WWE’s War on Terror

It has been twenty years since the Twin Towers collapsed on September 11th, a cataclysmic tragedy that rocked the world to its core. The term “9/11” was stitched into our lexicon, ideologies ending with “-ism” and preceded with words like “radical” or “extreme” were made a nightly obsession of news media, and it triggered two decades of conflict in the Middle East, labelled as the “War on Terror.”

More so than the hysteria surrounding Y2K and Princess Diana’s death, the World Trade Center attacks were entrenched into the memories of millennials like myself, though we were unaware back then of the ramifications of that day, how the world would never be the same again.

More Professional Wrestling

It may seem bizarre to most, but one of my earliest recollections of that time is the live SmackDown episode the WWE famously aired just two days after the attacks. I was twelve and still processing my move to the United Kingdom, barely a month after emigrating from the United Arab Emirates. I had barely settled into my new school when the Towers fell on my second day, so my first week was dominated by talk of terrorism, conspiracy theories, and crass jokes at the expense of brown people who bore their first signs of facial hair. It was secondary school though, so insensitivity was as inevitable as the insults dying down over time, and I would later discover that I had spent my formative teenage years at a diverse institution that was a microcosm of multicultural London. But at the time, there really was no place to escape from the “banter” and the uninterrupted news broadcasts, so I was grateful to the then-WWF for boldly soldiering on and providing a brief respite from reality.

The Immediate Aftermath

If wrestling were treated like a professional sport, the SmackDown after 9/11 would’ve been commemorated as a monumental moment for athletics. Major organisations such as the MLB and NFL postponed matches scheduled for that week, which meant that the WWE’s tribute episode was the first major entertainment event, sporting or otherwise, in the States following the atrocities. The crowd in Houston, united by patriotic grief, filled the Compaq Center with chants of “USA! USA!”, while a defiant Vince McMahon opened the show with an impassioned speech. For all the pomp and circumstance that accompanies this thing of ours, that landmark SmackDown was a poignant event, emanating with raw emotion from larger-than-life characters who shed tears and spoke eloquently about how the attacks affected them.

Ten days later, Kurt Angle took on Stone Cold Steve Austin for the latter’s WWE Championship at Unforgiven, the first pay-per-view held after the atrocities. Wounds were still fresh, and the spectre of national tragedy loomed large over the event, so having Angle emerge triumphant in front of a rapturous hometown crowd in Pittsburgh was the right call. As confetti rained down on the All-American Hero, hoisted on the shoulders of a celebratory locker room, it was clear that Angle’s win was the WWE’s way of channelling the spirit of American defiance. After all, who better to represent this patriotic company than the man who won Olympic gold for his country with a broken freakin’ neck? One must wonder how much of a role 9/11 played in Angle’s victory, as he dropped the belt back to Austin on Raw only two weeks later, but it made for a necessary crowd-pleasing moment at just the right time.

Unfortunately, that period was a brief anomaly in how McMahon’s WWE would infuse reality into kayfabe, for they just couldn’t help but rely on one of wrestling’s most tired tropes. From trying to relight the dying embers of Hulkamania by having Sgt. Slaughter play turncoat during the Gulf War, to Retribution’s laughably bad Antifa knock-off last year, the WWE’s methods of ripping from reality have historically been executed with all the nuance of a napalm bomb. The former angle in particular, which saw Slaughter being “pictured” with Saddam Hussein and rocking stereotypically Arabian pointy boots, was rightly derided, and resulted in a WrestleMania VII that had to change venues due to low ticket sales. However, it hasn’t stopped them from channelling Uncle Sam and Fox News in their perpetual attempts to spike ratings and score cheap heat during times of international distress.

The Usual Formula

Barely any rubble had been cleared from Ground Zero around the time the UnAmericans were formed. Consisting of three Canadians (Lance Storm, Christian, and Test), and later on, an Englishman (William Regal), the Commonwealth quartet cut promos targeting the Stateside fetishising of combat and consumerism while waving an upside-down US flag around. More vociferous with their anti-Americanism than their forefathers in the 1997 Hart Foundation, they even attempted to burn the stars and stripes on live TV on numerous occasions, though they were prevented in doing so by numerous babyfaces to colossal cheers. Such incendiary displays could’ve incited mass riots, exposing a major flaw in McMahon’s ethos of using real-life controversy to put butts in seats given the delicacy of such subject matter during the infancy of the post-9/11 era.

