COMMENTARY: Hollywood Confronts Jihad, and Insults Us All

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Here we go again. Showtime will run a series called “Sleeper Cell,” about an American Muslim who infiltrates a terrorist cell. He’s an African-American, not Arab-American. The cell’s members are a Frenchman named Christian, an Egyptian-American, a white rich American, and a Bosnian. There was probably a Hmong Muslim terrorist, but he tested poorly with focus groups.

Frenchmen. Bosnians. White boys. No Saudis?

Please. Who do the producers think the Marines are fighting in Iraq?

Oh, it’s entirely possible that the real secret weapon of Islamist terrorism is disaffected Gauls, and someday Jacques Chirac will blow the Louvre to protest infidel cheese tariffs. It’s also possible that pigs, given an aerodynamic profile and a nuclear-fueled jetpack, will break the Concorde’s transatlantic speed record.

It’s come to this: Hollywood confronts jihad and gives us “Tommy,” a “Causasian, all-American rich kid who reinvents himself as a Muslim extremist.”

Those kids today with their wacky reinventing, skullcaps on sideways, wearing their bomb belts hanging down so you can see their drawers. Yes, most all-American kids with lots of money can’t see a hot sports car parked in front of a restaurant without wishing it would totally explode and like, completely kill all the hot chicks inside. If that’s the true face of the threat, start rounding up the junior Kennedys and building them a wing at Gitmo. Something with a field so they can play touch football.

And now, to state the grindingly obvious: No, we don’t need a series that shows Muslims as wide-eyed throat-slitters in headscarves and robes with green blood and vampire teeth. But to make the sleeper cell a multicultural affair not only strains credulity, it denigrates Islam. It suggests there is something intrinsic to the faith that attracts whackjobs from all walks of life. And it inverts truth, if such a thing matters.

The face of modern Islamist terrorism is mostly Arab. There are the Persian paymasters, of course, but the blokes doing the heavy lifting are mostly draw from Arab lands. Apparently it’s unhelpful to note this in polite company. Or on soundstages. It’s the elephant in the tent. And he’s got a bomb!

Arabs aren’t genetically predisposed to death cults; every shade of humankind has its turn at that wheel. In fact, one of the interesting aspects of the dead-ender car-bomb war in Iraq is the way it pits non-Iraqis against Iraqis who want a civil society. Normal workaday Iraqis want to vote, have a government, police, newspapers, fresh milk, safe streets, the promise of a better tomorrow, lower auto insurance rates, etc. Who’s opposing them? Nasty local brutes who want Baathist fascism or God-besotted maniacs imported to build a theocracy one beheading at a time. They’re not pouring in from Finland, and surely that fact bears noting.

One could safely say that Islam, as interpreted by a troublesome number of Arabs, is the present problem. So casting “The Sleeper Cell” as a multi-culti group is like making a World War II movie in which all the Yanks have German names and the Nazis are redheaded Irishmen.

You can only conclude that the producers are afraid. Afraid of the backlash from advocacy groups that blast out a billion e-mails whenever a terrorist on a TV show isn’t a paper-white rawboned Okie boy; afraid of frowns from the uppercrust Hollywood peers who say ixnay-on-the-Arabay angle lest it play into the hands of Bushy McChimphitler. Afraid that mouth-breathing Red Staters will watch the show, grab a torch and head for the nearest mosque. (You know, the way Showtime’s other hits “The L Word” and “Queer as Folk” led to massive outbreaks of homosexuality.) No, it’s much more interesting to make “The Sleeper Cell” a layered, nuanced thing.

But you wonder. Which group is more ethnically varied: a real sleeper cell or the people who died on Sept. 11? What says more about our times, our land, our world: a show that has a make-believe Gallic Muslim named “Christian” or an account of the panoply of humanity that perished when the walls fell?

As Jack Nicholson said in a movie: They can’t handle the truth. They don’t even want to pick it up.


(James Lileks is a columnist for Newhouse News Service, a blogger and the author of four books.)

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