A standard post-9/11 plot for American television. A One-Shot Character is introduced who is Middle Eastern and Muslim. The majority of the cast welcomes this new character with open arms, except for one. He's convinced that this new character is a terrorist, and will do whatever it takes to show the rest of the cast that his suspicions are correct. In doing so he invades the new character's privacy, and eventually learns An Aesop about being considerate of other cultures.
Alternately, a character is mistaken for a terrorist while acting suspiciously in an airport or on a plane. Most of the time it's a misunderstanding. Something or other will be Mistaken for Evidence (for example, the suspect will say something like "This party is gonna be the bomb!").
Unfortunately, this is Truth in Television (Real Life examples might double the page length or more). A number of people on airline flights have been discriminated against, including being forced off the plane, because the other passengers or pilots panicked and thought they were terrorists just based on their appearance or misunderstood actions (and there are reports of some who invoke this trope to test the waters or make it harder to find the ones with bombs). Sikhs and Orthodox Jews have to deal with this too.
- Russell Peters has a routine where he describes his experiences of being an Indian-looking man trying to fly right after 9/11. He describes a man freaking out and screaming "OH MY GOD, NO!" when Russell attempts to pull something out of his bag.
- In the "Axis of Evil Comedy Tour", Maz Jobrani shows how easy it is to be mistaken for a terrorist by saying "This party is going to be a blast" in his natural American accent and then repeating it in a Middle Eastern accent.
- A variation occurs in a Dork Tower strip with a "radical" "extremist" "black panther" named Huey. He's a white guy wearing a black furry panther costume.
- Happens in the November 2011 issue of Knights of the Dinner Table when the group plays a real-life based Zombie Apocalypse game of Screams of Kachuloo. Brian's frequent Internet searches for bomb-making and the layout for the local mall (for the game) throws up red flags with Homeland Security. A more experienced member of the department sees that the address is in gamer-heavy Muncie, Indiana and calls off the team. They've been burned there before many times...
- Happens to a young Arabian man in a issue of Power Girl as the plane he is in starts to fall from the sky as he uses his super powers to save the plane and its passengers. He mentions that the reason he never used his powers before was because he knew they would consider him a terrorist. Even worse, the government keeps him locked up (even disallowing him the chance to visit his dying father) because they want to set a precedent for a super-powered terrorist, and him bursting out of detention to see his father would do just that. Batman makes sure that this ends up being exposed in the end, however.
- Kamala Khan doesn't want to go public with her superhero identity because she fears this could happen to her friends, family, and mosque.
- An entire Dylan Dog is based on the idea of a high school student named Ahmed being for a suicidal bomber because of his Middle Eastern origins and having his high school project in a suitcase (that his teacher declared a bomb without even looking inside the case)-and not noticing the panic because that day he forgot his glasses at home and everyone he tries to ask runs at the supposed terrorist, with the police and the British Army missing three actual terrorists because they were busy searching for Ahmed. In a variant, the reader too is led to mistake him for a terrorist, as Ahmed is first seen playing a video game based on the 9/11 attacks, and it's only when Dylan (who has met his parents while searching for him) tells him what's happening that is clear he's not.
- When Izuku's quirk first manifests in Waiting is worth it (everything in the park not bolted down lifting several feet off of the ground), it is briefly mistaken for a villain attack by random park-goers.
- The plot of Beavis and Butt-Head Do America revolves around the titular duo having a biological weapon dumped into their lap by a pair of real terrorists, Muddy and Dallas, causing this trope to go into full effect throughout the film as the ATF suspects them of being terrorist masterminds. All the while, the two of them (being, well, Beavis and Butt-Head) are too stupid to realize what's happening, and think that the cross-country quest Dallas is sending them on to bring the weapon to Washington, D.C. is, in fact, a Quest for Sex. Their stupidity later causes a different character, their next-door neighbor Tom Anderson, to be mistaken for a terrorist himself.
- In Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, we see a POV Shot from a little old lady on the plane and Kumar looks like a terrorist turban, beard, Evil Laugh. Then he lights up a bong in the restroom and people think he's got a stick of dynamite. He even says "it's only a bong" and people mistake him for saying "bomb."
- Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back; the jewel thieves set Jay and Bob up as animal rights terrorists.
