Letting Stereotypes Slip By

This past week, the Undergraduate Council presented an advance screening of the first three episodes of Fox’s popular television show, “24.” In doing so, the council insensitively aired an offensive portrayal of Middle Eastern Americans. Given the simplistic depiction of Middle Eastern Americans in Fox’s “24,” the show was inconsistent with the values of cultural awareness and diversity that the Undergraduate Council and the University seek to promote.

The show portrays a Turkish-American Muslim family in Los Angeles, Western in appearance and lifestyle, as a terrorist sleeper cell. In a news story that appeared in the Edmonton Times, a Fox spokesman refused comment when asked about the questionable content of the show. But the fact remains that 24’s facile and harmful representation of this “model” terrorist cell exceeds what is realistic and what is necessary for the show’s entertainment value. The show makes sure to convey how long this family lived in the United States, participated in its commerce and even utilized its public schools. Over the breakfast table, a familiar setting to us all, the father tells the family: “What we will accomplish today will change the world. We are fortunate that our family has been chosen to do this.” “24” has essentially turned the kitchen table of an average Muslim family into the center of all the evil that has gripped our nation. The implication of the episode is that one can never be certain that the Muslim or Arab family next door are not terrorists. Harvard should be the last place such a mentality is accepted.

Many Arabs and Muslims have made America their home, contributing to its economy and culture and appreciating the rights guaranteed by citizenship and residency in our great country. Arabs and Muslims serve in the United States armed forces and intelligence agencies, attempting to fight the very terrorists that they are suspected of being. Arab Americans have also risen to the highest echelons of power in this country, counting among them former Sen. George Mitchell D-Maine, Sen. John Sununu Jr., R-N.H., former Kerry Campaign Chairperson and Governor of New Hampshire Jeanne Shaheen and numerous members of Congress. Fox’s show fails to even include an Arab-American translator working in the “Counter Terrorism Unit,” even though many currently do. 24’s only depiction of Arabs and Muslims is as evil terrorists.

Despite Arab Americans’ relative success integrating into American society, the sad reality is that many Arab and Muslim Americans have experienced racism first hand. Such inflammatory programming only serves to strengthen the negative stereotypes that lead to such acts. Many members of the Arab and Muslim communities have lost their homes, places of worship and businesses to arson—some have even lost their lives. Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Indian gas station owner, was murdered in what was concluded to be a hate crime. Sodhi wore a turban and as a result his attackers believed he was Arab. Even in the liberal bastion of Massachusetts we are not immune to such occurrences, as just last month a mosque was burnt to the ground in the Boston suburb of Springfield. In a country where many people are inadvertently suspicious of Muslim and Arab Americans and where few citizens actually have substantial contact with these minority groups, a show like 24 can greatly affect the perception of the community.

Even at Harvard we frequently find ourselves having to prove that despite our heritage we are not supporters of terrorism. While we believe that the members of the Undergraduate Council had no malicious intent in airing this show, we do feel that given the known general content of the show and other Fox programming, the council should have at least reviewed the content before showing the program to the Harvard community. Entertaining the student body shouldn’t come at the cost of alienating different groups of students. Especially in the case of issues surrounding terrorism, it is the council’s responsibility to exercise extreme sensitivity or risk inciting parts of the student body against each other.

On behalf of the Society of Arab Students, we hope the council will communicate, through a statement or other appropriate means, that it believes the screening of the show was a mistake. And we want the members of the Harvard community who viewed the program to consider what we have said today in the hopes it minimizes the impact of “24” and shows with similar themes on a our peers, for whom we hold the deepest respect.

Jade Jurdi ’06 is a government concentrator in Quincy House. He is treasurer of the Society of Arab Students. Magdey Abdallah ’06 is a government concentrator in Dunster House. He is publicity chairperson of the Society of Arab Students.