The UnAmericans’ run also supported another ancient wrestling cliché in that simply professing any sentiment against war would grant you immediate heel status. Just ask Christopher Nowinski, who “lost” a farcical debate on the merits of the Iraq War against Scott Steiner of all people. Big Poppa Pump’s rants against France and the Dixie Chicks’ opposition to the war was hardly surprising given the WWE’s penchant for playing up to right-wing interests, but it was a flagrant display of bellicose propaganda that would’ve been just at home on The O’Reilly Factor as on an episode of Monday Night Raw.

Watching the rabid audience cheer for Steiner’s incoherent rambling, with Nowinski’s valid concerns over the US’ wartime intentions being jeered in response, firmly cemented which side of the fence the WWE and its perceived core audience sat on. It was also a revealing peek into societal divide back then when anti-war demonstrators filled the streets, only to be accused of treason by those in support of the retaliatory destruction that was spearheaded by the Bush administration and their coalition of the willing.

Muhammad Hassan

As Operation Iraqi Freedom raged on, a torrent of blatant racial hatred insidiously spread throughout the West. Hate crime was on the rise, and cries of “Go back to where you came from!” and “You can like it, or leave it!” were hurled at them from an ill-informed pro-war brigade fuelled by hypernationalism. The treatment of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, in particular, reached a disturbing nadir. And nothing captured that feeling in pro wrestling more than the controversial tenure of Mark Copani, an Italian-American from Syracuse, New York who was rebranded with the gimmick of Muhammad Hassan, an Arab-American Muslim upset at the persecution of people like him in a post-9/11 world.

Despite his massive potential, Hassan was doomed from the start. Instead of crafting a multi-layered persona who could’ve struck a chord with fans who had experienced such xenophobia, WWE saddled Copani with yet another standard foreign heel gimmick straight from the McMahon playbook of the mid-’80s. He made his debut in Alabama, of all places, to entrance music that served as a pastiche of a muezzin’s call to prayer, and was treated with cries of “WHAT?” that grew louder when his sidekick Khosrow Daivari grabbed the mic and began shouting in Farsi.

From there, Hassan became a mainstay in and around the main event, butting heads with established favorites like Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, and Hulk Hogan, but rarely standing tall in the end. After his first three-second tan in a WWE Championship match on Raw against John Cena, he was traded to SmackDown, where he collided with the Undertaker. By then, Hassan was the hottest heel in the company and was in line for a run with the World Heavyweight Championship. However, what transpired later, a combination bad booking and even worse timing, killed his WWE career.

On a July 4th taping of SmackDown, three days prior to the devastating 7/7/05 bombings in London, Daivari was set to wrestle the Deadman under the guise of being a sacrifice offered by Hassan. Once Daivari got decimated, Hassan dropped to his knees and summoned five men in ski masks and turtlenecks to attack Taker, with one of the assailants memorably trying to garrote him with piano wire. Heightened media scrutiny over what played out forced UPN, the network that aired the show on Thursdays back then, into pressuring the WWE into nixing anything to do with Hassan. In the process, the bell tolled on Copani’s career, who underwent sports entertainment’s version of a mercy killing a few weeks later by getting powerbombed through an open stage ramp by Big Evil, never to be seen in or referenced again in WWE canon.

I recall watching that episode at a friend’s house, keen for a distraction from the constant reporting of the destruction that took place in my adopted hometown. As soon as Hassan rallied his “jihadists” together, I groaned. The WWE had once again taken the “safer” option by turning an Arab-American Muslim character with understandable gripes against Islamophobia into a full-on terrorist caricature. It was another instance of their eagerness to play into a white audience’s fears about marginalized people, which they have an egregiously long track record of doing.

What made Hassan’s case particularly galling though was the paranoia about Muslims that gripped the misinformed, believing that those who followed the Quran’s tenets and attended mosques on Fridays were also secretly plotting against them and their ways of life. With their portrayal of Hassan, WWE utilised the type of propaganda that the likes of Breitbart, QAnon and Fox News have relied on to boost their key audience’s prejudices. It’s pretty disheartening having to watch your favourite wrestling company go down that route, implying such divisive rhetoric against people who look just like you.

