Two years ago, Muslim groups protested when the plot of the hit Fox drama "24" cast Islamic terrorists as the villains who launched a stolen nuclear missile in an attack on America.
Now, after a one-year respite during which Russian separatists played the bad guys on the critically acclaimed series, Muslims are back in the evil spotlight. Unlike last time, when agent Jack Bauer saved the day, the terrorists this time have already succeeded in detonating a nuclear bomb in a Los Angeles suburb.
Being portrayed again as the heartless wrongdoers has drawn renewed protests from Muslim groups, including one that had a meeting with Fox executives two years ago over the issue.
"The overwhelming impression you get is fear and hatred for Muslims," said Rabiah Ahmed, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. She said Thursday she was distressed by this season's premiere. "After watching that show, I was afraid to go to the grocery store because I wasn't sure the person next to me would be able to differentiate between fiction and reality."
She said the group had a conference call Wednesday with Fox executives to protest the current plot line and request more positive portrayals of Muslims on the show, but was not promised anything.
After a January 2005 meeting with CAIR, Fox aired a commercial in which the show's star, Kiefer Sutherland, urged viewers to keep in mind that the show's villains are not representative of all Muslims.
In a written statement issued late Wednesday night, the network said it has not singled out any ethnic or religious group for blame in creating its characters.
"24 is a heightened drama about anti-terrorism," the statement read. "After five seasons, the audience clearly understands this, and realizes that any individual, family, or group (ethnic or otherwise) that engages in violence is not meant to be typical.
"Over the past several seasons, the villains have included shadowy Anglo businessmen, Baltic Europeans, Germans, Russians, Islamic fundamentalists, and even the (Anglo-American) president of the United States," the network said. "The show has made a concerted effort to show ethnic, religious and political groups as multidimensional, and political issues are debated from multiple viewpoints."
The current season began with Muslim terrorists waging an 11-week campaign of suicide bombings across America, culminating in the detonation of a suitcase-sized nuclear bomb in Valencia, Calif., about 26 miles north of Los Angeles. Estimated death toll: 12,000.
Watching the show's characters talk about detonating a nuclear weapon a few blocks from where she works unnerved Sireen Sawaf, an official with the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, and a self-described "huge '24' fan."
"It's a great show, and I do realize it's a multidimensional show that portrays extreme situations," she said. "They have gone out of their way to have non-Muslim terror cells.
"But I'm concerned about the image it ingrains in the minds of the American public and the American government, particularly when you have anti-Muslim statements spewing from the mouths of government officials."
Sohail Mohammed, a New Jersey immigration lawyer who represented scores of detainees caught up in the post Sept. 11, 2001 dragnet, watched the episode depicting the nuclear attack with an Associated Press reporter.
"I was shocked," he said. "Somewhere, some lunatic out there watching this will do something to an innocent American Muslim because he believes what he saw on TV."
Engy Abdelkader, a member of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee from Howell, N.J., launched a campaign Wednesday to encourage Muslims offended by the program to complain to Fox.
"I found the portrayal of American Muslims to be pretty horrendous," she said. "It was denigrating from beginning to end. This is one of the most popular programs on television today. It's pretty distressing."
Concerns about Muslims' civil rights, detention of terror suspects in Guantanamo-like holding centers, and stereotyping are given vastly expanded treatment on '24' this year. In one exchange, the show depicts the president's national security adviser challenging the White House chief of staff over the detention of Muslims without criminal charges.
"Right now the American Muslim community is our greatest asset," the security adviser says. "They have provided law enforcement with hundreds of tips, and not a single member of that community has been implicated in these attacks."
"So far," the chief of staff responds.
By Wayne Parry