Lawrence A. Greenfield, former head of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), whose findings released last April without news release confirmed widespread racial profiling of “ethnic? minorities by the police. (Greenfield’s prize for unearthing racial disparities in America? He was demoted – after refusing to delete this information at the behest of the current administration.) [1]

Torture is as common as sliced bread on the hit Fox show “24? which follows a day in the life of agent Jack Bauer (played by Keifer Sutherland) who successfully foils terrorist plots season after season using abuse, intimidation, and violent threats. Non lethal torture, such as placing sterilized needles underneath fingernails, finds its greatest advocate in lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a self proclaimed defender of civil liberties. His “ticking time bomb? theory asks, “if you had to torture a suspected terrorist to gain whereabouts of a ticking time bomb, wouldn’t you invade that human liberty for the sake of saving thousands of lives?? Even though the ticking time bomb hypothetical is merely that – a hypothetical – it can serve as a “what if? reality that allows for the very real abuses of human liberties and rights, but that’s acceptable, since it assuages us.

In reality, the report of the heinous, S & M style torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison propelled the FUBAR, public relations disaster resulting in the administration, American pundit puppets, and military personnel distancing themselves from such “un-American? behavior as to retain and regain the beleaguered trust and respect from much of the shocked “A-rab? world. You know a situation is bleak when Senators, such as John McCain (R-Ariz.), proactively initiate an anti torture ban to prohibit the “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of any detainee in U.S. custody anywhere in the world, even as the administration tried for months to severely weaken the ban’s potency and credibility. [2]

What does the “good Muslim? do? Should he speak out against unfair actions or risk the Scarlet letter of being labeled “apologist? and “soft on terror??

In this era of mistrust, paranoia, and deception, it’s of no surprise that over 50% of Americans responding to a CNN poll think their elected officials are corrupt. This poll comes in reaction to the revelations of the Abramoff-bribing scandal linking the recently indicted lobbyist to several prominent members of Congress. Moreover, according to the Pew Research Center Poll, only 35% of Americans believe that the news shows they watch and hear daily on the TV, Internet, and radio “get the facts straight?. Who is our modern-day Walter Cronkite, once voted the most trusted man in America? Who is our cultural Jimmy Stewart, reminding us “it’s a wonderful life? after all? They’ve been replaced by single minded ideological puppets, most of whom are now very blond and very leggy, who tow the respective propaganda of their masters at the expense of accuracy, research, and ethics (The New York Time’s convicted journalist -for – hire Judith Miller’s involvement in the Valerie Plame case comes to mind). Are they to blame for the increasingly negative worldview of American foreign policies, or are the citizens themselves to be blamed for their inattention, submissive complicity, and general apathy?

Should the good Muslim stay hidden or should the good Muslim throw his stick in the middle and offer his 2 cents?

For those Muslim Americans constantly pillorying the “media? for painting them negatively, they have to take a hard look in the “say it ain’t so? mirror. Unfortunately, the actions and rhetoric of a few misguided Muslims provide the ideological ammunition for critics and enemies to fire against them. It’s like the Siphai army voluntarily loading their Enfield rifles and handing the rifles over to the British to efficiently use them for the Siphai’s execution. Pakistan recently fuels the “Muslim misogynist? engine with tragic tales of violence and abuse against innocent women, such as Mukhtaran Mai, who in 2002 was the victim of a gang “revenge rape? order by her local village counsel due to criminal actions allegedly committed by her younger brother. President Musharaf and cronies, in a complete reversal of their “enlightened moderation? stance, reportedly banned Mai from traveling to speak about her experience due to fear her tale would tarnish his administration’s mirage of a reputation. The PR disaster that followed only likened Musharaf’’s blind eye to the Bush administration’s “shove it under the bed and burn the bed? mentality which seeks to suppress rather than uncover tales of abuse for fear of negative publicity. Recently, the world witnessed the unrepentant Pakistani Muslim Nazir Ahmed publicly admit to slitting the throats of his three young daughters and their 25-year-old stepsister to “salvage his family’s honor? due to allegations of adultery. Apparently, the Jahil (Urdu and Arabic for “grossly ignorant?) scholars and contemporaries of his local village, akin to several villages unfortunately, piggyback their misogynist, violent insecurities and tribal traditions on the burdened shoulders of a phantom, perverted version of Islam that never existed during the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and hopefully will find no new converts in the near future. The misogyny is parallel to the misuse of “jihad? to condone terrorist actions clearly violating the sanctioned boundaries of ethical combat as permitted by Islamic Shariah (the law). Yet, the single minded, “us vs. them?, confrontational rhetoric (sound familiar, America?), provides the ideological nourishment for politically minded individuals whose zealous spine is supported by a perverted self motivated interpretation of dogma condoning reprehensible acts of violence. (Al Qaeda, Bin Laden, Al-Zawhiri, 9-11, London Subway bombings, Spain + Mali bombings).

