Islamophobia as antagonist: the enemy within Australian TV drama

In the wake of Christchurch, Australia has undergone a reckoning. To anyone with a finger on the political pulse, it came as no shock. The perpetrator only took into his own hands what the Australian government had enshrined in bipartisan policy for decades: the vilification of Muslims.

I was working in an ABC Drama development workshop when the news broke. The show we were developing was about racial injustice in the legal system. There was barely hesitation before the accusations came flying – ‘Dutton’s got blood on his hands’, ‘Probably a Hanson supporter’ and the sarcastic ‘Well you couldn’t call him un-Australian’. In the following days, years of discontent came flooding out: the Murdoch press was put on unofficial trial. EggBoy became an International hero.

But there was no reckoning for TV drama. The dominant liberal sensibilities in our industry somehow vaccinated us from responsibility. But Australian television drama plays its own Islamophobic role. We have manifested the imagination of xenophobic fear politicians can only dream of delineating. We have forgiven the state its trespassing by accepting the threat of Islam as real. Worse still, this antagonism is always balanced with the unquestioned stakes of ‘our liberal democracy’, which includes the Islamophobic ‘national security’ state. Having worked in TV writers’ rooms, I have repeatedly seen this start from discussion in development to manifestation on screen.

To put this in perspective, I’ll use the Christchurch attacker himself. A slight shift in context would render him a hero. If the location were a US-defined ‘conflict zone’ and he had been in an Australian military uniform, those 50 victims would not have been deemed ‘innocent’. He may even have received military decoration. Instead of a political manifesto, he could have written a memoir detailing his kill list. The book might have become a bestseller and been adapted into a major film or TV series. The killer would be given a rich emotional context to soften the brutality of his work. And that series almost certainly would have adopted the doctrine of ‘guilty by association’ for his victims that was applied when declaring an area as a ‘conflict zone’. The onus of evidence would be relegated to real-life officials who could refuse, insisting it is ‘classified’. The film would be excused for only dramatising the reality it was provided and that would be it. The accolades and critical praise would flock.

The reality is that we are constantly providing cover for terrorism. The problem is that we keep calling it national security. Noam Chomsky’s advice could be firmly applied to Australian TV Drama – ‘Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s really an easy way: stop participating in it.’


From the new racist trope to liberal Islamophobia

The ‘Muslim as terrorist’ trope is only the latest in a long legacy of racist stereotypes, like the bygone ‘threatening black man’. It would be absurd to create a televised drama today that pivots on this second racist trope (though in the Trump era it would probably make great satire material if you exchanged black for Mexican). And yet, whenever a Muslim character is depicted in our TV dramas, there is a seemingly mandatory characterisation process they must undertake: addressing the character’s relationship to terrorism. If they themselves are not a terrorist, which many such characters are, they are morally defined by their position in relation to said terrorism. Imagine if we applied this process to black male characters and violence? While liberalism insists on being ‘balanced’, television drama will pursue its claim of ‘not all Muslims’. In practice, this means we will continue to see the occasional murderous Jihadi plotting against the West to assure the audience their Islamophobic fear is justified. But to leave it at that would be Dutton/Anning terrain – the one-sided milking of a racist stereotype. Instead, we have seamlessly transitioned from the ‘Muslim as terrorist’ trope to a liberal Islamophobic narrative framework.


‘Narrative entrapment’

Just as the FBI entrapment strategy draws Muslims into further persecution and criminalisation, so too does its narrative equivalent. I use the term ‘narrative entrapment’ to describe the effect of national security stories on Muslim characters. These narratives thrive on two premises. One: Islamic extremism is the primary threat to society. And two: the national security apparatus is the mechanism by which society is protected. This leaves a very narrow crevice from which Muslim characters can escape untainted – and national security narratives make it their business to put Muslim characters on trial.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in dramas like Homeland (US) and Bodyguard (UK), but Australia gives it a red hot go with shows like Pine Gap (ABC/Netflix 2018) and Hyde & Seek (Channel 9, 2016).

Bodyguard bookends its first season with an Islamophobic set up and pay off. In the pilot’s opening sequence, a Muslim woman clad in a suicide vest is talked out of detonating a bomb on a London-bound train. The British cop hero tells her she is brainwashed by a (Muslim) husband who wishes for her to die. By episode six, the woman’s agency is reclaimed when she declares ‘I built all the bombs … I am an engineer. I am a jihadi.’. All that was absent was the maniacal, evil genius cackle. This demented attempt at ‘balance’ ensured the audience that Muslim women are to be equally suspected as Muslim men. Bodyguard writer Jed Mercurio rejected accusations of Islamophobia, saying ‘unfortunately, the reality of our situation is that the principal terror threats in the UK do originate from Islamist sympathisers’.

