In early June, British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed posted a video on social media. At this year’s Oscars, he was nominated for his portrayal of Ruben Stone in the 2019 film Sound of Metal. Ahmed is the first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor, but in his video, he said that when it comes to Muslim representation on the big screen, his professional success is not enough.
“The progress that’s being made by a few of us doesn’t paint an overall picture of progress if most of the portrayals of Muslims on screen are still either nonexistent or entrenched in those stereotypical, toxic, two-dimensional portrayals.”—Riz Ahmed
Ahmed’s critique is supported by data. That day, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative had released a report analyzing 200 popular films from the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand from 2017 to 2019. It was titled Missing and Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies. Ahmed said the findings were damning.
“I think we’re going to look back at this period of misrepresentation with the same shame and sadness that we look upon minstrelsy in days gone by. It’s something that has to be changed, and it’s something that we can’t change on our own. It’s a structural problem. We have to join hands.”—Riz Ahmed
Ahmed had already joined hands with the Pillars Fund. Pillars is a nonprofit that amplifies the leadership talents of Muslims in the US. It started as a kind of giving circle within Chicago’s Muslim community, but developed nationally to invest in and support civic leaders who were facing Islamophobia. Pillars teamed up with Ahmed, the Ford Foundation, and Annenberg to undertake this study, guided by the belief that responsible storytelling has the power to change the narrative about Muslims here in the US.
“There’s this perception that Muslims only exist over there, right? Like there’s somewhere else. And that’s true, we are other places, but we’re also here and this is home for so many of us.”—Kalia Abiade
Kalia Abiade is the vice president of Programs at the Pillars Fund. She joined us with her colleague Arij Mikati, Pillars’ managing director of culture change. Mikati says that in order to work on a solution about Muslim representation in film, it was first important to prove that there was even a problem in the first place.
Mikati: The research was our opportunity to sort of validate and prove what a lot of Muslims, I think, including all of us at Pillars, already qualitatively really felt and believed, which is that Muslims are maligned and missing in popular media. And we know that that actually plays into the belief systems, the actions, the policies, and the everyday experiences of Muslims that are living in the United States. I feel like once we got the research, we were able to tangibly say to the industry at large, we now have proof for what we’ve told you we’ve felt. And that has really allowed us to make some pretty cool commitments and have some really great conversations with key people in the industry that are ready to change the scope of what’s been happening.
Costello: Kalia, when you knew this study was going to be undertaken, did you have a couple of things you were kind of curious about that you were looking forward to kind of delving in and getting some data on in particular?
Abiade: I think Arij said it best. The study was a confirmation and an affirmation of what so many of people have known internally for so long. I think we would have been shocked if the data had shown anything other than it was. But I think we were looking to see, like, is our hunch correct? Is this hypothesis on? And, you know, we saw that it was.
Costello: I want to kind of take a look at what some of the findings were. One thing that did surprise me was the absence of Muslim characters. From what I understand, out of nearly 9,000 characters in these films that were reviewed, 1.6 were Muslim. And this gets to the idea of erasure. And that’s something that interests me, with many different groups, especially people of color, are constantly being erased from discourse, from media, from narratives. And talk to me, because we’re going to talk about the negative representation of many Muslims in film. But what about their total absence? What does that tell you, and why is it problematic?
Mikati: Yeah, this is something that Dr. Stacy L. Smith, who leads the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that did the research with us, constantly talks about. We know that erasure actually causes physical pain in communities. So, I think just on a, you know, direct impact level, we know that this is, on a micro-scale, harming individuals in our community. I think that’s the first piece: It’s hurting people. And that’s not fair. It’s not right. And these people aren’t just adults. Right? We’re thinking about kids as well, because something that you might have read in the report is that of all of the animation films reviewed, not a single Muslim character appeared. So, what does that tell our children? What does that tell their peers that may not identify with the Muslim faith as well about belonging? What does that tell them about where we should be seen, where we should be heard? And I think that that’s a really crucial distinction for us to make between, like you said, the negative portrayals and the erasure, because the erasure on its own is actually, whether intentional or not, it does create an intentional erasure in the policies that we enact, in the funding that gets allocated through philanthropies, in the priorities of DEI work across several industries, et cetera. So, when folks aren’t thinking about you, you can’t be at the table. And some people say if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. But it’s actually, “If you’re not in the kitchen, you’re on the menu.” And so, if we can’t get in the kitchen because we’re being erased, we don’t have an opportunity to sort of co-facilitate and collaborate in creating solutions that are community-led.
