Why Riz Ahmed’s Fight For Positive Muslim Representation Matters
Nila is a freelance journalist and Clinical Psychology Doctoral student…
Actor and activist Riz Ahmed recently posted that he is fed up with seeing Muslim characters on-screen either in a negative role or non-existent. #MuslimsInFilm is not just another hashtag for popularity, it is a movement to change the portrayal of Muslims in the media. Why is this important? Because representation matters and positive Muslim representation educates and affects changes.
Ethnic minorities have never been represented well in the world of Hollywood. We were always the strange, weird, “other.” For the media, having a black character was “diversity.” It later expanded to a comedic Hispanic character and a nerdy Asian, or an Asian shop owner in the background. Why is it that when there is a rainbow of colors out there, we only catch 2-3 minorities on screen? Why are these trite references all we see?
As a child, I don’t remember catching any character that looked like me on screen. I grew up on shows like “Hey Arnold.!” “Rugrats,” “Clarissa tells it like it is,” “Saved By the Bell,” and “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” But who was a little Muslim brown girl supposed to relate to? I know I’m aging myself here, but kids today take it for granted that they have a Mindy Kaling, a Hasan Minhaj, a Riz Ahmed, a Lilly Singh, and a Maitreyi Ramakrishnan to see on screen. The next generation even has “Mira the Royal Detective” on Disney Junior teaching children about Indian culture and holidays like Diwali, Holi, and Eid—a luxury my generation never had and always yearned for.
With no representation in the media, the worst happens, one September morning terrorists crashed a plane into the World Trade Center. I still remember the smell of smoke in the air and the dark cloud headed our way when my mom picked me up from school. The worst day of my life, in more ways than one. I lost my uncle that day and would have lost my father had he not been late to work.
My uncle and father both worked at Windows on the World, a beautiful restaurant frequented by the rich, famous, and powerful from across the world at the very top of the World Trade Center. 9/11 did not just last 24 hours for me, it lasted the months my dad was out of work sitting on the couch struggling with depression and survivors guilt, it lasted the years my mom spent keeping our family together, and the decades it took all of us to even have the courage to visit the site that changed our lives in minutes. My blissful childhood died that day because at 12 I had to be the adult my parents needed me to be to care for them and my younger brother.
Suddenly, I saw myself everywhere in the media, Muslims on television in every show, especially the news—but now, we were the villains. The lead of every crime show was suddenly in a patriotic battle with terrorists from some far away, mispronounced Muslim nation. I don’t remember if this was the case prior to 9/11, but I do recall it became much more prominent after that tragic day. Now a generation of Muslim children went from being invisible to internalizing self-hate.
It was legitimately dangerous to tell someone you’re Muslim for fear of how others would react to that knowledge. Per the FBI’s reports, anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped from 28 to 481 in 2001 alone. Anti-Islamic hate crimes have consistently remained the second-highest religion-based reported hate crime since 9/11. I saw family members frequent the mosque less, aunts who stopped wearing a hijab for fear of being attacked, and Sikh friends harassed because they were mistaken for Muslims.
The after-effects of the trauma are still thriving in our community decades later. Just last month, a Muslim Canadian family was run-over in London, Canada in an anti-Muslim hate crime killing a mother, father, grandmother, and daughter. Three generations of a family gone, leaving behind a 9-year old son, the sole survivor of this attack.
It is no surprise that a recent study, supported by Ahmed, the Pillars Fund, and the Ford Foundation, has found that a lack of positive Muslim representation in media has exacerbated hate crimes towards Muslims. The study by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative analyzed 200 popular films released between 2017 and 2019 from America, Australia, United Kingdom, and New Zealand. Out of 8,965 speaking characters, only 1.6% were speaking and 90.5% of films did not even feature a Muslim character at all when 24% of the global population is Muslim. New Zealand did not even have a single Muslim character in the films analyzed and Australia had the most Muslim characters.
Of all the characters depicted, only 23.6% were female indicating a tragic under-representation of Muslim girls and women. Not only are Muslims invisible, but the characters that are represented are also racially profiled in films. Modern Muslim characters are rare also—51.1% of the films set Muslim characters in the past. Only 6 films included a Muslim character in the lead or as a co-lead in an ensemble cast. The characters were often depicted in other nations or represented as “foreign,” 87.8% of the time the characters spoke no English or had an accent.
The study made it glaringly obvious the urgent need for Muslim voices in storytelling as the misrepresentation and lack of positive Muslim representation directly affects the violence on our streets, the policies that are enacted, and more.
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Ahmed has given us a solution, a platform to tell our stories through his latest project. The Muslim pioneer changing the face of Hollywood with his phenomenal acting skills, sexy accent, and sharp mind has developed The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion to enact now in Hollywood and a grant of $25,000 for Muslim filmmakers to tell their stories all with the Pillar Fund and Ford Foundation.
The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion has been created to help professionals understand how to support Muslim stories and storytellers. This includes various levels of changes and solutions for us to implement or change including recommendations for drama schools and even production companies. The Blueprint also includes the Muslim Visibility Challenge for leaders of the industry to take action, utilize resources and contacts to support on all levels from casting to script screening.
This opportunity is a beautiful way of positive Muslim representation in the media and directly affects change. You only need to turn on the news to know how necessary this project is. It’s time to step up Hollywood and Ahmed is here to make sure things change.
Nila is a freelance journalist and Clinical Psychology Doctoral student who was born and raised in New York City. There is very little she loves more than Harry Potter marathons, pizza, 90s Bollywood, bagels, falooda, and her family. She hopes to use her powers for good by spreading mental health awareness and positivity in the South Asian community through her love of writing.