Quantico row: Writer Sharbari Ahmed says she's being trolled and targeted because she is Muslim
(Editor's note: Sharbari Ahmed, a former writer for Quantico, was ruthlessly trolled on Twitter following the backlash around the finale episode of season 3, which showcased Indian nationalists plotting an attack in Manhattan with the ulterior motive of blaming it on Pakistan. She, however, had not written it and had nothing to do with the episode. Here, Ahmed recounts her experience.)
It has been one week since I was sent the first angry tweet accusing me of besmirching the entire nation of India through an episode of Quantico — titled 'The Blood of Romeo'. I have gone through a kaleidoscope of emotions, all bleeding (like the Romeo in the episode’s title) into one another; bewilderment bled into bemusement, which morphed into anger, outrage, incredulity, even a little fear, and then finally coming to a rest in understanding that ultimately, this is not about me, or a TV show or even its mega star. This is about intimidation, freedom of expression, and the erosion of truth.
I understand now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was targeted as the writer of the offending episode simply because I am Muslim.
The evidence of that is irrefutable since I made clear immediately that I did not write it, nor was I on the writing team — a fact that is easy to check. I exited after the first season, one that had a host of various types of villains — men, women, teenagers, black, white, including that old standby, the Muslim terrorist; though that was never a main plot point. In fact, much effort was made to normalise the presence of practicing Muslim American characters, like the Amin twins, Nimah and Raina, played skillfully by Lebanese actor Yasmine Al Massri. Raina was a hijabi and the writers were sensitive to how she should be shown. Our directive was not to fall prey to stereotypes, however, the ubiquitous Islamic terrorist cell still managed to make its way into the show, albeit for a short amount of time. I think my presence, as a South Asian and a Muslim woman, gives credence to the level of thought the showrunner, producers and network executives put into creating a diverse room that reflected a diverse, groundbreaking show.
I have not been following the third season and so, I don't know what the room is like. I do know an Indian did not write the episode in question. Whatever the ethnicity or gender of the writer, I sincerely hope they have not been targeted like I have; because they were doing what they were hired to do, tell fictional stories and make television.
No amount of stating several times that I was not on the show — so could not have written the episode showing an Indian Nationalist frame Pakistan for a murder — quelled the vitriol aimed almost relentlessly at me for six days. I was an agent for Pakistani propaganda, a hater of Hindus, an ingrate, loser Bangladeshi who forgot how India had saved her country of origin from the scourge of General Tikka Khan in 1971. I was a product of West Pakistani rape, an Isis sex slave, who should be raped again. Anyone who supported me on social media was also in the cross hairs.
ABC has now apologised, and I know why they must have felt compelled to do so: to protect their star, Priyanka Chopra, and also the approbation of her huge Indian fan base, but I still felt punched in the gut and more vulnerable. The apology seemed to further embolden the more tenacious trolls.
To take my mind off the fracas, my father urged me to go to Jackson Heights, Queens with the family to have iftar dinner. The mostly South Asian neighborhood was bustling in anticipation of breaking fast. I stood, waiting to cross a busy intersection with three other women, all in hijab or burka, and remembered a tweet saying essentially that Islam was a rubbish, violent religion and all Muslims should be killed. I looked at the women and felt my throat tighten. They were laughing and chatting, probably eager to eat something or quench their thirst, blissfully unaware that half a world away an entire cross section of Indian society might want to see them raped and murdered. I followed them into Dhaka Garden, the top iftar spot, which was too crowded. We ended up in a Nepali restaurant, which to my joy, served wine. So, I, the agent of virulent fundamentalist Islam, started my iftar with a crisp Pinot Noir and a thali.
Being surrounded by South Asians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and a Nepali joint next to a Halal butcher, all existing together in Jackson Heights, reminded me that there is sanity and understanding in the world. That there should be no respite from calling out the thugs from all sides who seek to undermine this beautiful symbiosis.
I returned home and deleted my tweets expressing my hurt and outrage at ABC’s apology. I realised it was pointless. Their bottom line was clear, and I didn’t want to attract any extra vitriol. I understand, however, that it can be seen as a capitulation to the bullies and that it now opens room for many other storylines to be questioned and squelched. What does that mean to storytelling? Freedom of Expression? Does this mean we Muslims can decry storylines that we are uncomfortable with? Or are the rules different for some groups?
What is astonishing is that a bunch of bullies was able to elicit an apology from a mighty Hollywood network. I am hoping this doesn’t mean that now some storylines or regions are off limits, but it could very well mean that. And if these bullies see how they can influence Hollywood, what then will they do to the Indian film industry? Or media outlets?
I don’t need or want an apology of any kind. I am not the main victim here. The real victim is truth. The real victim is freedom of expression and creativity, the real victim is storytelling.
Sharbari Ahmed is a Bangladeshi-American writer. She was also a writer on the first season of Quantico.
Updated Date: Jun 18, 2018 14:37:53 IST