The second session I attended was also sponsored by the Religion, Media, and Culture Group and was entitled Sleeper Cell: Viewing Religion, Race, and Terrorism in a Post-9/11 World. The session focused on the Showtime original series, Sleeper Cell, that ran for two seasons from 2005-2006, and the panelists included Kamran Pasha, one of the writers for the show, Horace Newcomb director of the Peabody Awards from the University of Georgia, Amir Hussain from Loyola Marymount University, and Anthea Butler from the University of Rochester. The session was presided by Diane Winston from the University of Southern California.
The discussion of Sleeper Cell and the representation of Islam in a post 9/11 World appropriately opened with clips from the show and a background introduction by Pasha, one of the series’ writers and the writer of the episode from which clips were taken. The panelists then moved on to discuss their impressions of the series and their thoughts on Islamic representation in contemporary American popular culture.
They all praised the series for having a heroic Islamic male lead and its representation of intrafaith diversity in the Muslim community. Yet each panelist also had concerns about the program that dealt with anything from racial representation to gender issues. Newcomb was one of the more interesting participants as he also heads the Peabody Awards for excellence in television. His thoughts on the medium of television were especially insightful. He regards television as the most powerful medium for conveying religion and spirituality. He argued that television is “serialized theology” and represents an open-ended hope. Newcomb cited our ability to familiarize ourselves with and relate to the characters over a period of numerous episodes rather than one 90-minute film. Of course, there is plenty of bad television programs just like there are plenty of oppressive, misguided theologies. Fortunately, Sleeper Cell does not seem to fit this category, and while I have yet to see the series, I look forward to catching up on it in the near future. In the end, I certainly agree with all the panelists’ assertions that more Muslims are needed not only in front of the camera, but behind it as well.