Islamic action hero fails to win over Muslims


LOS ANGELES -- In his first days out of prison on charges he'd rather not talk about, the new Muslim television character Darwyn Al-Hakim barges into a Southern California synagogue during prayers, tails a teenager targeted for a grisly death and joins in the stoning murder of a fellow terrorist accused of betraying the cause.

He also reports back on his activities to his colleagues in the FBI.

In Al-Hakim, played by University of Maryland graduate Michael Ealy, the creators of the new Showtime series Sleeper Cell say they have developed America's first Muslim action hero: an undercover anti-terror agent who infiltrates a band of bad guys bent on destruction in the name of Islam.

The introduction of a Muslim hero is good news, say Muslim leaders who have followed the development of the series.

It's the rest of the production that concerns them. They say the 10-part series, which debuts at 10 p.m. Sunday, perpetuates misconceptions about Islam and terrorism while portraying American Muslims as untrustworthy and potentially dangerous.

Sleeper Cell depicts the terrorist as next-door neighbor: Faris Al-Farik, the leader of the unit, passes as a Jewish security expert who coaches a Little League team. Bosnian immigrant Ilija Korjenic is a high school science teacher. Blond, blue-eyed Thomas Allen Emerson manages a bowling alley.

In their spare time, they're bringing stonings and honor killings to Southern California.

Given the increase in anti-Muslim discrimination since the attacks of Sept. 11, Sabiha Khan says, the message is unhelpful.

"We are living in the real world where terrorism is definitely impacting all of our lives - especially an American Muslim life," said Khan, who consults on television and movie productions as communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Southern California.

"What if I go down the street, or my brother goes down the street, or my father goes down the street, goes to the post office?" she asked. "Is somebody thinking, `Is he an undercover terrorist, part of an elaborate cell? You know, they seem normal, and they do everything that Americans do. ... ' "

Khan's concerns go to a larger frustration among American Muslims about the depiction of Islam in popular culture. Seldom are major Muslim characters in television or films anything but terrorists, as in the films Executive Decision, True Lies and The Siege.

The depiction of an American Muslim family as a sleeper cell in the series 24 this year sparked outrage. Fox ultimately aired a statement read by star Kiefer Sutherland telling viewers that the American Muslim community denounces and resists terrorism.

Even Sayid Jarrah, the generally sympathetic character on the ABC television series Lost, is a former torturer who fought in the Republican Guard of Saddam Hussein.

"Historically, representations of Muslims and Arabs in popular culture have not been good," said Ibrahim Hooper, national spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.

"We saw a bit of a reluctance after 9/11 to do any portrayals of Muslims, Arabs, Arab-Americans," Hooper said. "I think people were quite cognizant of the fact that any negative portrayals could further stir up discrimination and bias against ordinary American Muslims and Arab-Americans.

"We're starting to see a shift away from that reluctance now, and we have to monitor the portrayals to make sure that the portrayals are balanced, that they're not stereotypical, and they are a true reflection of the reality of the American Muslim experience and an objective portrayal of Islam."

The creators of Sleeper Cell say that's what they were trying to do.

"One of the things the show grew out of was almost a frustration," said Cyrus Voris, co-executive producer of the series with Ethan Reiff. "When this subject started creeping back into the popular culture a few years after 9/11, it came back in still almost a pre-9/11 way: very typical, and one-dimensional, two-dimensional sort of generic Eurotrash terrorists or terrorists from - I think that Ethan coined this - from the country of Unnamed-istan.

"One of the things that we really wanted to do was just sort of portray this in a much more complex way. ... Yes, we are showing Islamic extremism, but we're also showing a moderate Islamic character, Darwyn, who's the hero of the show and who is very much anti-extremism and is trying to stop the extremism."

Khan's feelings about the show are mixed.

"It's wonderful to have finally a Muslim good guy, you know, on the good side, who is also as patriotic an American as everybody else, fighting the war on terror just like everybody else," she said.

"The question is, are we always going to be relegated through the lens of terrorism? Are we only going to have Muslim characters come up, good and bad, when we're talking about terrorism?"

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