In December 2004, Mark Magnus (Italian-American Mark Copani) was called up from WWE’s developmental league OVW to play the role of Muhammad Hassan, an Arab-American who grew up in Detroit, Michigan and lived a normal life. He was proud to be American until the horrifying events of 9/11 changed everything for Muhammad Hassan.
TODAY’S ISSUE: Is Muhammad Hassan really gone?
After that fateful day, Hassan began to feel his fellow Americans’ eyes on him, silently accusing and making him the victim of racial profiling. Hassan now felt unfairly persecuted, and became aggressive due to backlash from his own countrymen discriminating against him. Accompanied by the smaller but very talented Khosrow Daivari, Hassan decided to make an effort to set the record straight. He took his grievance to television, where he’d likely have a loud voice, perhaps the ONLY way to have his voice heard at all. (I’m not sure what led the character to pro wrestling, exactly. Perhaps his attempts to get his own talk show were unsuccessful…)
Hassan was innocent of terrorist acts against his nation, but was perceived as guilty due to his ethnicity and religious beliefs. For the record, America was founded by people who wanted freedom to express themselves and worship their God in peace. The Statue of Liberty herself proclaims, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The intended meaning of those words is: all people are welcome in the USA.
Hassan’s motivation is very realistic and complex. I personally know Arab-Americans who suffered this type of racism following the 9/11 attacks, from people who had known them for years. I’ve mentioned before that Americans tend to be xenophobic and judgmental. Since Arabs have become the new taboo in our country, many who wear an *Arab headdress (shemagh) or a colored mark on the forehead (tilaka, bottu, or bindi) are unfairly looked upon with hatred and fear. Simply put, Americans attack what they don’t understand. If it’s different from their beliefs, it’s dubbed “unpatriotic” or “un-American”, and before the victim ever gets a say in the matter, he’s found guilty in the court of public opinion. But before my soapbox topples over, let me get back to professional wrestling.
The irrational “pro-American” behavior I just mentioned was immediately apparent when Hassan and Daivari were introduced to US wrestling fans for the first time. Live crowds booed the two men before they’d even done anything evil. All Hassan and Daivari did at first was mention that they had been treated unfairly, which was true, and that they were Arab-American. Also, Daivari spoke in a Persian-sounding language. Sadly, this was enough to make them heels in the eyes of many American wrestling fans. How closed-minded can you get?
This was some top-notch writing from WWE’s creative team. Hassan and Daivari seemed like real people with real conflict. They loved their country, but were shunned by it. They were discriminated against and wanted it to stop. This was far better than the insufferable Katie Vick storyline of yore, or the Al Wilson-Torrie Wilson-Dawn Marie affair. This was engaging stuff, and I recall many in the IWC enjoyed the early incarnation of the Hassan character just as I did. I often found myself nodding my head in empathy when the two explained their struggle in early interviews.
Hassan began to incorporate the idea of discrimination into his character more deeply when he started complaining about his standing in the pecking order. He was undefeated after many weeks of competing on Raw, but he wasn’t getting title opportunities from General Manager Eric Bischoff. As far as Hassan was concerned, Bischoff was just another paranoid, racist, xenophobic American, like so many he and Daivari had encountered in the past few years. It’s a popular belief in wrestling that the best heels truly believe they are in the right, even while doing things that seem wrong. Hassan certainly had that working for him. It was very difficult to argue with him if you took ten seconds to see the situation from his point of view.
At some point, either because this level of writing was too sophisticated to maintain, or because shallow fans were booing him anyway, creative gave up on keeping Hassan a compelling character with strong beliefs and strained loyalties, and turned him into Generic Evil Foreign Heel #27. And that, as they say, was that.
The announcers began going out of their way to proclaim that fans booed Hassan because we was a whining, complaining jerk, not because he was foreign and different. They insisted that Hassan did not represent Arab-Americans as a whole. He was just out for his own interests, crying about perceived injustices when he should have just “sucked it up”. This cooled the character considerably. Turning him into a modern version of the Iron Sheik made Hassan much less than he was before. Suddenly Daivari’s foreign-language tirades at ringside during Hassan’s matches sounded like Jimmy Hart on his damn megaphone twenty years earlier, annoying but not important. At one time, Daivari’s rants seemed menacing and unusual.