Bodyguard was nominated for Best TV/Outstanding Drama Series at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes. This is the cultural benchmark.

The pilot episode of Pine Gap climaxes with a dilemma about whether to drone-bomb suspected Islamic terrorists within a rocket launch-distance from the US president (spoiler alert: they do). Rather than treat this with any of the moral dilemma its characters pay lip service to, the show instead serves as a catalyst for a whistle-blower plot, turning the question from ‘Was this justified?’ into ‘Who is airing our dirty laundry?’ and setting the moral compass right back on course. The narrative framing implies that the question of moral righteousness is secondary in the face of a ‘national security threat’. In the context of the Julian Assange arrest, this is a troubling reflection of our times.

Hyde & Seek kicks off with a lower-budget hysteria. A car bomb that kills a cop (‘worthy’ victim) sparks a terrorism investigation that traverses the usual Islamic suspects. The investigation drip-feeds a corruption thriller that goes up the ranks of the AFP and ASIO, but these are treated as distortions of democracy rather than business as usual. Unsurprisingly, Islamic terrorism’s connection to Islam is not afforded the same analysis. It is just assumed background detail.

Everyone knows that in TV drama, ‘returnability’ is the investment lynchpin. If you can’t squeeze multiple seasons worth of content out of a concept, then it won’t get funded. It’s why TV writers obsessively chase ‘story engines’. As the name implies, writers must find concepts that can continue to generate conflict and, hence, drama to feed a show. On top of that, the stakes need to be as high as possible. Drama executives from everywhere except Netflix know they are competing with Netflix, and Netflix executives know they are upholding the standards.

National security dramas fill this prescription. They are inherent story engines. They engender a constant threat of attack, and a sense of national unity (read: stakes) that need to be defended. Just like the machine that it is in life, national security narratives are seemingly endless.

Aside from the political negligence these types of shows exhibit, they also neglect basic screenwriting craftsmanship – primarily the creation of a compelling, motivated antagonist. Falling back on the scaremongering of our media and political classes does not make a show ‘edgy’. It makes it lazy. And very convenient, because the Australian audience no longer need imagine what horrors these ‘Islamist threats’ could wreak. Rather, they can stream their preferred variant of that nightmare on whichever platform they choose.

And if that makes some progressive viewers queasy, there’s always the trusty diversity cushion to soften the Islamophobic blow.


The ‘diversity cushion’

Diversity quotas are thankfully (and slowly) pushing the blinding whiteness of TV casting toward the history pile. But this change is not solving the racism problem within Australian TV drama. Where before writers’ rooms were content with a whiteboard full of Toms, Dicks and Sarahs, they now routinely conduct a diversity pass before proceeding. Various non-Anglo names are plastered on the whiteboard in the hope that a character named ‘Vishnu’ will incite a casting call for brown people. It won’t always (ask anyone working in soap). But the issue of racial discrimination in casting is separate from the issue in question. Diversity on screen can be solved by casting. Islamophobia on screen cannot.

The same liberalism that insists (rightly) on diversity quotas uses this political framework to weaponise (Islamophobic) diversity. The emerging Hollywood genre is the bourgeois feminist icon killing misogynistic Islamists. But it’s not always so candid. It can operate subtly.

For example, in the earlier outlined bookended sequence of Bodyguard, another parallel emerges. The Muslim woman terrorist is surrounded by a diverse police support cast – the Special Operations leader pointing a semi-automatic at her head in the train is a black woman. In episode six, when the terrorist reveals her Jihadi motives, the two detectives interrogating her are black women.

American commercial TV shows 24 and Quantico star black and South Asian actors as security and FBI agents in sensationalist counterterrorism narratives based on ‘Muslim enemy within’ threats. They may give lip service to interpersonal racism experienced by individual characters. But ultimately, the characters are heroised in their criminalisation of Muslims. It fits neatly into the good immigrant/bad immigrant dichotomy.

