Riz Ahmed, photo by Sharif Hamza
Riz Ahmed.
Photo by Sharif Hamza

New study from Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reveals erasure and demeaning portrayals of Muslim characters across 200 top films

Muslims are the fastest growing and most racially and ethnically diverse religious community in the world. Yet according to a new study released today, Muslim characters are missing on screen — and when they do appear in popular movies, they are depicted with dangerous stereotypes that can create psychological and physical harm.

The report, titled “Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies,” was released by Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative with support from Academy Award-nominated actor Riz Ahmed, the Ford Foundation and Pillars Fund. The study includes a quantitative and qualitative exploration of Muslim representation in 200 popular films from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand released between 2017 and 2019. The results point to the scope of the problem and have prompted action from this coalition of voices to tackle some of the underlying reasons for the lack of Muslims in popular movies.

“The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded,” Ahmed 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.”

As Ahmed notes, the problem is vast. Less than 2% of more than 8,500 speaking characters across the films examined were Muslim. When the movies were examined by country of origin, 5.6% of characters in 32 Australian films were Muslim, as were 1.1% of characters in 100 U.S. movies, and 1.1% of characters in 63 U.K. films. None of the 5 movies from New Zealand featured a Muslim character in a speaking role on screen.

The overall percentages reveal one metric regarding the invisibility of Muslims, but the study also catalogues the erasure of this community in another way. Less than 10% of the 200 films studied — 9.5% or 19 movies — featured at least one Muslim character speaking on screen. In other words, 90.5% of movies did not include a single Muslim character in a speaking role.

“The erasure of Muslim characters is particularly notable in animation, where not one of the animated movies we examined featured a Muslim character,” Smith said. “Paired with the finding that only 7 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?”

The study also explored the intersectional nature of Muslim identity. The majority of Muslim characters were boys and men (76.4%) while 23.6% of all Muslim characters were girls and women. The majority (66.7%) of Muslim characters were Middle Eastern/North African, 20.8% were Asian, 5.6% were Black/African American, 4.2% where white, and 2.8% were multiracial/ multiethnic. Only 1 Muslim character was identified with the LGBTQ community and 1 Muslim character was shown with a disability.

When Muslim characters do appear in film, a set of qualitative findings from the report shed light on the ways that the community is stereotyped: as outsiders, threatening, and as subservient, particularly to white characters. Just over half of all Muslim characters appeared in films set in the past, and the majority were shown in the Middle East/North Africa, India, or Europe. Essentially, Muslim characters were primarily shown in places other than the countries whose films were included in the study.

"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,'” said 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."

The report also notes that roughly one-third of Muslim characters are perpetrators of violence, and more than half are targets of violence. Muslim primary and secondary characters are also likely to be shown in clothing or with artifacts that reflect their faith. Additionally, Muslim women continue to be shown in stereotyped and submissive ways. The few primary and secondary Muslim women characters were primarily shown as potential romantic partners or family members. Read the full report at http:///annenberg.usc.edu/aii.

In response to these findings, the 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, as well as a suite of practical resources and contacts to support everything from script screening to casting. Read the full set of recommendations at https://pillarsfund.org/.

“Film and television provide a powerful lens through which we see and understand the cultures and communities around us and relate to the world at large,” said Noorain Khan, director of the Office of the President for the Ford Foundation. “For too long, depictions of Muslims in entertainment have failed to match the richness and diversity of our lived experiences and we have felt the impact of these flattened portrayals firsthand. At Ford, we are proud to support the collective efforts of the Pillars Fund, Riz Ahmed, and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to clearly illuminate the extent of the misrepresentation and create a roadmap towards a more just future.”