Content Warning: Islamophobia, Abuse, Terrorism.
The finale of the dramatic BBC drama series The Bodyguard was a good hour of television. Richard Madden gets better and better and many were delighted with the surprisingly happy ending. The problem was, it was blatantly Islamophobic.
There were the overt stereotypes. The most featured Muslim character in a series that so heavily referenced Islamic extremism was Anjli Mohindra’s Nadia. This, a character described by concerned Muslim women as “a whimpering brown woman brainwashed by her oppressive husband” is the embodiment of that ever-pervasive trope; the silent, victimised Muslim wife who we must surely save from burkas’ and arranged marriages and never ask them how they feel about such things. She voices no opinions, we learn nothing about her background or interests – she sits, for five straight episodes, and shakes. Until, that is, her character is upended. Is she suddenly given character depth you ask? Of course not. This is the BBC. The big reveal is that Nadia was a terrorist all along.
It is not, no matter what Twitter might tell you, empowering. For one, female Islamic extremists are not a new invention. A recent documentary revealed that some of ISIS’ most prolific recruiters are women. Colleen De La Rose, better known as Jihadi Jane, is one of the most referenced terrorists in the United States. Your assumption that it is rare – and therefore empowering – that a Muslim woman could be some ‘criminal mastermind’ is only emphasising how much society has internalised the idea that they cannot be anything at all. Moreover, Nadia moves from one stereotype to another. British Muslims can be oppressed or be terrorists. Apparently, no other options exist.
And said depiction of terrorism? It is nothing short of irresponsible. The Bodyguard never grants a motive to its terrorists. Its home secretary’s proposed bill – RIPA-18, the kind of bill the Tories throw into the ring every now and again to increase surveillance – supposedly attracts terrorist threats only because all they want is to blow things up and the bill will make it harder. At no point does the show state the effect such a bill would have, that increased surveillance is a proven factor in the radicalisation of potential militants. As explanation for her extremism, Nadia only says “I am a Jihadi”. She is given no origin story or drive. Her radicalism is a state of being, never of becoming.
The series does not even reference the racism, physical and verbal abuse that Muslims in Britain face daily, or the prejudice and racial profiling. Nor that Muslims are radicalised in this nation in part because it is made an unbearable place for them to live, by the security forces, police and politicians that the show glorifies. Furthermore, the Middle East itself is only referenced in terms of the pain it has caused the series’ heroes, specifically the very white ex-soldier David Budd. That The Bodyguard so explores his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is beyond admirable and accurate to some servicemen and women’s experiences – but that we only ever get to view the Middle East through a white man’s eyes is just self-indulgent.
Finally, there is the matter of representation. 11 million people tuned into The Bodyguard’s finale. 11 million people tuned in to be scared by a Disney villain terrorist with empty eyes. To see only three Muslim characters and be told that they represent all of Muslim extremism. To never be reminded what a minority it is. In the year of Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther – the year of increasing representation and better understanding what it does for communities – Muslim viewers got to see themselves as criminals. Again.
While many non-Muslim viewers will be able to work out the obvious – that it was only fiction, that we need to think about extremism with nuance – some clearly weren’t. In the news this week is the story of a man verbally harassing a Muslim woman on a train, asking her if she planned on blowing it up and repeatedly calling her Nadia. Britain already has a huge problem with violence against Muslim communities. And all that The Bodyguard has done is incite more.
Image: Garry Knight via Flickr