As a Muslim girl living in America, I have felt severely misrepresented in the media throughout my life. I can probably recall one or two instances in which I have seen “someone like me” portrayed on screen, but none in a positive light. In general, Muslim representation in the media is severely lacking; Muslims are virtually nonexistent in terms of modern TV and film.
In a recent study by USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative, it was determined that “Muslims make up 25% of the world’s population yet were only 1.1% of characters in popular television series.” Al-Baab Khan, the study’s lead author, says that this “radical erasure…has the potential to create real-world injury for audiences,” specifically for Muslims.
Unfortunately, the little representation that does exist for Muslims is typically quite skewed, often displaying a one-dimensional view of Muslims that subjects them to stereotypes and subjects the public to a negative perception of the religion and its followers.
Primarily, Muslims portrayals are often associated with terrorism or violence. The study at Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (AII) found that “over 30% of the 98 Muslim characters evaluated were perpetrators of violence while nearly 40% were targets of violent attacks.” Clearly, this representation of Muslims is extremely harmful, dangerous, and quite ironic, as the religion is actually one that promotes peace.
Another common trope portraying Muslims in a bad light is women feeling liberated when taking off their hijab (headscarf), causing the audience to assume that the hijab is a symbol of oppression. They are also commonly portrayed as being submissive and fearful to their male counterparts, promoting further internalization of a correlation between being a Muslim woman and being oppressed.
I have also yet to see a Muslim character on screen whose entire personality is not centered around their religion. According to the AII study, of 98 Muslim characters in a sample, nearly half verbally indicated their faith in some manner and 23.5% were non-verbally depicted as Muslim.
Through their clothing, as well, many of these characters were obviously Muslim. While it is not a bad thing for an audience to be aware of a character’s faith, the constant centering around religion for Muslim characters often diminishes other aspects of their being, making the audience believe that religion is the epicenter of every Muslim’s life and isolating Muslims from productive members of society, as the focus of their character is not what they can accomplish or who they are as a person, but instead, the religion they follow.
Through all of these tropes, Muslims are made vulnerable to “othering,” as Kashif Shaikh, co-founder and president of Pillars Fund, calls it. They are made to seem different from other Americans but the same as each other. His organization seeks to attain representation for the multitude of nuanced stories and identities that exist.
To do so, they urge investments in “creators who have deep insight into Muslim communities,” so that genuine and positive stories can be told about Muslims. Pillars Fund has created a guideline for Muslim inclusion in the media called “The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion” which has provided specific recommendations to augment the manner in which Muslims are represented.
Riz Ahmed, a renowned Muslim actor, perfectly elucidates the goal for Muslim representation in his description of “the Promised Land” for himself as a Muslim actor: “[playing] a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race.”
Recently, with shows like Miss Marvel, Muslim representation has improved. However, there still lies great room for improvement. By following the guidelines in “The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion” and rejecting misrepresentation of Muslims in the media, people like myself will eventually be able to see ourselves truly represented onscreen.