- My Name Is Khan features a main character named Rizwan Khan, a Muslim American with Asperger's Syndrome living in post 9-11 America. He says to another character that he wants to tell the President, and the people, of the United States that his "name is Khan and that [he] is not a terrorist." When he repeats this to himself in a crowd gathered to meet President Bush, he is arrested, imprisoned, and tortured as a terrorist suspect. A "Funny Aneurysm" Moment occurred when Shahrukh Khan, the actor who played Rizwan was detained by Immigration offers at Newark Airport on August 14, 2009 and questioned for two hours.
- Invoked in Crank. Chev Chelios gets revenge on an obnoxious taxi driver by dragging him out of his vehicle, then pointing at him and yelling "Al Qaeda!" Everyone in the street immediately dogpiles the man and beats him up.
- In the 2008 film of Get Smart, when Maxwell is trying to scrape gum off his shoe with a match, the plane passengers mistake it for a shoe-bomb. He says it's just Gum, which is misheard as Gun.
- In Meet the Parents, after all the crap he has dealt with throughout the film, Greg snaps at a flight attendant who told him he had to check his bag because it was too large to fit in the overhead storage unit because part of the reason things had gone sour for him was due to the airline losing his bag earlier. When the attendant insists, he goes on to grasp his bag and insist there isn't a bomb in it, which of course frightens the attendant and all the passengers, leading to him getting forcibly removed from the plane. The only reason he avoids getting arrested is because the father of his girlfriend, who had been the cause of his misery for most of the film, finally decided to lighten up and bail him out.
- In Flightplan, Kyle Pratt mistakenly accuses a Middle Eastern man of kidnapping her daughter. He is later shown to have nothing to do with the girl's disappearance.
- In The Dictator, Admiral-General Aladeen and his minion have an innocuous conversation while on a helicopter tour of New York, but the various snippets of English words they use (like miming the explosion of fireworks while talking about the Statue of Liberty or talking about the "Porche 911 2012") convince the tourists that they're terrorists. Which raises the question: Can a character be "mistaken" for a terrorist if he does actively aid and abet terrorists?
- In Abbott and Costello Buck Privates Come Home, Slicker and Herbie apply for a bank loan for their friend's midget race car. When demonstrating the model of the car, Herbie starts it in reverse, causing it to backfire, making it look like they were robbing the bank with a machine gun.
- Inside Man: After the bank robbers release one of the hostages, a dark-skinned man in a turban. The cops jump all over him yelling about Islamic terrorists despite him not resisting and frantically insisting that he's A) a Sikh, not a Muslim, and B) a hostage, not a terrorist.
- Die Hard:
- The FBI mistake John McClane for a terrorist near the end of the film. He's trying to get the hostages off the roof before it explodes, and since he's the one wielding the submachine gun at them, Special Agent Johnson opens fire on him.
John: I'm on your side, you assholes!
- Hans Gruber, meanwhile, invoked this deliberately. He and his heist crew pretended to be Western Terrorists demanding the release of foreign fighters in exchange for the hostages in order to disguise their true intention to rob Nakatomi Plaza, and the FBI's handling of the crisis like a terrorist situation played right into their hands.
- The FBI mistake John McClane for a terrorist near the end of the film. He's trying to get the hostages off the roof before it explodes, and since he's the one wielding the submachine gun at them, Special Agent Johnson opens fire on him.
- Jumpin' Jack Flash. When Whoopi Goldberg's character flees the spies holding her prisoner inside the British Embassy, a female staff member assumes she's a terrorist because she's brandishing a gun. "Do you want a hostage? I've been trained to be a hostage."
- In The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Toby sees robed figures hiding in the gypsy camp and thinks they are the terrorists the police are looking for, and becomes convinced that he is going to be executed. They are really illegal refugees from Morocco who are hiding from the authorities.
- Chillingly deconstructed in James L Grant's short story The Last Flight: An Indian airline passenger is harassed continually before and during his flight, while the blond, blue-eyed, All-American guy in the seat next to him...
- Law & Order:
- One episode played with this: a family of Italian Americans considered their son's Muslim girlfriend's family potential terrorists. The girlfriend's family thought of her boyfriend's family as Mafiosos. Both lovers end up being murdered.
- Another episode had two detectives invoke this trope intentionally on a pair of uncooperative Iranian nationals who refuse to cooperate with an investigation (they happen to work for the Embassy and can't be forced to answer questions or be charged for impeding). The police resort to basically planting a camera filled with what would appear to be photos scouting a target for a terrorist attack in NYC. The District Attorney is not amused when he has to deal with the fallout from the State Department over the matter, but he and the police officers involved never face any lasting consequences over the incident.
- How I Met Your Mother uses the alternate version of this trope. Barney and Ted leave suitcases at the luggage carousel, then purchase tickets to Philadelphia. While they only do this in a failed attempt to pick up girls, security has a hard time believing that.
- There was a Degrassi: The Next Generation episode where Hazel was harrassing a Muslim girl, even going and telling her to her face "Terrorist chic? So not in," in reference to her hijab. Paige calls her out on it, and she ends up prime suspect when someone vandalizes the Muslim girl's locker. Turns out Hazel is herself Somali and Muslim, and she was doing it precisely for this reason.
- 30 Rock: Liz Lemon grasses up an Arab man to Homeland Security when she glimpses maps on the wall of his apartment and sees him running through an obstacle course. Turns out he was in training for The Amazing Race.
- An episode of Wings had a few of the guys taking the plane for a trip only to end up landing in the middle of a cornfield. At one point Antonio (played by Lebanese-American Tony Shalhoub, though the character is Italian) goes exploring the field to look for help and comes back with the farmer behind him... with his hands raised while a shotgun is pointed at him.
Antonio: Joe, please explain to the nice man with the gun that I am not a Libyan terrorist.
- From the first episode of Little Mosque on the Prairie Amaar is talking to his mom over the cellphone at the airport. With this dialogue, it's somewhat understandable they were mistaken:
"I don't care if dad thinks this is suicide. I'm on a mission from god. It's not like a dropped a bomb on him"
- Without a Trace, "In Extremis." A Saudi Arabian doctor goes missing, and a lot of people automatically assume he's a terrorist. As it turns out, some of his acquaintances are, but he's trying to stop them. He's killed by a FBI sniper at the end of the episode as soon as they get a clear shot. He was heard talking about blowing up a building by a passing woman, but he is actually talking about how the home stadium of the sports team he's talking about should be demolished because they never win.
- 24 has two rather tragic examples on Day 2. Reza Nair is the biggest example - CTU initially suspects him of financing terrorist operations, although it turns out he's being framed by his white, blonde, all-American fiancee, who turns out to be the real terrorist. She murders Reza when he finds out. Later in the season, Yusef Auda is an intelligence agent from the Middle East who initially seems like an untrustworthy character but ends up as a fairly awesome ally for Jack Bauer... only to get beaten to death by angry racist Americans who do, in fact, mistake him for terrorist.
- In an episode of Titus the titular character was on a plane with his family after his mother's funeral. Mimicking a real life epiphany Christopher had years earlier, he caused a commotion that worried the other passengers. It didn't help when over-indulgent Dave came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his head and Tommy on his knees shouting
"Allah""a la king" (he was correcting a steward's grammar regarding a chicken dish).
- Cami from Bones has freaked out over the suspicion that Arastoo is a terrorist twice. Despite knowing he has served as a translator for the US Military in Iraq. The first time her fear was a little understandable, but the second after she supposedly learned her lesson from the first?
- In an episode of Chuck involving Chuck choosing new Intersect agents, one of the candidates looked Middle Eastern and had a large beard, and also happened to be an explosives expert. He signed up to be an Intersect agent because was not happy about being constantly assigned to be The Mole in terrorist organizations and was sick to death of being surrounded by nothing but sand all the time.
- Subverted when he actually turns out to be a traitor and working with the terrorists.
- One of Lost's many flashbacks showed Sayid being investigated by airport security because he is a Middle Eastern man who briefly left his bag unattended. Fortunately, the matter is cleared up quickly and he is cleared of any suspicion. Interestingly, another flashback revealed that at one point he was part of a terrorist cell but was actually The Mole for a US-Australian anti-terrorist task force. As a former Iraqi Republican Guard member he had the perfect credentials to infiltrate such a cell and the US government offered to reunite him with Nadia if he helped them stop a terrorist attack in Australia.
- JAG has an inverted example predating 9/11. In 6th season episode "Valor", Sergeant Joan Steele was found with terrorists attempting to sabotage a US warship in the vein of the attack on the USS Cole. It is unclear whether Steele was kidnapped and succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome or was a Military Maverick on a mission of her own trying to stop the terrorists. It turns out to be the latter, as she was killed in an explosion stopping them.
- On The Mindy Project in the episode "Harry & Mindy", Mindy (who is Indian) reveals that every year on Valentine's Day she goes to the Empire State Building to hope that she meets that special someone. She walks around the line to go in taking notes. The building security interrogates her and assumes that she plans to blow up the building, because of her ambiguous answers that are actually about romance. She doesn't catch on until Homeland Security walks into the room.
Mindy: I'm here to meet that special someone, and when I do, we're going to go to the top and then BOOM! Fireworks.
- In Downton Abbey, when an important general is dining at Downton Abbey in Season 2 during the war, Tom Branson hatches a plot to attack him with something concealed inside a soup tureen. When the other staff catch onto his plan, they assume that he has a gun or a bomb and intends to murder the general. Instead, the tureen contains ink, engine oil, cow excrement and other icky substances to render the general Covered in Gunge. Branson is politically involved in The Irish Revolution, but appears to be an Actual Pacifist in his execution.
- Community - Abed becomes a person of interest to the Secret Service when he spots them incognito before a visit from the Vice-President. The agent in charge continues the investigation after it's clear he's no threat because she's attracted to him.
- An episode of NCIS: Los Angeles has the team investigate an Arab-American former Marine, and an Iraq War vet, no less, as a suspect in the case of the week. He's completely innocent.
- A Blue Bloods episode has this happen to a Sikh-American surgeon by an NYPD beat cop. The Sikh takes umbrage and resists arrest, breaking the officer's nose. Cue political mess when he counters the assaulting an officer charge by suing the department for discrimination. Frank smooths things over by having the D.A. drop charges and arranging for the officer in question to make a personal apology.
- Stargate SG-1: In the season 10 episode "Bad Guys", SG-1 goes through a stargate that turns out to be housed inside a museum with a party going on in the main lobby. The guests immediately think the heavily armed heroes are part of a terror group on their planet, and they end up having to take everyone hostage until they can figure out a way to get back home.
- The Jeffersons: When Lionel is turned down for a loan, George goes to the bank to cosign without Lionel's knowledge, only for Louise to walk into the bank to do the same. George hides behind a pillar, then goes to the counter and opens his briefcase to hide his face. When the teller asks if he was making a deposit, he says he's not there to put money into the bank, she thinks he's a bank robber and screams not to shoot while dumping wads of cash into his briefcase, which prompts the security guard to hold George at gunpoint.
- In Engine Sentai Go-onger's 10 Years Grand Prix movie, the Go-ongers believe Hiroto attempted a suicide bombing to assassinate Minister Noizumi, and was killed. He was actually trying to publicly talk Noizumi out of raising the Isolation Barrier, only to be caught up in an explosion when BearRV crash-landed to earth, and ended up on Junk World; then couldn't get back, due to the barrier having been raised.
- Roseanne. In the re-vamp episode "Go Cubs," Roseanne believes that her new Muslim neighbors are terrorists after seeing a bunch of bags of fertilizer on their front lawn and thinks that they are going to use it to make a bomb. She learns later on that they have a lot of bags because the husband ordered them off of Amazon and clicked the buy button one too many times. Roseanne soon has a change of heart about them, and even defends the wife after she gets harassed by a racist cashier at the grocery store.
- In one episode of The Good Doctor, Shaun believes that his latest patient, a young Muslim woman with severe burns on her arm, is a terrorist who got the burns while creating a chemical weapon.
- During their 2003 Yanqui U.X.O. tour in the US, this happened for real to the band Godspeed You! Black Emperor when they stopped for fuel in Ardmore, Oklahoma. The station attendant working that day assumed they were terrorists, and got another customer to call the police. The cops were suspicious of the band due to their possession of anti-government documents and photos of oil rigs, communication towers, etc. After running a background check, all was well and they were released. The band sometimes joke about the incident at shows.
- Maybe it's a Post-Rock thing, as Explosions In The Sky were also once mistaken for terrorists, owing to the extremely unfortunate coincidental timing between the release of their album, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever and the September 11th attacks. You see, the album, conceived and recorded well before September 11th, has a picture of an airplane captioned "This plane will crash tomorrow" as part of its cover art. This, coupled with rumors that the album was released on September 10th (it was actually released in late August,) and probably not helped by the fact that their guitarist is of Pakistani heritage, was enough to get their bassist briefly detained at an airport as a potential security threat.
- This was pretty much Muhammad Hassan's defining character trope. It didn't help matters when he started doing things like summoning men in ski masks to choke people with piano wire.
- If you've ever DMed a game of Shadowrun, go look through your Internet search history or your campaign notes one of these days.
- Hunter: The Vigil: This is a concern for the hunter group Ahl al-Jabal, introduced in Ancient Bloodlines; they're an insular Muslim group who carry weapons and receive combat training in order to fight supernatural monsters, and are well aware of how this would appear to outsiders.