Abiade: Yeah, and I think this is personal for so many of us. So, for me, I think about my own children. We’ve got four kids, and they’ve grown up and are growing up in this world where they don’t see themselves on screen in their fullness. They might see a piece of their identity here and there. But, you know, what is that like for them to not see themselves on screen, and then go into environments that are neutral at best and potentially hostile, and where are they getting their affirmation? And of course, that has to come from home and that has to come from community. But we don’t want to send them out into the world in this gulf for somebody else to fill. And I also want to say, you know, one thing that I think this erasure does is reify this idea that Muslims are new here, that the story of Muslims in this land that we call America, you know, started within the last several decades. And we know that that’s actually not true, and one of our amazing colleagues and Muslim narrative change cohort fellows, Hussein Rashid, will always say, you know, there’s never been an America without Muslims. And so, what we really hope is that this conversation we’re having around the research and representation on screen allows us to have that conversation about Muslim contributions to society over generations and as a part of building this actual country.
Costello: Kalia Abiade, when you walk out of a film with your children, or close another book that does not represent who they are or their culture…you know, you’re talking about this erasure and, you know, you’re both raising a rhetorical question, like, what does this tell our children? But I want to know, what do you tell your children about the erasure, about the absence of characters who look like them, who share a culture that they know, a religion that they know? What do you tell them about the absence?
Abiade: Unfortunately, we’ve had to have this conversation over and over and over again, and there are a few, like, really specific examples that come to mind. But one is when my son Musa, who’s now 11, but in 2015 heard then-candidate Donald Trump say, you know, that we were going to ban Muslims from this country. And he was like really, really nervous. And in his child’s mind, he was thinking about all of the possibilities. Where would we have to go? Right, what does that mean for my friends and me? It was very concrete for him. He’s like, if this man is elected, I may have to leave the only home I’ve ever known. But in that moment, I was really caught off guard. I will never forget that winter of 2015, where I had to look my child in the eyes and say, “We are not going anywhere.” And that’s not something that I wish on any parent, you know.
And if I could, I’ll share another example. When my son Adam was in fourth grade… You know, one thing that’s really tough about September and the beginning of the school year, back-to-school time, is, you know, September 11th falls right in that first or second week of school. And so that teacher, thinking that she was really doing a good thing by—and I don’t envy history teachers or elementary school teachers by any means in having to do this task, but that day was obviously very monumental in our country’s history. And to bring that to a room of fourth graders, I can imagine, is very difficult. But in that day, my son was the only Muslim child in the class. And at first, at the mention of Muslims, he got excited, and then he realized that it was not a positive reference. And that was the first time that Islam or Muslims were being brought up in his classroom that year. And so, his excitement about being seen and heard immediately turned to just dread. And then, you know, she called on him for his opinion on that. And no nine-year-old should have to speak for their full religion, let alone what people do in the name of it that is negative. You know, this is a conversation we have a lot in our house, and we try to just tell these stories about our family, our friends that they know, the great examples that they see. I’m so lucky to get to work with amazing colleagues that I can point to as actual reference points. But so many kids, Muslim kids in this country, don’t have parents who work for, you know, Muslim nonprofits, who get to work with incredible Muslim leaders every day and every week and bring them into their orbit. So having those folks on screen, having nuanced portrayals and real humans is just incredibly important in that gap.
Mikati: Yeah, I would also add, Kalia, that what you’re talking about is so important because it starts to get at how the erasure isn’t across the board the same for all Muslim folks. We found that the erasure, depending on the intersectional marginalized identities that each of us holds, becomes more and more significant. So, an example would be that, while we know that up to a third of Muslims in the United States are Black, in the media that we looked at, that was in the single digits, representation-wise. While we know that at least half of Muslims identify as women, they were outnumbered, women were outnumbered 175 to one by male characters or characters that identified as men. So that’s just a few of the examples of how erasure can actually just become more and more significant, depending on the other systems of oppression that are at play, such as the global systems of patriarchy and anti-Blackness.
Costello: Absolutely, and, you know, when I was listening to that story of you describing, Kalia, about your son and all the wonderful representations that you have in your own life and your professional and personal circles that you can reflect back to him, in light of the erasure, in light of the negative portrayals all around him, that really is a microcosm for where we are as a nation and perhaps a world, right? That, for me, a non-Muslim, if I’m going to rely on popular media and Hollywood to inform my understanding of Muslim culture—which, as you say, is so diverse; in fact, your report points out, the most diverse religion and culture in the world—you know, I’m going to have a very monolithic view. And one of the things that you really drive home in this report is that lack of diversity with respect to representation of Muslims in film, but also the lack of positive representation. In fact, you found that slightly more than one-third of Muslim primary and secondary characters identified were shown as perpetrators of violence. Phew! Talk to me about what we’re seeing in film these days with respect to violence and Muslim characters.
