WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. – A plate of spicy stuffed cabbage leaves and a cup of mint tea before him, Yosry Bekhiet sat down and turned on the television for a late dinner one recent Monday night. On the screen, he saw Muslim terrorists gain control of a nuclear plant, causing it to melt down.
One of the leaders of the plot shot his own wife and tried to shoot his son, fearing they would thwart his plans. (And this was after kidnapping the U.S. defense secretary and trying to behead him live on the Internet.)
Bekhiet was watching "24" (search), the popular Fox action series starring Kiefer Sutherland (search) as a government agent who battles bloodthirsty Islamic terrorists. The show has garnered high ratings, but also has angered Muslims across the nation over the way their community is portrayed.
"It's disgusting," Bekhiet said after watching an episode with an Associated Press reporter. "My own kids, if they see this show, they might hate me."
Bekhiet, an engineer with the state Department of Transportation, is worried that the fictional Araz family is the image most of America have of Muslims.
"It seems like on television, everybody has their turn as the bad guys: It happened to the Italians, the Russians. Now it's our turn," he said.
In January, a nationwide Muslim civil rights group, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (search) met with Fox executives to complain about the show. A compromise was reached in which the network agreed to distribute CAIR's public service announcements to local affiliates. And last month, Sutherland himself appeared in a commercial during the broadcast urging viewers to realize that the show's villains are not representative of Muslims.
"While terrorism is obviously one of the most critical challenges facing our nation and the world, it is important to recognize that the American Muslim community stands firmly beside their fellow Americans in denouncing and resisting all forms of terrorism," Sutherland said. "So in watching '24,' please, bear that in mind."
Fox spokesman Scott Grogin said the network would not comment on Muslim reaction to the show other than to note the meeting with CAIR and the distribution of the public service announcements.
"We've listened to their concerns and tried to work with them," he said.
Rabiah Ahmed, a CAIR official who attended the meeting with the network executives, said Muslims are concerned with how others view them, particularly in the mass media.
"For us it's a sensitive and urgent situation because we are facing a backlash after Sept. 11 and we need to defend our interests and our image. We understand that it's entertainment and fiction. Our concern is that others may not."
She said Fox promised that positive Muslim characters will emerge in future episodes.
On the episode Bekhiet watched, Sutherland's character, agent Jack Bauer, apprehends Dina Araz, the wife of one of the terrorist masterminds, after one nuclear plant has already melted down. He begs her to tell him where the device is that can override the computer program that hijacked the reactors, sending them out of control, pleading that millions of innocent people will die if she does not.
"Every war has casualties," she tells him coldly, a bullet from her husband's gun still lodged in her bloodied arm. "No one is innocent."
Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Iranian-born actress who plays Dina Araz, told Time magazine she had refused for years to play terrorists, saying they were among the only roles offered to actresses from the Middle East. She agreed to join "24" knowing it would draw criticism from Muslims.
"But this role was a full-dimensional character," she told the magazine. "She's a very, very strong woman, and she has many faces. And things may not be what they seem."
Jumana Judeh, an activist in Dearborn, Mich., where the country's largest Arab-American community lives, said after watching one episode of '24' she finally understood how deeply offended an Italian-American friend of hers is over programs like "The Sopranos" or "The Godfather" movies.
"This feeds into what's been happening to us since Sept. 11," she said. "We are the new kid on the block, and we're going to keep getting picked on and picked on and picked on until some new group comes along to take our place."