A window into the dark, murky times we have failed to understand
The award-winning series Homeland is disturbingly prescient in light of recent events in Europe
It may not have won an Emmy this year, but if there had been categories for Cassandra-style prescience and astute political predictions Showtime's Homeland would have swept the boards. This award-winning series has been around since 2011 but I only reluctantly started watching it this autumn. I say reluctantly, because those who recommended it to me did so on the basis that the leading CIA spy character was a blonde, bi-polar woman called Carrie. Seemingly we had a lot in common, which was enough to ensure I mulishly made a point of avoiding it.
But then US National Security Agency (NSA) documents were hacked by ex-CIA contractor Edward Snowden; Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was released after five years as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan; the US made a breakthrough deal with Iran over its nuclear programme; and Isil declared Europe a target for its terrorism. These very real events have all been predicted by plotlines in Homeland, a series which increasingly seems to have become a dark reflection of our very murky times. Courtesy of Netflix I binge-watched the first two series, half-watched the third, slept through the fourth (don't bother with either) and am now glued to the current series five, (the best of all) which can be seen on RTE each Tuesday night.
The first episode of the current series has Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), now ex-CIA, living in Berlin, working for a philanthropic billionaire (is there any other kind?) who needs her to secure safe passage from Hezbollah to visit the Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon that they control. A pair of German techno wizards working from the back of a lap-dancing club inadvertently hack into top secret CIA files. These document how US intelligence is working with their German counterparts against Islamic terrorism, thus violating EU privacy law. Meanwhile, CIA super-operative Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) returns to the US after two years spent guerilla fighting Isil in Raqqa, Syria. Quinn - a human black hole through which no glimmer of hope can penetrate - unwillingly briefs the suits in Langley about the reality of the situation in the newly proclaimed "Islamic State". Anyone who has been reading the reams of - often contradictory - commentary about the origins and aims of Isil, particularly in the wake of the Paris murders, will know this is no easy task. Whatever geopolitical camp a person is standing in can define what they believe is really going on. There are myriad, and what seem like contradictory, issues involved. And then there's the history involved - how far back do the origins of this crisis go?
Simplistic interpretations hark back to the Bush/Blair 2003 invasion of Iraq, a disastrous decision which resulted in hundreds of thousands of Sunni-Baathists, who had been in power for millennia, being disenfranchised and discriminated against by the US-installed Shiite government. Teachers, technocrats, civil servants, and crucially well-armed soldiers, found themselves unemployed and powerless overnight. In response, insurgents from Saddam's old army turned against the US/UK coalition - many have since formed an alliance with Isil.
Then there's the faction who, also simplistically, believe the problem dates from the founding of Israel in 1948 and the continuing conflict with the rest of Palestine. If only those Jews would just feck off back to wherever they came from, Isil would stop its murderous regime and the Middle East would suddenly become all sunshine and lollipops again, is how that story goes. Both these interpretations ignore the fact that - as Graeme Wood of The Atlantic pointed out after intense dialogue with Isil recruiters - it is other Muslims, not just Christians or Jews, who are the main targets of Isil. He notes: "The Islamic State claims that common Shiite practices, such as worship at the graves of imams and public self-flagellation, have no basis in the Koran or in the example of the Prophet. That means roughly 200 million Shia are marked for death. So too are the heads of state of every Muslim country, who have elevated man-made law above Sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God."
There's the argument that gives Saudi Arabia responsibility for the rise of Isil because of the Kingdom's exportation of Wahhabism; the Isil-approved, brutal and fundamentalist form of Sunni-Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran. It is notably rabidly anti Shiite, and consequently anti-Iranian and anti-Alawite (as practised by Bashar al-Assad and followers).
(Paradoxically, Isil is anti- Saudi Arabia, because it colludes with the West, even though Saudi has recently intervened in the Yemani civil war against the Houthi Shiite side - which Isil's enemy, Iran, supports.) And of course, there's Isil itself, who, when it proclaimed its 'Islamic State' in 2014 in the region straddling Iraq and Syria, titled its propaganda video, 'The End of Sykes-Picot', referencing the agreement brokered between the French and British in 1916, which divvied up the old Ottoman Empire (Isil, with its talk of restoring the Caliphate, ignores the fact that both Syria and Iraq were distinct entities both before and after the rise of Islam).
Isil evoke an imagined world it believes to have existed in the 7th Century. And - amazingly for any TV network, but particularly an American one - it's this that Quinn references when the CIA suits ask him if their "strategy" in Syria is working.
When Quinn dryly asks: "What strategy?", he is met with silence. And so he tells it as it is:
"See that right there is the problem ... they have a strategy. They're gathering right now in Raqqa by the tens of thousands, hidden in the civilian population, cleaning their weapons, and they know exactly why they're there.... They call it the end times. What do you think the be-headings are about? The crucifixions ... the revival of slavery? Do you think they make this shit up? It's all in the book. Their fucking book. The only book they ever read-they read it all the time. They never stop. They're there for one reason and one reason only: to die for the Caliphate and usher in a world without infidels. That's their strategy and it's been that way since the seventh century."
And so a fictional character in a US drama is one of the few commentators to rightly take Isil very, very seriously. These killers are neither backward nor unsophisticated. It is an extremely clever, disciplined and well-funded (thanks to the oil they sell to Turkey, much to Russia's disgust) terrorist group with very specific aims.
By the end of the episode Quinn has discovered that an attack on a European city is imminent. Remember, this episode aired seven weeks before the Paris atrocities and the Brussels lock-down. Carrie is being targeted by the Russians - in what one presumes is an effort by the US to keep the Cold War fires burning even when they know that a deal with Putin - and consequently al-Assad - is inevitable if they want any chance of defeating Isil.
How do the Homeland writers predict this stuff? They admitted to meeting with a "bunch of intelligence, White House and State Department types" in January.
"And if you'll recall what was happening at the start of the year... It all felt that... Europe was the centre of the world". This is television at its very best and most terrifying. In the same way the power of nightmares allows us to process horrors we are consciously afraid to confront, the dramatic plotlines of Homeland are similarly preparing us for an increasingly insecure, violent and warmongering world.