Mikati: Yeah, I think, one, that is a shocking statistic, even though it’s not surprising. And beyond that, I think what’s even more shocking, and I was surprised by genuinely, is that not only are 30 percent perpetrators of violence, but another 40-something percent are victims of violence. So, the vast majority of our communities are being shown only in relationship to violence, which, regardless of whether you’re the perpetrator or the victim, really dehumanizes an entire community and associates them with that context, which I think can make it really easy to numb our society to the very real issues and very real harm that is happening to those communities here at home and also abroad. So that’s the first piece. I think the second piece is, you know, we see often, even in films that are otherwise very progressive, we see that these tropes of terror are constantly being used. And so, an example that Kalia and I often talk about is we both love the film Black Panther. We think it’s an incredible film. It obviously had a lot of meaning to many, many communities, in particular was a watershed moment for Black communities in the United States. And that movie actually does not do a great job with Muslim representation. The villains that you see at the beginning of the movie are Boko Haram. They’re Muslims that are only shown sort of terrorizing the space and using our sacred language to do it. And that really, again, links our practice of faith to violence very directly. You oftentimes will see that the only time that the explicit link of Muslim language, very Muslim phrases, et cetera, are heard in movies, it’s in direct connection to the violence that’s being portrayed. So there’s no mistaking who’s responsible. There’s no mistaking the ideology that’s responsible. And I think that honestly is how we get to points—I don’t think this is dramatic at all to say—that’s how we get to a point where one in three Americans support Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. That’s how we get to a point where families like mine and families like Kalia’s walk around the city and think, which of these three people doesn’t want me here?
Costello: So, your report cites the words and phrases that were used to disparage 41 primary and secondary Muslim characters in film. And to me, seeing these words listed was a really powerful reminder of how far we have to go as a society. You know, I felt like, looking at this list of words and descriptions, maybe I would expect to see it like in the 1970s or something, but this is from films from 2017 to 2019—in fact, Hollywood’s largest-grossing films, and…would it be too triggering for both of you if I read some of the words that were used to describe Muslims, or would you prefer I not do that?
Abiade: I’m fine with that.
Mikati: I’m open to that.
Costello: OK, thank you. Here were some of the words that were shown in your report to describe Muslims in these films: “peasants.” “Pox-ridden.” Phrases that were used, such as: Send them back. Isn’t it against your religion? Piece of shit. Paki. Terrorist. Hang around with ISIS. Fuck your prayers; that’s what started this shit. He’s probably got a bomb strapped to his body. Are you calling me a terrorist? Learn the language. It’s devastating to say all those phrases in succession, but when you hear these words read aloud by me, when you sit down to watch these films and see them coming out of surround sound speakers in a theater…. I mean, I don’t know if it’s insensitive for me to ask what it’s like for you, but I guess I feel like I want to. I think it is sometimes important that we name things aloud that are being said, and not feel like it’s too impolite conversation to utter them. But I found it incredibly disturbing that in this day and age, these are the ways and the descriptions of Muslim characters and the things being uttered to them in film. And I guess I just invite your reaction in whatever way you feel like talking about it, if at all. I don’t know; I just open it up to you.
Abiade: No, I appreciate your sensitivity around this. And I think what it brings up for me is how Muslims are not alone in the dehumanization of people in this country—and broader in the world, but particularly here. When I hear “send them back,” when I hear all of these things that are really couched around the sense of safety, I think about the ways that we’ve marginalized immigrants, whether they’re Muslim or not. When you say “pox-ridden,” I think about the ways this idea of health safety has been used to keep immigrants out or to marginalize them once they’ve arrived in this country. I think about the way some of these words have been used to describe Black people, Indigenous people, and so on. I think when we can set this up and use the language of dehumanization to cast a net around a whole people, we sort of start to feel more comfortable in creating policies that keep folks out. When this language gets into our system in this way, it’s easy to justify a ban. It’s easy to justify not allowing people to reach full citizenship in this country if that’s what they desire. It’s easy to justify keeping people out of housing, or creating these language requirements, because if I can convince you that your children or your family is not safe in the presence of these people, then I can do so many harmful things to that group of people. So, I think, you know, it’s not a comfort to know that Muslims are not alone by any means, but it is a source for me of opportunity to organize across communities, to work with other people and say, like, they’re using the same tools against all of us. We have a vested interest in each other’s safety. And I want safety, too, right? You know, I want safety from abusive policing and violent state tactics. I want safety from unjustified wars in countries where my friends and peers and relatives come from. You know I want my children to feel safe in the environments that they’re in. So, I think if we can see this really clearly, and understand how everybody deserves to feel safe, and safety doesn’t have to come at the cost of dehumanizing entire groups of people, then I see this as an opportunity to start conversations.
