As someone who grew up obsessed with alien abductions, the Cigarette Smoking Man, monsters of the week, and two FBI agents named Mulder and Scully, I was over the moon when I heard that The X-Files would be revived for a six-episode return this winter. For the last five weeks I've anxiously awaited Monday nights and relished the opportunity to sink back into my younger years. So, you can imagine how much it pains me to write this blog.
As soon as the Feb. 15 episode began I started to worry. "Babylon" starts innocuously enough, with a young Muslim man engaged in daily prayer, before making a sandwich and driving to meet a friend at a generic looking building in Texas. On the way, he gets harassed by a stereotypical Texan cowboy, being called "Brownie." I thought that maybe this was foreshadowing some sort of supernatural force at work aimed at racist jerks. Alas, that was not the case. Instead we got exactly what anyone could have predicted based on the measly representation of American Muslims in pop culture as anything other than terrorists in waiting or terrorists in training.
The episode follows Mulder and Scully as they each attempt unorthodox methods to communicate with the bombing suspect who lies comatose in a local hospital in order to learn the location of a whole other "cell" of bearded, turbaned terrorists. A cell which is eventually found at the eponymously titled motel, The Babylon, allegedly preparing for a larger strike. So, not just two generic Muslim terrorists in the episode, but a whole hotel room full of scary, bearded, praying, brown men speaking Arabic.
At the end of the episode, while reflecting on the different journeys the two FBI agents have taken over the course of the episode, Mulder says, "I saw things, though, Scully. Powerful things. I saw deep and unconditional love." To which Scully replies, "I saw things, too. I witnessed unqualified hate that appears to have no end."
Cris Carter, the creator of the show and the writer of this episode, uses the image of Muslim men as a convenient shortcut to get to this Scully epiphany. Rather than explaining the why or the how of these bombing suspects, he takes advantage of the stereotypes of Muslims in the media to assume the audience will accept the premise of the characters' motivations without explanation: "Unqualified hate that appears to have no end."
I expect more from The X-Files than this reliance on tired tropes, even if they are convenient.
President Obama, when speaking to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, commented on the critical importance of honest media representation:
Most Americans don't necessarily know -- or at least don't know that they know -- a Muslim personally. And as a result, many only hear about Muslims and Islam from the news after an act of terrorism, or in distorted media portrayals in TV or film, all of which gives this hugely distorted impression.
Last week's episode only serves as another example of the President's point.
International Business Times (IBT) spoke with Carter about his inspiration for the episode: "It felt like an opposition of the heart. These mothers who believe their children are becoming murderers in service to a god they have to have faith in -- it felt like a conflict between being human and believing in God."
Ismat Sarah Mangla in the same IBT article reflects on this idea:
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.
One of the most frustrating parts of this is the potential the episode wasted to actually explore any of the deeper issues at play when religion, culture, race and the supernatural collide. How does Mulder react when he feels people fear him as the other, when others can't understand his willingness to sacrifice everything and go to the ends of the earth and beyond to find the truth? How does faith impact a person's ability to believe, in the supernatural, in government conspiracies, in medical marvels, in monsters?
Here's hoping the season finale does better.