After decades of white being the universal standard in Hollywood, the film and TV industry is shifting at a glacial pace — but shifting nonetheless. One of the most underrepresented and misrepresented communities in film, TV and media is the Muslim community. To unpack the issues and present data and facts that are critical for immediate change, Oscar-nominated actor Riz Ahmed teamed with Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative as well as the Ford Foundation and Pillars Fund for the report entitled Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies.
Muslims are the fastest growing and most racially and ethnically diverse religious community in the world. Yet according to a new study released today, Muslim characters are missing on screen and when they do appear in popular movies, are depicted with dangerous stereotypes that can create psychological and physical harm.
The study includes a quantitative and qualitative exploration of Muslim representation in 200 popular films from the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand released between 2017 and 2019. The results point to the scope of the problem and have prompted action from this coalition of voices to tackle some of the underlying reasons for the lack of Muslims in popular movies.
Considering Hollywood’s poor track record when it comes to representation of historically marginalized people, it’s expected that the numbers in this report won’t be that great. Even so, it is important to have this specific data. Ahmed told Diaspora of the study: “We know from our own experience that there’s this lack of Muslim representation and there’s dominance in Muslim misrepresentation, but sometimes just saying ‘this is the way I feel’ and ‘this is the way I see the world’, it’s easy for people to dismiss, and you can be very easily gaslit.”
He continued to say that there is something about presenting gatekeepers and people complicit within the film and TV industry or people perpetuating these stereotypes, with hard data that’s really hard to argue with. “A big part of this study is about showing it to people who don’t even realize there’s a problem,” said Ahmed.
“Without data, it’s really hard to know what the way forward is and if there’s been any change,” added Dr. Smith. “And so there’s two dual problems that you have to face when any of these folks are walking in to pitch a project or to represent a client, you might have somebody say, ‘Well, what do you mean Muslim representation’s a problem. We have Riz. We have Mahershala. We have Ramy.’ The way the mind works is if you can think of a few salient examples, you’re going to overestimate a class of events. It’s like, ‘Wow, we took care of that. Riz is in Amazon. Mahershala’s at HBO. Ramy’s at A24. What’s the problem?’ Okay, data counters that, and the way the mind works is very problematic because you think something is better than it actually is.”
Smith points out that there is a “trifecta of potential harm with this study.” There’s an erasure of a group — specifically in animation. Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and DreamWorks need to know this data. “They have to see the data and the evidence and know their culpability in erasing the next generation of potential content creators,” she said. “The goal is for also non-Muslims to know, and to really understand the depth of depravity of what they’re doing, whether they’re aware of it or not. And I think that data like this is a call to action and without it, it makes it really difficult for folks wanting to advocate for inclusion without being able to say, there are only seven characters that are kids in 200 films that are Muslim. Publishers, people that traffic in the IP space, Wattpad. That makes a different group of people able to know and be actionable in a new way. I think that’s powerful.”
Noorain Khan, director of the Office of the President for the Ford Foundation added, “I think that the way the study was conceived was incredibly compelling and offered up answers to questions I didn’t even know to ask, and I think that’s incredible.”
“The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded,” said Ahmed. “The data doesn’t lie. This study shows us the scale of the problem in popular film, and its cost is measured in lost potential and lost lives.”
Less than 2% of more than 8,500 speaking characters across the films examined were Muslim. When the movies were examined by country of origin, 5.6% of characters in 32 Australian films were Muslim, as were 1.1% of characters in 100 U.S. movies, and 1.1% of characters in 63 U.K. films. None of the 5 movies from New Zealand featured a Muslim character in a speaking role on screen.
The overall percentages reveal one metric regarding the invisibility of Muslims, but the study also catalogues the erasure of this community in another way. Less than 10% of the 200 films studied– 9.5% or 19 movies– featured at least one Muslim character speaking on screen. In other words, 90.5% of movies did not include a single Muslim character in a speaking role.
Even in doing research and trying to find photos of movies that center on Muslim characters was difficult, which is testimony to this report. In the TV space, there is more representation — not as much as there needs to be — but there is a considerable amount of representation with shows like Ramy, Master of None, Transplant, East of La Brea, Fair and Lovely, Superstore, The Bold Type, Chad (which Taz Ahmed unpacked) among many others. In film, it takes a little more elbow grease to find some popular titles but they do exist. These include Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick, Minhal Baig’s Hala, Nijla Mu’min’s Jinn, Mike Mosallam’s Breaking Fast as well as Green Book with Mahershala Ali and Sound of Metal which stars Ahmed, which don’t necessarily center on a Muslim narrative but feature Muslim actors in lead roles. There was also Regina King’s One Night in Miami which includes Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) giving an insightful discussion about Islam.
As Khan mentioned, the study also explored the intersectional nature of Muslim identity. The majority of Muslim characters were boys and men (76.4%) while 23.6% of all Muslim characters were girls and women.
The majority (66.7%) of Muslim characters were Middle Eastern/North African, 20.8% were Asian, 5.6% were Black/African American, 4.2% where white, and 2.8% were multiracial/ multiethnic. Only 1 Muslim character was identified with the LGBTQ community and 1 Muslim character was shown with a disability.
When Muslim characters do appear in film, a set of qualitative findings from the report shed light on the ways that the community is stereotyped: as outsiders, threatening, and as subservient, particularly to white characters. Just over half of all Muslim characters appeared in films set in the past, and the majority were shown in the Middle East/North Africa, India, or Europe. Essentially, Muslim characters were primarily shown in places other than the countries whose films were included in the study.
“More than half of the primary and secondary Muslim characters in these films were immigrants, migrants, or refugees, which along with other findings in the study consistently rendered Muslims as ‘foreign,’” said Al-Baab Khan, one of the study authors. “Muslims live all over the world, but film audiences only see a narrow portrait of this community, rather than viewing Muslims as they are: business owners, friends and neighbors whose presence is part of modern life. By presenting Muslims in an abundance of storylines, audiences can see and resonate with the innumerable experiences of Muslims from all walks of life.”
The report also notes that roughly one-third of Muslim characters are perpetrators of violence, and more than half are targets of violence. Muslim primary and secondary characters are also likely to be shown in clothing or with artifacts that reflect their faith. Additionally, Muslim women continue to be shown in stereotyped and submissive ways. The few primary and secondary Muslim women characters were primarily shown as potential romantic partners or family members.
In response to these findings, USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative joined a coalition of partners spearheaded by Pillars Fund to create The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion.
Kashif Shaikh, Pillars Fund Co-Founder and President said solutions that they are advocating for go well beyond just placing Muslim characters on screen. “We’ve recognized that the only way that change can really happen is if Muslim creatives and Muslim storytellers have control over the narratives and the stories that they tell,” he said. “And so when we talk about encouraging and pushing studios, it’s not just about saying, ‘Wow, we need to have more nuanced Muslim characters on screen.”
Shaikh points out that the success of Ramy Youssef’s show Ramy has been so critically acclaimed is because it’s an incredibly authentic show about an Arab family from New Jersey. From the writers room to the way the story is told, people can feel that it is authentic. “I think we need more of that nuance and that’s really what we’re hoping with this pledge is not just to say that, let’s get people in front of the screen, but how do we actually start to get people to tell their own story, get Muslims to tell their own story?”
“The Missing and Maligned study reveals the scope of the problem facing Muslims in entertainment, and the urgent need for solutions that increase the presence of Muslim voices in storytelling,” said Shaikh. “The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion offers a direct response to these findings by providing a broad set of recommendations for film industry professionals. We’re excited to support the industry to take practical steps towards more nuanced portrayals that amplify Muslim voices, from sunsetting terror tropes and signing first look deals with Muslim creatives to including Muslims in diversity, equity, and inclusion programming.”
The Blueprint includes short, medium, and long-term solutions for change, concrete recommendations for everyone from production companies to drama schools, and a suite of practical resources and contacts to support everything from script screening to casting. Read the full set of recommendations at pillarsfund.org/.
In addition, Pillars Fund in partnership with Riz Ahmed and Left Handed Films is announcing an innovative new fellowship that seeks to transform the cultural landscape by creating opportunities for Muslim storytellers. The Pillars Artist Fellowship will focus on Muslim artists in the U.S. and U.K. at the early stage of their career, offering multiple selected fellows an unrestricted award of $25,000 and career development support. The hope is that substantial financial and professional support can create the kind of talent pipeline that will help shift on-screen representation. Championing the artist fellows will be an advisory committee of Muslim artists who have been trailblazers in the industry, including Riz Ahmed, Mahershala Ali, Sana Amanat, Karim Amer, Rosa Attab, Lena Khan, Nida Manzoor, Hasan Minhaj, Jehane Noujaim, and Ramy Youssef.
Designed as a multi-year program, the fellowship will focus in its first pilot year on directors and writers from film and television. In further years, it will expand to cover storytellers from other disciplines, including literature, music, and visual arts. In addition to the unrestricted grant, Pillars Artist Fellows will receive a curriculum of tailored professional development resources including workshops delivered by industry experts, fireside chats from the high-profile advisory committee, and proactive one-on-one mentorship.
“Muslim communities are bursting with talent—it’s our duty and privilege to support these incredible artists and provide them the opportunity to tell their own stories,” said Arij Mikati, Pillars Fund Managing Director of Culture Change. “Right now, a pathway to success doesn’t exist for many Muslim creatives. The Pillars Artist Fellowship addresses this by providing them the funds, connections, and high-support, high-challenge community needed to reach their greatest aspirations.”
Ahmed added: “I know the industry has the imagination and the resources to fix this problem. Now it must show the will, and the Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion can offer a practical roadmap for change. The Fellowship also offers a meaningful way to intervene. Having a source of unrestricted funding for Muslim artists and storytellers will be game changing. Muslim communities in the US and UK are amongst the most economically disadvantaged, and yet currently there’s nothing else out there like the Pillars Artist Fellowship which really invests and believes in the talent pipeline. Had I not received a scholarship and also a private donation, I wouldn’t have been able to attend drama school.”
“Film and television provide a powerful lens through which we see and understand the cultures and communities around us and relate to the world at large,” said Khan. “For too long, depictions of Muslims in entertainment have failed to match the richness and diversity of our lived experiences and we have felt the impact of these flattened portrayals firsthand. At Ford, we are proud to support the collective efforts of the Pillars Fund, Riz Ahmed, and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to clearly illuminate the extent of the misrepresentation and create a roadmap towards a more just future.”
Pillars Artist Fellows will be selected via nomination process and will be announced later this year. For more information, visit pillarsfund.org.
Read the full study here.