Things only deteriorated from there. Due to the unfortunate timing of an angle on Smackdown which was taped four days prior but aired on July 7th, the day of the first terrorist attacks in London, UPN got squeamish about Muhammad Hassan and demanded the character never appear on their network again. Said angle involved Hassan bringing in some hired guns to assist him and Daivari in their battle with undead zombie-monster, the Undertaker. Although WWE did not come right out and call Hassan’s new partners terrorists, their garb and actions said a mouthful. The five men wore black ski masks, black turtlenecks, black combat boots, black gloves and desert camouflage pants. They moved in a coordinated, military manner, and used guerilla tactics like piano wire around Undertaker’s throat. Daivari was knocked unconscious by the Undertaker, so the men carried him out of the arena in a manner similar to a Muslim martyr.
Long time readers will recall that I am a Technical Sergeant in the United States Air Force, in my 14th year of active duty service. Believe me, these men were meant to seem like terrorists without the company actually saying so. In this one segment, Hassan had essentially become what he had been unjustly accused of being months earlier, a terrorist. The character was now completely ruined. The whole reason he had a grievance against this country at all was that he was wrongly discriminated against, but now he was in fact guilty himself. Was this a matter of well, if you’re going to call me a terrorist, I guess I’ll be one? Either way, Hassan’s entire motivation was gone. Without the conflict of being innocent and wrongfully accused, he might as well have been Mr. Fuji circa 1979, or Nikita Koloff circa 1985.
I agree that airing the terrorist segment the same day as a real attack in London was horrible timing, but there was no other material to replace that segment with. It was a show-long angle involving Hassan eventually revealing his plan to deal with the threat of the Undertaker. It would have been impossible to rework the show in the short time between the real world attacks in London and the airing of SmackDown that night. A live show like Raw could have been rewritten on the fly.
On the SmackDown following the Great American Bash, Hassan was only mentioned in passing, when Michael Cole and Tazz spoke of the injustice of the Undertaker having to wrestle JBL for the #1 contendership after having already defeated Hassan for that right four days prior. They also spoke a little about the terrific beating Hassan and his allies took from the Undertaker at the Bash. It seems WWE has bowed to UPN’s wishes, and eliminated Hassan from SmackDown completely. If Hassan doesn’t find his way back to Raw on Spike TV, the character may be finished.
Hassan’s future looks bleak at the moment. Popular opinion is that Copani will be sent back down to the minors, and Hassan will never be mentioned again. New characters fail all the time, but the shame of this situation is that Hassan didn’t need to fail. He could have worked extremely well if creative had stayed the course with him, rather than converting him so quickly to a caricature. Also, I feel for Mark Copani, who did everything asked of him by the company, and endured scorn and hatred all over the country for the sake of his character. He performed the Hassan role brilliantly, and now his wrestling career may suffer for it. If he does get sent back down, creative would really have to come up with something different for him if they ever plan to call him up to the big leagues again. Copani would also need to significantly alter his appearance. Unfortunately, I doubt creative could find another suitable character for Copani to play, or if they’d even care enough to try. Pity…
I’m surprised that Hassan’s profile is still on the SmackDown Superstars page of WWE.com. Perhaps that’s a good omen that the character will survive. I certainly hope so.
LATE BREAKING NEWS: Well, so much for that. I submitted this column Monday night Aug 1st, and at that time Hassan and Daivari were both still on the SmackDown Superstars page. Now, Tuesday evening, they’re nowhere to be found anywhere on WWE.com.
* Special thanks to Signore Verboso for his assistance with terms used in this column.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.
p.s. – When your name is Charles, how do you get the nickname Chuck? What about Bob from Robert, or Ned from Edward? How about Ted from Theodore?