Earlier this year, British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed earned an Oscar nomination for his role in Sound of Metal, an inclusive story about a hearing-impaired musician. Now, the Primetime Emmy Award winner is turning his attention to another vitally important form of representation: positive Muslim depictions in modern Hollywood films.
CNN’s Lisa Respers France reported that Ahmed is using his growing fame and personal finances to back a new study on Muslim representation in media.
According to Respers France, “Ahmed partnered with advocacy organization Pillars Fund and the Ford Foundation to sponsor the study ‘Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies,’ which was released by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.”
In a release, the Pillars Fund detailed the study, which “includes a quantitative and qualitative exploration of Muslim representation in 200 popular films from the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand released between 2017 and 2019.” A coalition of voices and organizations has been formed to tackle the scope and underlying reasons for the lack of Muslims in popular movies.
One of the troubling insights from the study? Despite being one of the fastest-growing demographics in the world, the Pillars Fund found that “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.”
“The report also found that when Muslims do appear in films, they are overwhelmingly portrayed ‘as outsiders, threatening and as subservient, particularly to white characters,’” Respers France reported.
Ahmed said he found the data from the study troubling and disheartening. “The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed and 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.”
According to Respers France, Ahmed talked about his own career during the announcement of the Pillars Fund study, saying he was often “dismayed” that he was one of a few Muslim actors in Hollywood who was able to portray characters that were “either non-Muslim or unremarkably Muslim.”
“I ask myself: if I’m the exception to the rule, what must the rule be about people like me?” Ahmed said. “What must the unwritten rule be about Muslims, a quarter of the world’s population, and their place in our stories, our culture and their place in our society, if any?”
To help fund more Muslim storytelling and increase Muslim representation in film, Respers France reported that Ahmed, the Pillars Fund and the Ford Foundation endowed a number of $25,000 fellowships, which the group will award in the coming months.