TML> Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism
Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism

Covering Islam and Muslims
in America

The Western Knight Center is now the Knight Digital Media Center - Visit Now!
About the WKC
Seminar Archive
Speaker Showcase
Seminar Showcase
Resources and Links
Knight Digital Media Center
Contact Us
Session Articles        
Agenda     Speakers     Fellows     Resources

Arts, Entertainment, and Music

By Janine Kahn

In December, Showtime will launch “Sleeper Cell,” a series that plans to rock the television world by presenting two things that have yet to be seen on the tube: the humanization of a terrorist sleeper cell, and a main character named Darwyn, an FBI agent with the makings of a Muslim-American hero.

Executive producer Ethan Reiff said the challenge was to create a Muslim character that was the central focus of the entire piece, and not merely part of the background.

“(The point was) not just portray mainstream Islam, but to make it really relatable to the Average American,” said Reiff, who added that the show aims to “break down the barriers and the walls and stereotypes.”

While presenting this moderate Muslim hero, the series also showcases an ethnically diverse sleeper cell in an attempt to make this band of terrorists seem “more real world,” as opposed to the “one or two dimensional stock terrorist characters” seen in shows like “24.”
“You get to understand terrorists to the point where they’re ready to participate in this heinous operation,” said Reiff.

"One of the things the show grew out of was almost a frustration when this subject started creeping back into popular culture a few years after 9/11,” said Executive Producer Cyrus Voris.

The show aims to quash the “generic Euro-trash terrorists or terrorists from what (we) call ‘Unnamed-istan,’” he said. 

In portraying Muslim figures in a more complex way, Voris said the series hoped to show the two sides of Islam: the terrorist face usually seen in the media, and the more moderate reality.

Sabiha Khan, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said that while it is good to finally have a Muslim good guy fighting the war on terror just like everybody else, she hopes that Hollywood will veer away from terrorist topics.

“Are we always going to be relegated through the lens of terrorism?” she asked, noting that the Islamic community would like to see a Muslim Cosby one day. Khan was also wary of this notion of Islam having “two sides.”

“As Muslims we don’t see it as two sides of Islam – we see it as the majority of Muslims, 1.3 billion, practicing their religion worried about putting food on the table, and the few people who decided for political but they take Islam to justify their actions, and these are a minority. It’s much more complicated than half and half. Most Muslims are human beings too and hate terror and fear.”

Another issue Khan had with the show was the way the members of the sleeper cell eased back into their normal jobs and lives at the end of the day:

“This immediately conjures up images of suspicion. Can you ever really trust a Muslim?” Khan said.

In the end, it all comes down to 9/11, according to Voris. “Terrorism has framed the issue because of this event,” he said, adding that the show aimed to open up a dialogue with the distrustful public, which would perhaps pave the way for the future appearances of Muslims in more ‘regular Joe’ roles in entertainment. 

“It should not be downplayed that the lead man on our show is a Muslim hero,” said Voris, who noted that the interracial mix of the makeup of the terrorist sleeper cell will give the public something to chew on. The face of Islam “is not always an Arab face,” he said. “It is oftentimes the white European face of a convert.”

Khan agreed that Islam wears many faces, but held firm to the belief that most faces of Islam were not that of an extremist terrorist.

“In the end, we want to be part of the fabric. Give a chance to our talents because the majority of us are not terrorists. We’re teachers, lawyers, taxicab drivers, accountants what have you … we’re contributors to society,” Khan said. 

Resources

VideoWatch video of the session (185.9 MB)

Video is presented in either Real Media or Windows Media format. To view Real Media video, download and install RealPlayer, a free video streaming player available from RealNetworks. To view Windows Media video, you will need to download and install the Windows Media 10 Player.

A partnership of...

Funded by the John S. and
James L. Knight Foundation