In Australia’s Pine Gap, there was a particularly sinister example of this diversity cushion at play for catharsis. In the final episode, Gus, the US missions director, is skyping with his father. The leaked audio clip of Gus ordering the drone attack that killed ‘suspected terrorists’ has gone viral. Gus’s emotional need to have his father’s validation, set up in episode one, is paid off when his father tearfully insists that this pre-emptive drone strike probably saved the US president’s life. Gus, a black man, is finally an object of pride for his father. This is rendered nauseatingly patriotic when his sense of ‘failure’ is explained – Gus was living in the shadow of his heroic brother who was killed serving in the US invasion of Iraq. None of the same emotional complexity is applied to the question of drone warfare, never mind the nameless Muslims they target. Instead, drone warfare becomes the means by which characters’ emotional arcs are resolved. Patriotism becomes the set of values by which heroism is measured. Subtextually, the image assures us that the national security apparatus represents a vision of multiracial harmony that Islamic terrorism, not Islamophobia, threatens to destroy. Diversity becomes the self-defence mechanism.

East West 101 (SBS 2007–2011) is the most shocking example of this strategy. Its protagonist, Zane Malik, is a devout Muslim and Crime Squad detective. In the pilot episode, his antagonistic Anglo colleague says to him ‘You’re either an Arab or a cop’. The series treats this ‘dilemma’ with almost comical seriousness. Malik’s entire character arc (again, about validation) is couched in an unquestioned reality of Islam’s responsibility for terrorism. Instead of Malik separating this link, he reinforces it. It is Malik’s own ‘Muslimness’ that renders him most capable as a cop to police his own community. The same applies to his multiracial chums in the force. They each exploit their community ties to uncover crime in migrant enclaves. East West 101 is a pioneer in Australia’s narrative entrapment. It exhibits the full spectrum of allowable Muslims on screen and all are determined by their relationship to the Australian state. They are either for it, or against it; good Muslim or terrorist/sympathiser. There can be no dissident Muslims. Nor can the legitimacy of state repression be questioned. State repression is the tool of narrative conflict resolution – in other words, the terrorists are caught.


Government funding is not free of expectation

There is an extensive history of Hollywood’s collusion with the US government. For decades there have existed ‘entertainment liaison offices’ between the CIA, Pentagon and Department of Defense to police their respective portrayals on screen. One need only examine such recent films as Zero Dark Thirty to understand the political outcome of those exchanges. But surely Australian security agencies, the pitiful lackeys from down under, couldn’t fare so robust?

Depends how robust you consider a $6 million budget. In 2015, the Australian government gave that amount to the show Journey, depicting the futile attempt of Afghan refugees to reach Australia by boat and air. Journey was screened on local TV in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. No English subtitled version of the film exists, nor has it been screened in Australia. Journey is a propaganda film cautioning against the dangers of trying to reach Australia as an asylum seeker. For anyone who has ever applied for production funding, this outcome is at comical odds with the ‘international appeal’ that executives insist upon. If you want Americans to watch the show, it needs beaches and kangaroos or adventurous red dirt desert. But if you want Afghanis and Iraqis to watch it, the production should have all the appeal of a fascistic Trumpian dystopia.

Now Journey is not clearing out the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards – it barely has a functional IMDB page. But Australian scripted content is heavily reliant on government funding to sustain the industry. We are not exempt from the same political censorship or expectation. One need only glimpse the budgetary attacks on the ABC to understand the consequences: criticise too hard, expect to be choked. But it’s not just the ABC that faces such censorship. Most of the ‘quality’ TV content that we produce is dependent on some degree of government funding. That funding comes at a political price – one that we see repeated on screens and punished in consecutive screen-funding budgets.


A troubling predicament

Screenwriters working in commercial TV drama have no pressure exerted on them to question dominant political ideology. They are, however, subject to development instructions from the corporations and government agencies who fund them. They are creating a product that must be marketed and sold to a targeted audience as ‘entertainment’. Nothing in this process lends itself to scrutiny.

Screenwriters who dare to challenge this narrow narrative scope set themselves a formidable task. We could start with assessing what social role we are really playing in our work by uncritically adopting liberal Islamophobic frameworks.

But if all we can imagine is cued by the ‘Australian national security’ line, then we have a crisis of imagination. Our work bears responsibility with ever-increasing consequences in a post-Christchurch Australia.


Monty Fish

Monty Fish is a writer and script assistant. She has worked for the ABC, Foxtel, Channel 7 and Netflix.

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  1. Should be a mandatory reading for students of film and television.

    As a side note, Afghani = currency, Afghan = someone from Afghanistan

    I make this mistake all the time even though I’m from Afghanistan.

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