Last week’s Law & Order: SVU episode, “Acceptable Loss,” reminded me that if I want to see a TV drama treat Muslim characters as capable of full human complexity, cop shows might not be the best place to look. This isn’t going to be a comprehensive recap, but here are the crucial details: SVU is going after a prostitution ring that appears to be trafficking enslaved women. Then we see Lt. Alexandra Eames from one of the other Law & Orders that I don’t watch; she recently transferred out of Major Case Squad and is doing homeland security work. Eames tells SVU that the trafficking ring is connected to terrorists and takes SVU off the case. SVU, of course, ends up going rogue, defying orders, and pursuing the sex traffickers anyway. They successfully bust the ring, only to hear from Eames that their raid has alerted the terrorist who she has been tracking. SVU redeems itself by discovering that Sofia, one of the trafficked women, could actually be the terrorist in question.
Up to this point, it has been a fairly typical SVU episode: just compelling enough to suck 45 minutes out of my life, but not so compelling that I expected to be writing about it. Then Eames and Benson team up to ambush Sofia, apprehending her on her way to what she claims was a “date.” Eames spots a tattoo on Sofia’s neck, which was uniform among the sex slaves. “Didn’t you know that tattoos are forbidden in Islam?” she asks, smudging the tattoo, revealing it to be false. Aha! Sofia the Muslim terrorist might have been willing to unveil and dress as an enslaved sex worker, but she wouldn’t violate her religion by getting a tattoo. Then Eames gives a self-satisfied smirk like she knows shit about anything.
The tattoo test wouldn’t have worked on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was so tatted prior to his al-Qaeda life that people called him the “green man.” Nor would it have meant anything for those who follow Shi’a jurisprudence, which can be friendlier than Sunni schools on tattoos. I have also known several Muslims, Sunni, and Shi’a alike, who wore Islamically-themed tattoos as a matter of devotion, with no concern whatsoever for the rulings of recognized clerical authorities. I’m not trying to make an argument as to whether tattooing is really allowed in Islam; the point is that you can’t reduce Muslims to a checklist of absolute do’s and don’ts and then perform religious profiling to read their minds and predict their behavior. It doesn’t always work.
In New York State, criminal justice people were trying it as far back as the 1950s, when officials at Attica State Prison became terrified of a new “Qur'an fad” among black inmates. They embarked on a project to learn who had become Muslim by recording inmate behaviors on days that the dining hall served pork. I don’t know how useful this method was for Attica, but today I have some Muslim friends who eat swine, and their diet does not tell me anything about their theology or politics.
Back to Law & Order: Sofia’s in custody. Eames apparently reads a lot of “Intro to Islam” books, because she has this stuff down: “We can have you examined,” she tells Sofia, “and when we do, we’ll find out that you’re a virgin.” The assumption here is that if this woman is not really a sex slave but a Muslim radical in disguise, there are no possible circumstances by which she might have had sex with someone—because, you know, she’s Muslim and no Muslim woman has ever had sex outside of marriage, ever, in nearly 15 centuries and however many billions of people. So now the NYPD can make like the Egyptian military and check for hymens.
After playing the virgin/whore dichotomy, Eames manages to pull Sofia’s story out of her. This is the moment of the cliché Law & Order confession, in which we finally hear the villain’s rationale. The best villains, Mick Foley once said, are the ones who believe that they’re right. And just like that, Sofia does not mention jihad. She only wants to avenge her father, who was killed in Waziristan by drones; there’s no talk of “death to the unbelievers” or even a hint of religious motivation. At this moment, we almost get a chance to see the complexity of so-called “Islamic extremism,” that the appeal doesn’t have to be about “religion” when people are losing their loved ones to US bombs. It’s possible that the SVU writers actually thought that they were doing something nuanced here.
The two lines from Eames do not constitute the worst treatment of Islam by an American cop show, but they still demonstrate that it’s often hard for these folks to write Muslim characters with more depth than a Wikipedia entry on what Islam allows and forbids. As long as writers treat religious identity as the sole factor that determines every Muslim’s motivations or behavior, or imagine Islam as a source of universal norms, their Muslim characters will never be fully human.
Michael Muhammad Knight is the author of nine books, including Journey to the End of Islam, an account of his pilgrimage to Mecca, William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur'an, and the forthcoming Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing.