Less than 2% of movie characters with speaking roles are Muslim, according to a study released Thursday.
The study, which examined 200 popular films from the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand released from 2017 to 2019, found only a handful of Muslim characters and these were most often in limited or stereotypical roles. The report, “Missing & Malaligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies,” comes from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Oscar-nominated actor Riz Ahmed, the Ford Foundation and the Pillars Fund.
The results validate the invisibility of Muslims in the entertainment industry around the world, which has had dire consequences for perceptions of Muslims and the persistence of Islamophobia. Hollywood has been criticized for its appalling diversity record and the lack of black, Asian, Hispanic or Latino actors in the lead roles. And actors of color say the roles they are given are often one-dimensional, stereotypical, undervalued, and largely overlooked in awards season.
Ahmed, the first Muslim to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and the first Muslim to win an Emmy, said improving Muslim portrayal in films is a matter of life and death. As the entertainment industry has started to take its diversity concerns into account, tackling the dangers of Islamophobia must be part of it, he said.
“There is this moment of inclusion. This conversation is taking place. We demand to be included in this, ”Ahmed said in an interview. “You cannot be pro-LGBTQ +, call to stop Asian hatred, proclaim Black Lives Matter and be complicit in the perpetuation of the industry of Islamophobia, which is an industry with blood on its hands.”
Of the 200 films examined by the study, oOnly 19 had at least a Muslim character. And of the 8,965 characters with speaking roles, only 144 were Muslims. According to the study, only 1% of the characters in 100 American films and 63 British films were Muslim. None of the five New Zealand films featured a Muslim character in a speaking role. In Australian films, 5% had Muslim actors.
Researchers have long argued that depictions of Muslims on television and in movies have fallen into racist tropes. Muslim men are often presented as violent, while women are presented as oppressed. Especially after 9/11, directors often entrust Muslims with roles related to war and terrorism, reducing their identity to politics and religion.
These representations are the backdrop to an increase in hate crimes against Muslims. In 2019, FBI statistics showed Muslims to be the second largest target in incidents of religious hatred after Jews. That same year, Muslims accounted for the majority of victims of religiously motivated hate crimes in the UK This week, a Canadian driver was charged with first degree murder after allegedly intentionally hitting five members of a Muslim family with his car, killing four and orphaning a 9- year-old boy.
Meanwhile, anti-Muslim hatred continues without control over social media platforms.
“It’s not difficult to relate what you see in the media to what we see happening in society in terms of hatred and Islamophobia,” said Stacy Smith, Founder of USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and lead author of the study.
Films with diverse cast have consistently won more than their white counterparts at the box office and generated more viewers, but Hollywood has failed to recruit more people of color into bigger roles.
Even when films feature Muslim characters, they often give a narrow view of Islam. Muslims are the most racially and ethically diverse religious group in the United States and around the world, but more than half of the characters in Muslim films were from the Middle East or North Africa. A whopping 87% of Muslim characters spoke with an accent or did not speak English at all. More than half were classified as immigrants, refugees or migrants.
More than half of the Muslim characters were in films set in the past, and most of them in the Middle East – depictions that reinforce Islam as archaic and Muslims as foreigners, said Kashif Shaikh, co. -Founder and President of the Pillars Fund, a granting body that supports Muslim groups. The study found only one movie in which a Muslim character was set in the United States
About a third of Muslim characters have been portrayed as perpetrators of violence, and more than half have been targets of violence, according to the study, which also found that 19% of Muslim characters died by the end of the film.
These numbers have ramifications and perpetuate misconceptions about who Muslims are, according to Shaikh.
“The lack of Muslim characters and the lack of representation is a lack of imagination, it’s not a lack of talent,” Shaikh said. “There is an abundance of talent out there that I think we absolutely have to tap into, and we have to let Muslim creators and Muslim creatives tell stories, and whatever direction those stories take.”
The Pillars Fund on Thursday launched its ‘Master Plan for Muslim Inclusion’ offering advice on increasing the visibility of Muslims in film and television, such as ending terrorist tropes for Muslim characters, making deals with creators and Muslim suppliers and reform casting practices. In addition, the Pillars Fund and the production company of Ahmed Left Handed Films announced a new scholarship program for Muslim storytellers.
The organizations also highlighted some positive points. Muslim actors like Ahmed, Mahersala Ali, Ramy Youssef and Yahya Abdul-Matten have been celebrated for their authentic portrayals of Muslim figures, and have even been recognized for this work.
Last week, the Peacock streaming network in the UK released “We Are Lady Parts”, featuring the journey of an all-female Muslim punk group. And last month, Disney released the short film ”American Eid”About the Muslim holiday on its streaming service.
“I feel very determined,” Ahmed said. “To make sure this research doesn’t go unnoticed, that people need who need to see it, to see it, that we have the conversation that needs to take place, that they put their money where it is. this month and fund this program. … This conversation is not going to go away.
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