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The X-Files Makes Islam the Monster of the Week

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 22/02/2016 Walaa Chahine

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Stop me if you've heard this one before. An episode of prime time television that opens up with a Muslim man praying.
It's not an uncommon cold opening in a post 9/11 entertainment world. Series like Homeland and 24 show these images on a regular basis, and there's nothing wrong with that. Muslims pray. What is wrong is that most of the time, this scene is followed up with that same Muslim folding up his prayer mat, getting into a car, and blowing up a big building filled with innocent people.
I just described the opening to the most recent episode of The X-Files, Babylon.
Before I begin, I'd like to say that less than a month ago I wrote about my experiences as a Muslim, hijabi fangirl who was starting to find her place in the world of entertainment. I also mentioned that my favorite TV show was The X-Files, a show about aliens and government conspiracies. So, it came as a pretty big surprise to me that a show who not once, but twice, depicted its title characters Mulder and Scully (played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, respectively) chasing after a monster made of garbage, was now demonizing the world's second largest religion.
Three minutes in, we witnessed two Muslim men meeting up, listening to Arabic music, and praying together. My immediate thought? "Please don't blow something up, please don't blow something."
They blew something up.
I don't have that thought about TV shows. If I did have that thought during TV shows, I'd expect it to be while watching Homeland, not during The X-Files.
The rest of the episode didn't get any better. It attempted to combine philosophy, theology, human emotion, and comedy into one episode. In 5 minutes, we witnessed Mulder go on a mushroom trip where he line-danced to the tune of Trace Adkin's Honky Tonk Badonkadonk, and then ended up on a boat where the mother of Shiraz (the first Muslim man we met) carried her son's body towards him. The latter scene was an attempt by Chris Carter, the show's creator, to show that "Mother love is a common and even universal language that transcends race, culture, and borders. It is the language even God couldn't destroy." The idea was great, it was just executed terribly. By propagating the stereotypes of Muslims, Carter fueled the Islamophobia present in society today.

So what do I, an American Muslim, think about Babylon?

  1. It is a very delicate time in the world when it comes to terrorism and Islam. ISIS claims to fight in the name of Islam. People are scared, and when they're scared they need somebody to blame. They're wrong in blaming Islam, and most entertainment networks have recently attempted to shine a light on the reality of Islam, and not the stigma of it. Most. Such a delicate and controversial topic should be handled with care; not to appease people, but to give them equal and fair depiction. Babylon was sloppy and irresponsible.
  2. Islamophobia is at an all time high. If this episode was aired in a different year, I would not be as passionate as I am about the portrayal of Muslims. However, this episode aired just 4 days after the first anniversary of the murder of three Muslim Americans students in Chapel Hill, NC. I have purposely started to stand away from the edge of subway platforms, only wear one headphone, and keep pepper spray on me in case someone attacks me for the veil I wear on my head. I watch The X-Files to get away from reality, not to be reminded of its cruelty.
  3. Carter wrote this episode in an attempt to show how our fears of one another's differences keep us from understanding one another. Carter had a great opportunity here to explore this idea further, but he came up short. As Ismat Mangla wrote in the International Bussiness Times, "It's unfortunate, then, that Carter's noble message of transcending our fears of the other backfires spectacularly in an hour of television that manages to traffic in tired and dangerous stereotypes, especially of Muslims, whose beliefs and practices are shown only in the most ominous and reductive ways."
  4. Babylon did not only discriminate against Muslims, but surprisingly, it managed to also paint all Texans as cowboy hat-wearing, truck- driving racists. Babylon pitted the two against each other; quietly accusing Muslims of being unwilling to acclimate, and Texans as being unwilling to accept them. The city of Houston has the largest population of Muslims in the South; Muslims who are living peacefully with other members of their community, but you wouldn't know it from watching Babylon. As Mangla goes on to write "And that's a problem, because the only time we see Muslims on television or film, whether they're performing the ordinary daily prayers practiced by 1.6 billion Muslims around the world or just behaving in otherwise "Muslim-y" ways, is when they're about to blow people up. It's a shame that Carter doesn't seem to understand that the honest and fair depiction of minorities in popular culture matters -- particularly from a pop culture giant like "The X-Files" -- and it's precisely this kind of bungling portrayal that serves to perpetuate the fear and mistrust he says he decries.
  5. At the end of the episode, a group of long-bearded, praying Muslims was captured and arrested. During the arrest, a news segment was seen playing footage of 9/11 and the attack on the Twin Towers. This was a terrible method of propaganda that used fear and painful memories as a tool to justify the rest of the episode's stereotypical tone. I am a Muslim American who lost her father due to his volunteer efforts on 9/11 and the months afterward. He was exposed to chemicals that gave him cancer and ultimately killed him. 9/11 is not just a reminder of the attack on my country, but the attack on my religion and my right to grow up with two parents. As a person directly affected by 9/11, images used in such a promotion only sharpen the pain.

At the end of the day, I can't complain any more than I have about The X-Files. Will I ever watch this episode again? Probably not. I'm just happy Mulder and Scully are back on TV, and they're still searching for the truth. My only hope is that in the future, pop culture phenomena with such grand influences on society depict Muslims for who they are; people who as Ben Affleck eloquently put it "just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, and pray fives times a day."
I won't let one episode ruin my experience of The X-Files revival. I mean, who judges an entire television series based on one episode?

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