Law & Order’s Lovesick Jihad Jane

The story of Colleen LaRose, an American citizen charged with terrorist-related crimes, made headlines last March as Americans were assured that yet another terrorist plot had been foiled. Colleen La Rose, infamously known as “Jihad Jane,” was pictured all over the news, described in most cases as a victim of brainwashing. Captivated by the fact that a woman, instead of a man, was behind a terrorist plot, the media zoomed in on the life of Colleen LaRose, delving into areas of her love life and emotional and psychological history.

At the same time, similar stories of women suicide bombers and terrorists made headlines. These Muslim women were depicted by the media as being either coerced by Muslim men to take part in terrorist acts or as victims of entrapment, enslaved by a religion that calls for jihad. Whatever story viewers believed, the media made sure it was one that would stir up feelings of sympathy for Muslim women, even those suspected of engaging in terrorist acts.

Last October, in its first season, Law and Order: Los Angeles aired an episode titled “Sylmar,” which was loosely based on the case of Jihad Jane. Oddly enough, writers added twists to the story, which made the episode a far stretch from the real life case. Among the added fluff is the character of Terry Powell, a Muslim convert who plays the role of Amy Powell’s (Jihad Jane) fiancé and who is the main culprit in attempting to murder a Swedish cartoonist, bomb an airport terminal, and murder Amy Powell’s brother and two random children in the process.

If that wasn’t enough fluff for viewers, the whole focus of the episode became a dispute between the local Deputy District Attorney and the military over where to try the defendants, making comments about the U.S.’s ability to sentence those charged with acts of terrorism in the process.

The DA succeeds in getting the case tried in a local court in the jurisdiction where the murders of the two children took place and all terrorist-related charges are dropped. Instead the episode focuses on charging Terry Powell with the murder of two children.

With all these changes, Amy Powell (or Jihad Jane) appears mainly as a co-conspirator and a witness in the case against Terry. In the end the issue of terrorism is not really given much weight and is referenced only to show how Jihad Jane was so blinded by love that she accepted Islam and aided terrorists.

Not surprisingly, while straying away from the real story and from the depiction of Jihad Jane as someone who committed acts of terrorism, the episode succeeds in stirring up within viewers the same feelings of sympathy towards Jihad Jane that were evoked by the media. Even more awful is the impression the episode gives viewers of Muslim women through the ridiculous dialogue and depiction of the character of Amy Powell, which assumes “good” Muslim women only act in response to Muslim men or with the permission of Muslim men.

Throughout the episode, Amy is portrayed as a woman who is so in love that she is willing to do anything. When the DA begins to question Amy about Terry, she constantly denies that Terry would do anything wrong, saying, “Terry is purer than all of you. Our love is blessed, and I would rather cut out my own heart then let you hurt my beloved.” A member of the DA’s office says, “Talk about Miss Lonely Heart. That woman is pathetic.”

Perhaps the most ludicrous part of the episode is the scene of the trial. Angered by the possibility that Terry might have fooled her into believing he loved her, Amy initially takes to the witness stand on the side of the DA, against Terry. She claims that Terry coerced her into helping him, saying, “He fooled me into believing that he loved me and that we were going to get married. The whole time he was just using me.” Terry’s defense team then shows Amy a picture of an engagement ring they found in Terry’s car. Obviously convinced of Terry’s love for her, she suddenly changes her story saying that she is responsible for the deaths of the two children.

In his attempt to prove that it was Terry who was behind these crimes, the DA begins questioning Amy, asking first, “Before you became Terry’s fiancé, you had to convert to Islam, correct?” To which she says yes. The DA the goes on, saying, “You learned what was expected of you as a good Muslim conservative wife? You learned that you had to obey your future husband and to seek his approval before making any important decisions, correct?” Amy replies, “Yes, I am happy to give myself to him.” The DA continues, “You had to ask his permission before buying a piece of furniture, going on a trip, killing your brother? Wouldn’t a good wife ask her husbands permission before doing such a thing? You wanted to be a good wife Amy…” All this insinuates that Amy, being a “good” Muslim wife, only made decisions with the permission and under the influence of her husband.

This episode of Law and Order: Los Angeles sadly reinforces the stereotypes that most media gives about Muslim women: they are often victims of Islam or of Muslim men, Islam is a dangerous religion for women, and that Muslim women deserve sympathy because of these facts. The episode even pushes these stereotypes further by attempting to define what a “good” Muslim woman/wife is and by making the assumption that Muslim women are not autonomous, nor are they even capable emotionally of assuming autonomy. Talk about a disappointment!

Thanks to Irfan Rydhan for the tip!

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    I once caught another racist/Islamophobic episode of L&O (don’t know and don’t care which “city”). It was supposed to be an “honor killing” episode in which a rich Afghan’s daughter is found murdered because she moved away from home/supposedly had a boyfriend. It too tried to gain viewer “sympathy” for the mother who had to choose between testifying or not against her sons/husband. Finally the ending was that they find the Afghan mother murdered…dun dun dun by who else the men in the family because she dared to testify! That was the first and last time I ever watched Law & (Dis)order.

  • http://culturalfascinations.wordpress.com/ SakuraPassion

    @RCHOUDH you’re talking about that one episode from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Asif Mandvi was a guest star, :P Yes, I used to like the series, but they’re so full of fail now.

    Just like this episode, it’s really unfortunate because I feel Law & Order raises all sorts of important issues, but unfortunately they’re not immune to reinforcing stereotypes.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    @SakuraPassion

    Thanks and I hear you I also heard they were pretty good and so decided to give it a try. Too bad the first episode I ever caught put me off them forever.

  • Asma

    I actually watch L&O quite a bit, because I think that they are a good barometer of where popular opinion is on a given issue. Their portrayal of Islam has gotten less nuanced and much less sensitive over the last couple of years, which is depressing.


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