- A certain unique example in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Dual Destinies, where a young high school student is accused, mistakenly, of bombing a courtroom during a trial. Later on in the game an man is accused, also mistakenly, of bombing a space center. The final case also reveals that this applies to Ted Tonate, the killer of Case 1, who simply took advantage of the phantom's actions to hide evidence of his own crime and even warned everyone to evacuate when he realized that the bomb was re-armed.
- In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, when Dr. McNinja goes on a plane, people (rightfully) suspect something because he keeps his mask on.
- Torg from Sluggy Freelance gets sent to Guantanamo Bay after he runs past airport security shouting, "Riff! Wait! You don't have to blow them up! You don't have to kill everyone! You can just quit!" All the security guards hear is "... bla, bla, bla Blow them up! bla, bla, bla Kill everyone! ..." Fortunately he was released when their caucasometer picked up his Viking heritage.
- Inverted in Harry Potter Comics. Three Muslims at the Ministry of Magic are left alone by everyone, except one of the villains. However, as it turns out, they ARE terrorists and blow the place up. One of them has a HeelFace Turn later, though.
- Subverted in Jack (David Hopkins). One storyline deals with several recently dead spirits at the scene of a terrorist bombing trying to figure out which one of them was the culprit. One of them is an Arab and another spirit immediately starts making bigoted accusations at him. Turns out he's right.
- American Dad! episode "Homeland Insecurity" when ultra-conservative Stan Smith assumes the new Iranian neighbors are terrorists. He turns his house into a detention camp where he puts the Iranians and eventually all of the other neighbors into captivity. And a bit later, Stan mistakes himself for a terrorist when he finds his car crashed into the town's energy plant (it was actually Roger who drove it).
- South Park episode "The Snuke." Cartman automatically assumes that a new boy at school is a terrorist because he's Muslim. While there does turn out to be a terrorist plot going on in town, it is in fact it's a Russian working for the British.
- The Simpsons:
- "Mypods and Boomsticks". Similar to South Park's "The Snuke", Homer assumes Bart's new Muslim friend (even sharing the same last name as you-know-who) and his parents are terrorists.
- Also played for laughs in the episode "Midnight Rx", where Homer takes Ned Flanders and Apu across the border to Canada to pick up some medication. On the way back, Apu takes a sip of some very hot coffee, and burns his tongue. Ned then gives him a wet towel to wear around his head, which, combined with Apu's now unintelligible screams, gave the wrong impression to the border guards.
- This is the point of "Homerland", where Lisa suspects that Homer has been brainwashed when he starts acting polite, resists pork and beer, is seen praying faux-Muslim and takes a mysterious device in to the power plant. When Lisa and the FBI confront him, it turns out Homer was turned by eco-activists who convinced him to go vegetarian, went through an alcohol detoxication, was doing exercise on a rug they gave him (his "prayer" was "Ow, this rug hurts my knees"), and was doing a non-violent attack on the power plant (stinking up the plant so badly that nobody would go there anymore). The plan failed because the plant doesn't have air conditioning.
- One episode of Minoriteam featured the group going on a trip in their civilian identities. The Indian Dave Raj, however, slept in, and was forced to transform into his super-powered self, Nonstop, and hop on his flying carpet to get to the airport on time. Nonstop wears a turban and has a long beard. You can probably figure out the rest on your own.
- The King of the Hill episode "The Accidental Terrorist", Hank recruits a trio of teens to get back at an Honest John's Dealership for ripping him off, but when they blow up several cars, Hank is blamed because he was the only one who showed up in the security footage (due to the teens wearing black clothes and lying down on the pavement as camouflage).
- The title character of Archer naturally assumes that a turbaned Middle-Eastern man is the suspect (just moments after dismissing the German with the eyepatch as "way too obvious"). It's pointed out that the guy is a Sikh.
Archer: Oh, so if he's not a Muslim he just gets a pass? Well, that's called profiling, mother, and I don't do it.
- In the Mr. Magoo short "The Explosive Mister Magoo", Magoo is outraged that the local paper ran his picture in the newspaper without his permission (it was actually a photo of a bowling ball) and goes to complain to the editor. On the way, he buys a wind-up toy (thinking it's a clock) from a street vendor, so when he presents himself to the receptionist, she notices the ticking package and thinks it's a time bomb. Magoo shouting things like "I'll blow this paper wide open!" doesn't help matters any.