Mikati: I think that’s really beautifully said, Kalia, and to add on to that, it’s not only that Muslims are not alone, but it’s that Muslims are all those people too. Muslims are the most diverse religious group in the world. And what that means is that we have overlap with every other community that Kalia just named. So, when you think about liberating Muslims, it’s actually like a very nice catch-all to talk about many things. One, it’s great to talk about class. A lot of those terms that you named earlier are coded for class because in the US, Muslims are the most likely faith group to live in poverty. And in the UK, over 50 percent of Muslims live below the poverty line. We know that. We know that it’s a way to talk about racism because folks across the racial and ethnic spectrum belong to this faith. We know that it’s a way to talk about gender equity and gender expansiveness because we have people across the gender spectrum that belong to this faith. We know this is a way to liberate people of all sexual orientations because there are LGBTQ Muslims. Regardless of how you look at any marginalized group, Muslims belong to that group, and that group belongs to us. And I think that’s a really important piece as well, as it’s not just about working with other communities but recognizing that those communities are ours, as well.
Costello: Thank you both for that. This can be a difficult conversation to have at times, and I appreciate how open and candid you’re both being with me, so thank you. I would like to turn to some very positive things right now, because I think that’s so important, because there are indeed ways forward, and you both are involved in some really interesting work.
Mikati: Absolutely, so we work to bring together this really large coalition of activists, academics, activist scholars, industry leaders, et cetera, to brainstorm around what it would look like to make macro-change in the industry. So Riz Ahmed, who is one of our partners in this work, he often says that exceptions don’t change the rule. And we really believe in that. We don’t want exceptions to be enough, because they’re not. We want to change the rules. And so our blueprint really intends to change the rules, and we took upon ourselves to create short, medium, and long-term solutions that the industry could say “yes” to today, could say “yes” to next year, and could say “yes” to in the next 10 years. And the thing that we really want the industry to do in the immediate is to commit to what we’re calling the Muslim Visibility Challenge. And the Muslim Visibility Challenge seeks to do two main things. The first is to sunset terror tropes over the next 18 months as they acquire new content. We know that slightly more than a third—so, 39 percent of Muslims identified in the inclusion initiative study were shown as perpetrators of violence, like you said earlier. And the study also found that it was primarily secondary characters who were responsible for acts of aggression. So, plotlines that center violent terrorist characters don’t only inaccurately depict Muslims by creating a false persona, but they also really flatten and silence the aspirational integrity of our artists that we know are abundant and so incredibly talented that exists in our communities. It silences their creative visions, et cetera. And we want to hear those stories told.
Costello: And Arij, if you don’t mind me interrupting you at the moment, because—
Mikati: Go ahead.
Costello: —it’s occurring to me. If I was a Muslim actor, and these are the only roles open to me, it really limits me and, I imagine, for many, presents a pretty profound ethical challenge. You know, do I want to continue to perpetuate these roles, which seem to be nearly the only ones available to me if I’m going to represent a Muslim on screen? Maybe I could just be cast as some random person without an identity. But if indeed I’m going to accept this role, it is unfortunate that that, it seems to me, would be the choice given to a talented Muslim actor: “Do you want to be a terrorist? Do you want to be a victim of terror?” You know, it’s not a great choice.
Mikati: That’s absolutely right, and I think that what is important to us at Pillars, is that we’re not holding our actors, who frankly need to eat, accountable to changing things.
Costello: Yeah, that’s a good point. Tell me more about that.
Mikati: Yeah. So, I think the idea is that we can’t ask people who, like I just told you, are the most likely people to live in poverty, who have likely stepped out in a really large way to take this risk of choosing storytelling as a vocation, to be the ones to make these difficult decisions, because ultimately there’s always going to be another actor. There’s always going to be someone who is maybe phenotypically what a director expects a Muslim to look like, which is not a real thing. [laughter] But, you know, there’s always going to be someone who phenotypically fits the bill that is willing to step into that role. So, our solutions are really focused on, how do we get the industry to actually accept and make the decision to say “no more”? I want to actually offer actors the opportunity to say, “There are so many roles, I don’t even know which one is most exciting for me.” And that’s just not the truth right now. So, we really believe that sunsetting terror tropes will, like you said, give the space for the abundance and diversity of existing and new Muslim stories to emerge across genre, across intersectional identity and message, that are really possible to be told.
