- Hysterical Postsecularism
Because I have never been so sure. And so wrong.—Carrie Mathison, Homeland
Around 2007, an epistemic shift took hold in U.S. serial television dramas framed around Islam. Prior to that moment, tone-setting fictional engagements with Islam after 9/11 had included The West Wing’s ad hoc emergency episode “Isaac and Ishmael” (Aaron Sorkin, October 3, 2001), as well as the entirety of the Showtime series Sleeper Cell (2005–6) and Syfy’s allegorical Battlestar Galactica (2004–9) (see Randall 2011, among others). The writing staffs of these early War on Terror productions had dedicated intensive and sustained rhetorical energy to the metropolitan project of “anoint[ing] good Muslims and tar[ring] bad ones” (Abbas 163), while urgently pursuing new figural resources with which to mitigate, or at least relativize, the circulating prompt: “Why Do They Hate Us?” (Boston Globe, September 16, 2001). Collectively, these serial dramas, debuting between 2001 and 2006, endeavored to illustrate—often at cross purposes with their own networks’ news divisions—how Muslims “remain caught between the distortions, misrepresentations, and bigotries of the media-empire-neocon complex and the high-minded apologias of this configuration’s left-liberal critics” (Abbas 165). Indeed, the fractious audience-design strategies that propelled early War on Terror television tended to yield screenplays that could simultaneously perform bigotry and apologia in composite form—for an ideologically ambivalent, mutable, and heterogeneous viewership.
In this essay, I lay out an argument about what happened after 2007: a new symbolic arrangement I call hysterical postsecularism, which ascended on television as the War on Terror aged, and as the [End Page 86] (often awkward) visionary experiments of early post-9/11 television dramas exhausted their political moment and narrative resonance. The War on Terror had simply lasted longer than the shows that had been conceived to historicize and foreclose it. Television dramas after 2007 thus needed to find ways to regroup, after the credulous primary mimesis of its first post-9/11 years had been spent. Later fictionalizations of the American securitarian hermeneutic “about” Islam turn indulgently away from the forensics of authentic Others in Sleeper Cell and Battlestar, henceforth forsaking any sustained concern with Muslims altogether. Indeed, in serials like Rubicon (2010) and Homeland (2011), a mirror has been installed in Muslims’ place—or perhaps reinstalled, if we consider this substitution to be part of a broader, recent emergence of neo-Orientalist common sense. In these later serials, more than ever, “the lives of Muslims are there to help make an ironic point about the West” (Abbas 163). Borrowing from Achille Mbembe on post-colonial Africa, Sadia Abbas claims that Islam now “is ‘the mediation that enables the West to accede to its own subconscious and give a public account of its subjectivity’” (163; Mbembe, 3).
These later dramas left behind both the “clash of civilizations” model, as amplified by Samuel Huntington in 1996, and equally so the convivencia model, advanced in Thomas Friedman’s Jerusalem dispatch from September 14, 2001 in the New York Times. Three days after the attacks, Friedman called on U.S. political operatives to respond with the most prudent restraint, given what he called the “civil war within Islam, between the modernists and the medievalists”—that is, by separating out the dangerous Other from the healthy Other. Friedman’s emergency Times appeal, entitled “Smoking or Non-Smoking,” cited then Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres’s favorite palliative metaphor about threats to the body politic in pluralist contexts. By way of Peres, Friedman reminded readers that twentieth-century societies had also once taken bold steps to institute nonsmoking sections to help their citizenry make rational self-segregative choices when faced with toxicity in its midst.
These two primary discursive formations—Huntington’s diagnostics of a civilizational clash and Friedman’s plea for convivencia through rational discernment—had informed the first half decade of Anglophone U.S. commercial media discourse after 9/11, during which television dramas involving Islam labored to stage extensive and agonistic [End Page 87] dialogues among symbolic spokespersons variously figured as Muslim, secular, pagan, lapsed, agnostic, opportunist, asecular, evangelical, rationalist, monotheist, idolater, polytheist, oracle, Jewish, or Christian. These often...