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New report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reveals Muslim characters are erased and painted as extremists in popular television series

Islam is the fastest-growing world religion, but you would have no idea this was the case if you watched popular television from four countries whose content is broadcast around the globe. A new study reveals that not only are Muslims nearly absent from episodic content, they are still stereotyped in negative ways.

The report, Erased or Extremists: The Stereotypical View of Muslims in Popular Episodic Series comes from Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative with support from Academy Award winner Riz Ahmed and his production company Left Handed Films, the Ford Foundation and Pillars Fund. The study explores quantitative and qualitative aspects of Muslim representation in 200 top-rated television shows from 2018 and 2019 aired in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. The findings of the study highlight the disheartening reality of Muslims on screen.

“Muslims make up 25% of the world’s population yet were only 1.1% of characters in popular television series,” said Al-Baab Khan, the study’s lead author at the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. “Not only is this radical erasure an insult, it has the potential to create real-world injury for audiences, particularly Muslims who may be the victims of prejudice, discrimination, and even violence.”

Across the 8,885 speaking characters identified across the sample, there were nearly 90 non-Muslim characters for every 1 Muslim character seen on screen. There was no progress over time in the depiction of Muslim characters– 2% of characters in 2018 and less than 1% in 2019 were Muslim. Additionally, no differences were observed between U.S. and international (U.K., Australia, New Zealand) series.

Other figures from the study emphasize that Muslims were rendered invisible in popular television content. Of the 200 series examined, 174 or 87% did not feature any Muslim characters. Only 16 or 8% of shows examined had one or more Muslim characters in the plot.

Muslim characters were constrained to fit a particular profile in popular television series. More than two-thirds were male while only 30.6% were female. More than half (52%) were Middle Eastern/North African, while 28.6% were Asian and 13.3% were Black. In terms of age, 48.5% of Muslim characters were young adults while 25.8% were middle aged. No Muslim characters were young children (age 0-5), and only 2 elderly Muslims appeared in the sample.

“The findings in this study reveal how rarely content creators think about including Muslims in popular storytelling– particularly girls and women,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Founder, USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. “As a result, viewers would have to watch hours and hours of content before seeing even a single portrayal of a Muslim character– with even more time required to find a portrayal that is not linked to violence or extremism.”

The study’s qualitative findings demonstrate that stereotypes continue to be a hallmark of Muslim representation on screen. Muslim characters were often linked to violence. Over 30% of the 98 Muslim characters evaluated were perpetrators of violence while nearly 40% were targets of violent attacks.

Popular series not only linked Muslims to violence, they often tied Muslims to “foreign” locations through story settings and language. Nearly two-thirds of Muslim characters were native speakers of a non-English language. Nearly half of those individuals spoke only in non-English languages (e.g., Arabic, French, Urdu, Hausa), while more than half used accented English.

The occupations held by Muslim characters were also explored. Sixty percent of Muslim characters were employed. Male Muslim characters were far more likely (78.4%) than female Muslim characters (21.6%) to be shown with a job. The largest percentage of Muslim characters with a job were criminals (37.2%) while 15.7% worked in law enforcement. These figures demonstrate that popular series continued to reinforce old notions, often pitting “good” Muslims against “bad.”

Stereotypes about Muslim women were also present in the content. More than half of Muslim girls and women in the sample were shown wearing a hijab, even though Muslim boys and men were shown wearing a diverse range of attire (e.g., topis, kurtas, jeans, t-shirts, etc.). Muslim women were often depicted as fearful and submissive to their male counterparts. Nearly all of the Muslim women shown with a job in the study were employed in the medical field, though male Muslim characters worked in a wider variety of professions. 

“TV shows are the stories we bring into our homes. They play a big part in shaping how we understand the world, each other, and our place within it. This study reminds us that when it comes to Muslim portrayals, we’re still being fed a TV diet of stereotyping and erasure,” said Academy Award-winner Riz Ahmed. “For Muslims this sends a message that they don’t belong or don’t matter. For other people, we risk normalizing fear, bigotry and stigmatization against Muslims. Networks and streaming services need to embrace their responsibility to ensure Muslims of all backgrounds see themselves reflected in our favorite TV shows. And they would be wise to embrace this gigantic opportunity to reach and connect with an underserved global audience - not just as part of a passing diversity fad but as a decisive shift towards inclusive story-telling.”

The results on television mirror the findings from a study released by the same groups in 2021 on the prevalence of Muslim characters in popular films. That report also demonstrated the near absence of Muslims in popular content and the stereotypical portrayals that occurred when Muslims were on screen. The newest study offers solutions to increase the representation of Muslims in entertainment, including telling stories focused on Muslim characters, deepening the richness of portrayals for supporting Muslim characters, and casting Muslims to emphasize their participation in broader society. The report notes the need for inclusion policies and practices across entertainment to incorporate faith-based communities in addition to race/ethnicity and other identity groups.

“The Erased or Extremists study reveals the full extent of the problem facing Muslims in television, and the urgent need for solutions that allow for a more expansive landscape of stories,” said Kashif Shaikh, Pillars Fund Co-Founder and President. “With the Emmy Awards just around the corner, it couldn’t be a more appropriate time to examine whose stories get told on-screen. We hope television industry leaders take the necessary steps to improve their industry’s standards, using resources like this study and The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, which provides concrete recommendations for production companies, drama schools, casting directors, and others who are seeking to support Muslim storytellers.”

The full report is available here.