Abiade: I think what Arij is saying is so important, because that’s really a principle that we deeply believe in across our work at Pillars when it comes to grantmaking as well. We are interested in the systems at play, not necessarily the symptoms that are coming out. And a lot of times, solutions in the nonprofit space, and in philanthropy, and in the entertainment industry are trying to tackle tiny symptoms here and there. But we’ve really got to get to the root causes of this, no matter which area of work we’re working across. So, I think she put it perfectly. Because we aren’t a huge part of the population, but we are bearing the brunt of these systemic challenges. And so, we’ve really got to get at those root causes.
Costello: And Kalia, when you talk about nonprofits and philanthropy more broadly, and trying to “change the systems rather than the symptoms,” I think is how you put it, I would love to just take a step back and look at nonprofits and philanthropy more broadly. Talk to me a little bit about that kind of change that you’d like to see, or a frustration point for you, or just, I want you to talk to me a little bit more about that specifically.
Abiade: Yeah. You know, it’s tough, right? These are our friends and colleagues. But I think a lot of what Arij has described as the challenges we’re facing in the entertainment industry, we face them within philanthropy too, right? We face them in the nonprofit space, constantly having to justify our presence in certain places. Now, there have been some foundations and some partners who have been great at this. A lot of times people are just unsure of how to proceed with Muslims, right? It’s not that they hold a particular kind of antagonism; it’s more of a wait-and-see. Like, we know Muslims are being marginalized. We’ve seen everything that’s happened policywise, especially over the last four to five years. But we don’t exactly understand our role, because, “Aren’t you guys kind of religious?” Or, you know, “Aren’t you sort of, you know, focused on stuff over there, overseas?” And so, we’re constantly having to, one, explain who we are as a community, all of those demographic details that we have already shared, right? We’re the youngest community. We’re the most multiracial. We’re this and we’re that. We’re constantly having to tell that story over and over. We’re constantly having to say, you know what, if you’re funding environmental justice, there’s some really cool people doing environmental justice work who are in the Muslim community. Or, if you’re working on police reform or police accountability, we know some really incredible people doing that work. And so, it doesn’t always have to be that folks are engaging with Muslims, like, you know, only through this really narrow pathway to get to a Muslim. It’s like, if you just kind of zoom out a little bit, you see that Muslims are already there. And I think, you know, that’s been used sort of against us in some ways, that that’s a subversive thing, but it’s actually quite a beautiful thing. There are Muslims creating change all over the place.
Mikati: And Kalia, I think that actually ties back really well to the second part of the big solution that we have in the Muslim Visibility Challenge, which is to put us in the driver’s seat of telling our own stories. So what Kalia is talking about, about how there are Muslims who, wouldn’t you know it, have a perspective on abolition, or have a perspective on gender equity and justice, or have a perspective on antiracism. We have those perspectives in all our storytellers, too. There’s no reason for us to be greenlighting stories about Muslims that are written without us. We have a lot of opportunity to say to the industry, sign a first-look deal with one of the thousands of people who are ready to create their own content, whether it’s their perspective on what a sci-fi is, or their perspective on a rom-com, or their perspective on a heist movie. I think that we’ve really got an opportunity here to say, let us drive. And when you let us drive, you’re going to be really delighted by what you see.
Abiade: I think Arij has captured it so, so well. For so long, people have been making decisions on our behalf, and that’s not always been with our consent, and we’re just really excited to be in a position where we’re able to support people in decision making, in their agency, and in their full selves, being Muslim being part of that. But just in every way that they show up and we know that we have to do this in a really well-rounded and holistic way because Muslims, we are these full and complex people. So, what we’re asking for is not just for rosy stories about Muslims; we don’t want fairy tales. We want these complex and nuanced and human stories. And I’m just so excited to see what comes of this, and what stories just get unearthed in this process.
Photos: Kalia Abiade photo by Kristen Norman. Arij Mikati photo by Elias Rios.
Maytha Alhassen, “Haqq and Hollywood: Illuminating 100 years of Muslim Tropes And How to Transform Them,” Pop Culture Collab, September 23, 2020.
Mandalit del Barco, “Just 10% Of Popular Movies Had a Muslim Character. Riz Ahmed Wants to Change That,” NPR, June 12, 2021.
Paul Sullivan, “A Fund to Support the Muslim American Community, Inside and Out,” The New York Times, May 24, 2019.
Hannah Allam, “These Muslim Millionaires Want You To Think Of Philanthropy When You Think Of Islam,” BuzzFeed News, September 6, 2017.