Riz Ahmed-Backed Study Finds Severe Lack of Muslim Portrayals in Film

"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," said Ahmed of the study.

Despite Muslims being the fastest-growing, and most racially and ethnically diverse, religious community in the world, their representation onscreen is severely lacking. If a Muslim character does make the cut, be it a prominent role or otherwise, their depictions are often negative and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

To help amplify Muslim talent onscreen, Riz Ahmed has teamed with Pillars Fund, a Chicago-based advocacy group, and the Ford Foundation to create $25,000 fellowships for Muslim storytellers. The group also commissioned a study that was released Thursday by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to highlight the marginalization of Muslims in Hollywood.

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Entitled “Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies,” 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.

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“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.”

In a video exclusively provided to The Hollywood Reporter, Ahmed discusses the study’s findings and proposed solutions to the industry on the issues of Muslim representation in film.

Muslims accounted for just 1.6 percent of 8,965 speaking characters in 200 films, according to the study. Less than 10 percent of the movies surveyed included a Muslim character in a speaking role, and 76.4 percent were male. Female Muslim representation has been exceptionally low, with the ratio of Muslim male characters to female characters across 200 films being 175 to 1.

Negative and violent depictions of Muslims are all too common in Hollywood, and as the report notes, one-third of Muslim characters are perpetrators of violence, and more than half are targets of violence. Diverse representation within the Muslim community has also been lacking. The report found just one Muslim character identified as LGBTQ+, and there was one Muslim character shown with a disability.

“The erasure of Muslim characters is particularly notable in animation, where not one of the animated movies we examined featured a Muslim character,” said Dr. Smith. “Paired with the finding that only seven Muslim characters were children, popular movies send a strong message to children that Muslims do not belong and are not worthy of inclusion in storytelling. Is this the lesson we want young viewers to learn about themselves or others: that if you are Muslim it is acceptable to be erased?”

“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,'” added 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.”

To address the many issues the study highlighted, the Pillars Fund, in partnership with Ahmed and Left Handed Films, will help select the first set of candidates for the Pillars Artist Fellowship later this year. The fellowship will focus on aspiring Muslim directors and writers in the U.S. and U.K. and provide mentorship and other support in addition to the $25,000 award. An advisory committee of Muslim artists for the fellowship includes Ahmed, Mahershala Ali, Sana Amanat, Karim Amer, Rosa Attab, Lena Khan, Nida Manzoor, Hasan Minhaj, Jehane Noujaim and Ramy Youssef.

“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.”

Also 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.

“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 Kashif Shaikh, Pillars Fund co-founder and president. “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. The full set of recommendations can be found at PillarsFund.org.

Ahmed added of these efforts, “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 U.S. and U.K. 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.”