Due to the gross inequities exhibited by this arcane behavior by Muslims against Muslims and Non Muslims, words of tolerance, peace, and women’s rights ring cheaper than a flea market bargain. The blatantly xenophobic and prejudiced questions aimed only at Muslim applicants taking the recent German citizenship test provide justified outrage, but can one honestly blame them for asking potential Muslim citizens (The following are actual questions):

“Your daughter or sister comes homes and says she has been sexually molested. What do you do as father/mother/brother/sister??

“What do you think if a man in Germany is married to two women at the same time??

It must be comforting for test takers to note that providing the wrong or false answer to these questions can result in a “loss of (German) nationality, even after years, and even if this means that I (the test taker) will become stateless. ? [3]

Should the “good Muslim? get Cliff’s notes before the test and make sure to give the correct answer word for word to pass?

Even “hall of fame? liberals, such as Gloria Steinem, a near prophet for some feminists, jumps on the prejudiced bandwagon, recently quoted lambasting Mr. “Playboy? himself Hugh Hefner: “Now’s he’s going around with four young women in their 20s instead of just one. It’s sort of Moslem, actually.” [4] Considering less than 5% of Muslims engage in polygamy, it soothes the stereotypical soul to know a so-called vanguard for civil rights and defender of minority struggles such as Ms Steinem can use the religious identity of 1.2 billion as a slanderous description of a noted womanizer and lothario. Can anyone imagine the reaction if Steinem had said “It’s sort of Jew, actually?? Hopefully, some sane reporter would kindly suggest a retraction, apology, or at least a clarification. To counter these ignorant, wholesale assumptions with proper Islamic legal foundations and cultural context in an intelligent, rational manner would be revolutionary, especially for a Muslim, who would immediately be deemed “an apologist,? “stealth Islamist? (aka undercover jihadi), or worse, “uppity.?

Instead, the “good Muslim? sits back, mindlessly nods, applauds, and allows the progressive ideologue, whose enmity for Islam is outmatched only by the neo-conservatives, to rail on “Islam? and “Islamists? and “Moslems? backwards mentality and barbaric actions, with evidence amply provided by the Muslims themselves. For true progress, Americans and Muslims should highlight the rampant, yet hidden, abuse of women in their respective countries instead of demonizing one another in an effort for moral high ground and cultural superiority. Nearly one-third of American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives, according to a 1998 Commonwealth Fund survey. Next time Steinem hears a domestic abuse case, maybe she should say: “It’s sort of Muslim…actually, well, it’s sort of American, also.?

So, what should the “good Muslim? do? In “Sleeper Cell,? the good Muslim Darwyn infiltrates the cell, tips off the FBI at the last second, and subverts a major national catastrophe. His reward? A beautiful white woman who happens to be a single mother to the most adorable kid in the reality of make believe TV. The show ends with Darwyn praying (incorrectly, I might add – Muslim advisors where were you?), and peacefully smiling upon his completion. The show recommends, “Know your enemy.? If indeed this is the ideological battlefield for the 21st century, a simplistic Clash of Civilizations as heralded by Samuel Huntington, an “us? vs. “them? fight on domestic levels (liberal vs. conservative), and the war field (Coalition of the Willing vs. Axis of Evil), a “good Muslim? vs. the “bad Muslim,? then we must follow the sagely advice of Lao-Tse who wrote the classic “The Art of War.? The most skillful warrior in battle is not only one who knows his enemy, but one who knows himself.

In an era of media manipulation, political scandal, ideological punditry, cultural cinema stereotyping, and a festering environment of distrust and paranoia, who are we, as Americans, in this war on terror? For the Muslims, both American and abroad, if the true meaning of jihad is “struggling against the self-commanding nafs (the id, selfish vain desires) and the true meaning of Islam is “peace? and “submission to God’s will? then why do our hypocritical actions and rhetoric belie the tolerant, multicultural aspects of our religion we supposedly hold dear?

Perhaps if we know our enemy, we will know ourselves and become the “good Muslim? and the “good American.?

Too bad most of us are sleeping.

Wajahat Ali is a playwright. He wrote the acclaimed play Domestic Crusaders. This article will appear in Konch, a literary magazine, later this month.


[1] Tyler Lewis. “Citing Reports of Suppressed Racial Disparity Findings, LCCR Urges Federal Profiling Ban.? Civil Rights.org, Aug 31, 2005. http://www.civilrights.org/issues/cj/details.cfm?id=35132

[2] Josh White. “President Relents, Backs Torture Ban.? Washington Post.Com, Dec 16. 2005.

[4] Lloyd Grove. “Steinem swings at Hef and hits Islam.? NYDaily News.Com, Dec 14, 2005. http://www.nydailynews.com/front/story/374953p-318629c.html

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