That Al-Qaeda operatives are ensconced in sleeper cells throughout Europe, the Middle East, the African nations, and Southeast Asia is by now common knowledge. That sleeper cells consisting of homegrown and transplanted Muslims from all backgrounds are thriving in the United States is perhaps less believable to the American population. But a new 10-part miniseries from Showtime takes this nightmare scenario and plays it out in such an eerily realistic way that it dares you retreat into ignorance. "Sleeper Cell" --which premiered on Sunday and continues over the next two weeks--explosively takes the threat of terror from overseas and plants it right in our backyard, among our neighbors, co-workers, and friends.
But this ambitious attempt to "know your enemy" walks a taut, minefield-laden line of pitting a radical, extreme version of Islam against the peaceful mainstream of the religion. Though future episodes promise to expose the radical "Islam" of sleeper cells as something not Islamic at all, it was frustratingly hard to get that from the premiere, which spent so much time fleshing out a sleeper cell's terrifying mindset that true Islam was given the cold shoulder.
The show is a juggernaut of controversial, complicated issues, but in simplest terms it tells the story of a Los Angeles-based terrorist brotherhood of Muslims (if you can call them Muslims) who cunningly blend into Southern California life while they clandestinely plan an attack on some large, popular site in the area.
Fronting this band is the deceptively charismatic Farik (convincingly played by Oded Fehr, who ironically is in reality an Israeli Jew). His cutthroat leadership style inspires his disciples and terrifies them into spouting hate and towing the line; they personally believe in the terrorist cause, but fear and admiration of Farik keeps them extra bloodthirsty. At the opposite end of the ideological spectrum is Darwyn (the breakout Michael Ealy), an African-American Muslim and recent ex-con who is the newest member of the cell--and a deep-cover FBI agent.
The first episode ratchets up the tension in the cell, as cell members struggle to stay absolutely silent about their work outside the cell. Darwyn, meanwhile, works to earn their trust while secretly reporting to his FBI contact, Ray Fuller. But without saying much about what makes mainstream Islam so different from the beliefs and actions of these radicals--other than one throw-away line from Darwyn, who says to Fuller, "These guys have nothing to do with my faith"--viewers' fears about Islam being a radical, violence-loving religion will, initially at least, be vindicated.
The premiere's action is somewhat bogged down by its need to set up the characters and story. This frightening band of brothers includes a blond-haired, blue-eyed native son, a Bosnian-American pop-culture loving Muslim, and a French ex-skinhead among its brethren. They cheer an attack against U.S. Military Central Command in Doha, Qatar, spout far-reaching statements about jihad, and brainstorm about which potential L.A. targets will garner the most casualties--while at the same time visiting strip joints and joking vulgarly about sex and women.
These guys are Muslims? Hardly.
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These guys are Muslims? Hardly. Even Darwyn, who considers himself a practicing, mainstream Muslim, begins a sexual relationship, even though he knows he shouldn't. In another sub-story, a young, hijab-wearing girl is seen ditching her scarf and donning a short skirt to meet up with a frat boy for a good time.
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And so you've got to wonder what is being said about Muslims in America. Can Muslims live in the U.S. but not give in to standard Western actions? Do none successfully blend their morals and religious beliefs with mainstream American culture? More importantly, will the radical, hate-spewing, violence-loving sleeper cell depicted in the show be revealed as the utter un-Islamic fraud that it is? As the story plays out over the next two weeks, the series' executive producers, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, promise it will expose radical Islam and shed light on mainstream Islam. "We also looked at this project as a way to examine the two faces of Islam--a spiritual, peace-loving religion, the Islam of mainstream, and the brutal, jihad-driven Islam of the radical fundamentalists," Voris said in a press release.
This debate is being played out in the media, in mosques, community centers, universities and homes across the United States: Who speaks for Islam? Radical extremists engaged in terrorist activities around the world, or the billions of Muslims denouncing them and desperately proclaiming the peaceful nature of Islam?
In "Sleeper Cell," the weighty answer to that question sits on the shoulders of Darwyn. This one key character holds the huge responsibility of representing the millions of Muslims who are struggling to stamp out (or distance themselves from) extremists in their communities. "Sleeper Cell" holds immense promise because of Darwyn's fight. And though the premiere episode only exposed viewers to the beliefs of the sleeper cell members, mainstream Islam can't be counted out yet.
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