Yet again, the old, tired “major” American Muslim organizations have come out in full force to object to something unobjectionable. This time, they’re angry about the storyline of 24, the highly popular TV drama on Fox: When the recent premiere episode ended with a terrorist network detonating a nuclear device in a Los Angeles suburb, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) announced its fear that “this would serve to increase anti-Muslim prejudice in American society.” The show had begun with a depiction of an America gripped in fear after an eleven-week run of suicide bombings, apparently by radical Islamist terror cells, in cities across the country.
The show addresses a real concern. While the U.S. has not been the victim of an attack since 9/11, a vast array of networks have been dismantled around the world — including a plot run out of London that was targeting the U.S. And, since 9/11, there have been a number of successful attacks upon civilian populations in other parts of the globe — in Bali, Istanbul, Spain, London, Egypt, Jordan, and other places.
As an American and as a Muslim, I find 24 to be not only a profoundly engaging program, but one whose portrayal of Muslims in quite fair. In the show, the president’s sister works for a “leading” Muslim civil-rights organization in D.C.; she is portrayed as a protector of constitutional freedoms. The head of this Muslim organization, who is in detention, reports to authorities on prisoners’ terrorism-related conversations that have alarmed him.
The show also shows the darker, extremist side of Islam — for example, an Arab-Muslim youth, a previously beloved neighbor in suburban L.A., turns out to be a terrorist thug who provides a key part of the nuclear device while terrorizing his friend’s family. This is another, undeniable part of today’s Muslim reality: While suitcase nuclear devices have yet to be used, the threat is there, and such characters are probably quite true to life in their depiction of members of al Qaeda cells or other jihadist networks in the West.
Any ethnic group can, of course, voice complaints regarding its portrayal in pop culture. From the frequently maligned American Italian community in organized-crime dramas to the Russian community that was the focus of last year’s 24, no ethnic group is entirely safe from the silver screen. But the sad reality is that such crime rings or “networks,” which exploit ethnic and religious communities, exist; and they do affect our security.
For American Muslims, though, 24 offers an opportunity to address a key question: To the extent Muslims have a bad image on TV, what can we do to change that?
All patriotic American Muslims who watch 24’s evil Muslim characters unfold their plot to destroy the U.S. quite naturally are enraged. We have an overwhelming desire to reach into the TV set and let all the non-Muslim characters witness a Muslim leading the nullification of this radical Islamist threat.
But the public face of American Muslim activity against terror — and the against the ideology that feeds it — has so far been inadequate. Other than press-release condemnations, there has been virtually no palpable public effort from the greater Muslim community in this regard. If that public movement against Islamism existed, 24’s writers would probably have included it in the story line.
So if this drama hits too close to home, perhaps offended Muslims should use this TV program as an emotional stimulus for change. To this point, the Muslim community has been able to completely avoid any real debate over Islamism. In fact, we see now a movement in England and the West to blame the West’s foreign policy as a root cause of terror rather than the real root cause — theocratic Islamist ideology.
It’s time for hundreds of thousands of Muslims to be not only private but public in their outrage — and to commit themselves to specific, verbal engagement of the militants and their Islamism. We, as American Muslims, should be training and encouraging our Muslim-community youth to become the future Jack Bauers of America. What better way to dispel stereotypes than to create hundreds of new, real images of Muslims who are publicly leading this war on the battlefield and in the domestic and foreign media against the militant Islamists.
Condemnations by press release and vague fatwas are not enough. We need to create organizations — high-profile, well-funded national organizations and think tanks — which are not afraid to identify al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah by name, and by their mission as the enemies of America.
If Muslim organizations and the American Muslim leadership were seen publicly as creating a national, generational plan to fight Islamism — rather than searching for reasons to claim victimhood — then the issues and complaints surrounding such TV shows would disappear. The way to fight the realities of 24 is to create a Muslim CTU, a deep Muslim counterterrorism ideology and a national action plan for our security.
–M. Zuhdi Jasser is the chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and a former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander.