Muslim characters virtually missing in top films: ‘The data doesn’t lie,’ Riz Ahmed says

When it comes to onscreen representation in film, Muslims are hardly anywhere to be found, according to a new study. And when they do make their appearance, majority of the characters are male and usually stereotyped as foreigners, oppressive or violent. 

After analyzing 200 movies from the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom between 2017 to 2019, a USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report  found that only 19 of those projects included at least one Muslim character who spoke one word or more throughout the movie.

While Muslims make up 24% of the global population, they made up less than 2% of the films researched, meaning out of 8,965 speaking characters in 200 movies, 144 were Muslim. Of the 144 Muslim characters, about 34 were Muslim women. 

“The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded,” Riz Ahmed, who supported the research project, said. “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.”

Riz Ahmed • 2021 Oscar nomination: Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role • For playing: Ruben in "Sound of Metal" (Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Out of those 200 movies, just six had Muslims as their lead or co-lead character, and even in those films they played roles that served a white character’s purpose. None catered to a younger audience. While seven characters out of almost 9,000 were Muslim kids, of the 23 animated films looked at within the 200, none included a Muslim character.

“The erasure of Muslim characters is particularly notable in animation, where not one of the animated movies we examined featured a Muslim character,” co-author said Dr. Stacy L 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.”

Out of 41 primary or secondary Muslim characters, more than half were portrayed as immigrants or refugees, spoke no English or with an accent and were dressed in attire related to Islam. The movies they appeared in were usually set in a historical time period and racial or religious slurs were used against them. Of those 41 characters, 39% were shown to be perpetrators of violence.

Muslim women didn’t have it any better. They were often reduced to submissive roles or linked to romantic partners.

The report also showed out of the 200 films and 8,965 characters only one Muslim character identified as part of the LGBTQ community and one was portrayed with a disability.

In response to these findings, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative teamed up with the Pillars Fund to create The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, which is a set of recommendations for the entertainment industry to combat the lack of inclusion of Muslim characters. “Sound of Metal” actor Ahmed also teamed up with Pillars Fund to create the Pillars Artist Fellowship for Muslim creatives awarding fellows with $25,000 and career support.

“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,” Ahmed said. “The Fellowship also offers a meaningful way to intervene. Having a source of unrestricted funding for Muslim artists and storytellers will be game changing.”

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