Babylon; or, the incomprehensibility of Islamophobia

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou


Last week, Babylon aired, the fifth episode of the latest season of X-Files. The series relaunch was welcomed by longtime fans, as ratings plainly demonstrated. The premiere felt like a rehearsal of an old conspiracy theory, itself exaggerated, convoluted and, eventually, irrelevant. The episodes that followed (number two and four) were only marginally more captivating, with the exception of episode three, Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster, a hilarious, masterful parody of the kind the show used to do exceptionally well in the past. And then, Babylon came. There’s a central scene where Mulder is tripping on magic mushrooms, quite possibly the reason the episode got made in the first place, but, oh, the rest of it.

It starts with a young Muslim, saying his morning prayers on a prayer rug. He has a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast, and gets ready to leave the house, one assumes, to go to work. While in his car at a traffic light, some redneck in a truck insults him, telling him practically to go back where he came from. The young man picks up a friend, and together they go to an art gallery. Soon after they enter it, there is an explosion.

From the first minute of the episode, and having experienced my fair share of stereotypical representations of Muslims on television and other media, I was inwardly repeating, like a mantra: “Let him not be a terrorist, let him not be a terrorist”. Having some faith still left in a show that used to be a favorite, and that – despite the conspiracy paranoia – harbored a contempt for authority among others, I honestly hoped for better things. A twist. An unexpected development. And at this stage in our culture, a Muslim that appears on mainstream television and is not a terrorist, is an unexpected development.

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Nevertheless, the show opted for the stereotype. Towards the end, an entire ring of terrorists (who had also just finished saying their prayers) was disbanded. To say Babylon was a disappointment, would be an understatement. It was with shocked disbelief that I watched, as the events on-screen unfolded. What was worse, it increasingly seemed like writer and director Chris Carter was unaware of the possible effect of the episode, perhaps even intending to undermine the stereotype in scenes such as the one where the Muslim is verbally harassed. In another scene, a nurse tries to kill the comatose terrorist, as agents Mulder and Einstein walk in on the scene, without realizing what had been happening. Eisenstein has to stall the nurse, who launches into a xenophobic tirade against immigrants – considering the show’s history, these could ironically be considered ‘aliens’. Yet, instead of any sort of resolution to the scene (she did after all attempt murder), all we get is agent Eisenstein shaking her head, like someone does when they talk to a crazy person and they don’t want to upset them by contradicting them. It is obvious she does not agree with the nurse, but the latter gets to walk away scot-free, as if her action was neither morally reprehensibly nor punishable by the law.

Babylon reminded me of certain Charlie Hebdo illustrations that people claimed were satiric instead of racist, and that intimate knowledge of French politics and culture were necessary to ‘get the joke’. If the visual medium, with the added strength of commentary (or dialogue as in this case), is unable to transmit the joke as such, then no amount of explanation can justify a cover such as the one depicting the Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare queens, just to cite an example. Babylon may have tried to wink towards its viewers, but what came through was an incredibly bigoted statement, that understandably made many conservatives happy (let us not forget the series airs on FOX).

In the end, Carter tries to play the card of universal emotions, “unconditional love” and “unqualified hate”, that supposedly transcend differences for better or for worse. In a scene reeking of faux spirituality, motherly love is proclaimed the strongest of them all, and the necessity of finding a common language (an allusion to the title’s episode, Babylon) is insisted upon. As if the problems of the world could be solved using a good translator and a mother’s hug.