Hassan’s character has since been praised as ahead of its time, with dozens of think pieces and YouTube videos devoted to dissecting what went wrong to fantasy booking what could’ve been. The gimmick’s impact notably transitioned over to the real world as recently as October last year, when Mustafa Ali was branded a “terrorist” by some loathsome prick on Twitter. The tweet, which referenced that infamous Smackdown episode, also bemoaned the “anti-American crap” that Retribution represented, with Ali already revealed as the faction’s leader by then. It’s despicable that Ali, who had built his career by breaking those long-held preconceptions that Muslim wrestlers like him should almost always play that heel stereotype, was subjected to such abuse. His journey would resonate with a ton of Muslims with aspirations of fame, but were typecast for roles and opportunities that adhered to outdated labels. “Wrestling is a reflection of society,” Ali said in one interview, “and it does have an impact on people.”

An All-American Wrestling Product

A year prior to Hassan’s debut, the WWE launched an annual show to perform for Armed Forces members stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a similar vein to the post-9/11 SmackDown, the Tribute to the Troops events eschewed feuds and storylines, booked faces to win in every match, and featured honorary video packages commemorating the military and various wrestlers’ interactions with them. While McMahon and company received praise for providing free entertainment in such hostile environments, those shows were a spin vehicle masquerading as altruistic gestures. Each Tribute began and ended with patriotic gusto, and in hindsight, they essentially promoted the normalization of Western troops colonizing the Middle East in the name of democracy. In stark contrast to Atsushi Onita’s humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, where the legendary Japanese deathmatch pioneer wrestled a series of exhibition matches for children in Kabul, the purity of the Tribute’s aims leave a lot to be desired.

No discussion about the War on Terror would be complete without mentioning Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. On May 2nd, 2011, the decade-long, worldwide manhunt of the Al-Qaeda leader came to an abrupt end when he was shot down by Navy SEALS in Pakistan. The news barely reached mainstream media outlets when John Cena, moments after winning his tenth WWE Championship at the Extreme Rules PPV, announced bin Laden’s death to a euphoric Tampa crowd, most of whom had not been aware of those massive developments until then. It was fitting that Cena, the patron saint of rah rah rhetoric, would be the messenger of such historic news, given his stature as the company’s heir to Hulk Hogan at the time. His use of the phrase “caught and compromised to a permanent end” wouldn’t look out of place in the Oval Office press room, but the militaristic language used to describe what happened was as cringeworthy as the celebratory reaction to it. There’s also the company’s recent ties to Saudi Arabia (ironically the birthplace of bin Laden himself) and its oppressive regime, which created a web of political complexities that today’s wrestlers and fans are now all too aware of.

In the decade that followed since bin Laden’s demise, it’s still evident that the problem of Islamophobia still runs rampant across the West. Right-wing populism continues to rise exponentially, but given how polarised Western politics are today, especially during the era of smartphones and social media, it’s unlikely that WWE will dip into that well anytime soon. Vince McMahon is cognizant of the fact that the WWE’s future rests on reaching a younger fanbase who are growing more liberal and progressive by the day. Daniel Bryan’s magnificent portrayal of a militant environmentalist showed that the WWE possesses the skill necessary to apply en vogue subject matter to their monolithic universe. And while they won’t hesitate to amplify American patriotism when it suits them, such as Rusev’s run as an unstoppable Russophilic heel devoted to Vladimir Putin, it’s telling that the company is now mostly forgoing today’s political atmosphere in favor of pure escapism in this current, COVID-plagued climate.

Midway through the fifth season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the gang decides to put on a pro wrestling event to honor returning troops. Inspired by watching Hulk Hogan vanquishing another hated Cold War heel in Nikolai Volkoff, the lads deck themselves out in dollar store eagle costumes, dub themselves the Birds of War, and stomp and clap their day down the ramp, only to be foiled by Rickety Cricket’s Talibum amid raucous jeers. It’s only when Frank Reynolds clobbers the Talibum with a trash can that the cheers erupt, with “Real American” blaring from the speakers and reinforcing the same old narrative that America remains the hero that prevails over all.

Given the recent turmoil in Afghanistan, and the revelation that far right groups and white supremacists were responsible for the vast majority of extremist-related fatalities after 9/11, the fallout from the War on Terror is still felt to this day. And so are the prejudices that the world’s largest wrestling organisation has peddled since long before 9/11 occurred. “What’s the best way to celebrate America?” Charlie Kelly asked. The WWE’s response is to repeatedly present their version of the Talibum as the adversary. It’s now time for those wearisome tropes to face their own permanent end.