Fewer than 2% of movie characters with speaking roles are Muslim, according to a study released on Thursday.
The study, which examined 200 popular films from the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand released from 2017 to 2019, found only a handful of Muslim characters ― and those were most often in limited or stereotypical roles. The report, “Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies,” comes from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Academy Award-nominated actor Riz Ahmed, the Ford Foundation, and the Pillars Fund.
The findings validate the invisibility of Muslims in the entertainment industry worldwide, which has had dire consequences on the perception of Muslims and the persistence of Islamophobia. Hollywood has faced criticism for its abysmal diversity record and the lack of Black, Asian, Hispanic or Latino actors in lead roles. And actors of color say the roles they are given are often one-dimensional, stereotypical, undervalued and largely overlooked in awards season.
Ahmed, the first Muslim to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and the first Muslim to win an Emmy, said improving Muslim representation in films is a matter of life or death. While the entertainment industry has started reckoning with its diversity issues, addressing the dangers of Islamophobia must be part of that, he said.
“There is this moment of inclusion. This conversation is taking place. We demand to be included in that,” Ahmed said in an interview. “You can’t be pro-LGBTQ+ rights, call to stop Asian hate, proclaim the Black Lives Matter, and be complicit in perpetuating the Islamophobia industry, which is an industry that has blood on its hands.”
Of the 200 films the study examined, only 19 had at least one Muslim character. And of the 8,965 characters with speaking roles, just 144 were Muslim. Only 1% of characters in 100 American movies and 63 British films were Muslims, according to the research. None of the five movies from New Zealand featured a Muslim character in a speaking role. In the Australian films, 5% had Muslim actors.
Researchers have long argued that the portrayals of Muslims in television and film have fallen into racist tropes. Muslim men are often typecast as violent, while women are portrayed as oppressed. Especially after 9/11, directors often cast Muslims in roles related to war and terrorism, reducing their identities to politics and religion.
Those portrayals are a backdrop to a rise in hate crimes against Muslims. In 2019, FBI statistics showed Muslims were the second-largest target of religious hate incidents after Jews. That same year, Muslims accounted for the majority of victims in religiously motivated hate crimes in the U.K. This week, a Canadian driver was charged with first-degree murder after allegedly hitting five members of a Muslim family with his car intentionally, killing four of them and orphaning a 9-year-old boy.
Meanwhile, anti-Muslim hate continues unchecked on social media platforms.
“It’s not difficult to make the connection between what you see in the mass media and what we see going on in society in terms of hate and Islamophobia,” said Stacy Smith, the founder of USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and lead author of the study.
Movies with diverse casts consistently earned more than their white counterparts at the box office and generated more viewers, but Hollywood has failed to cast more people of color in more prominent roles.
Even when films feature Muslim characters, they often give a narrow view of Islam. Muslims are the most racially and ethically diverse religious group in the U.S. and the world, but more than half of Muslim movie characters were Middle Eastern or North African. A whopping 87% of Muslim characters either spoke with an accent or didn’t speak English at all. More than half were typecast as immigrants, refugees or migrants.
More than half of Muslim characters were in films set in the past, and most of them in the Middle East ― depictions that reinforce Islam as archaic and Muslims as foreigners, said Kashif Shaikh, co-founder, and president of the Pillars Fund, a grant-making organization that supports Muslim groups. The study found only one film in which a Muslim character was located in the U.S.
Roughly a third of Muslim characters were shown as perpetrators of violence, and more than half were the targets of violence, according to the study, which also found that 19% of Muslim characters died by the end of the movie.
Those numbers have consequences and perpetuate misconceptions about who Muslims are, according to Shaikh.
“The lack of Muslim characters and the lack representation is a lack of imagination, it’s not a lack of talent,” Shaikh said. “There’s an abundance of talent out there that I think that we absolutely need to tap into, and we need to let Muslim creators and Muslim creatives tell stories, and whatever direction those stories go.”
The Pillars Fund launched its “Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion” on Thursday offering guidance to increase Muslim visibility in film and television, such as ending terror tropes for Muslim characters, securing deals with Muslim creators and suppliers, and reforms for casting practices. In addition, the Pillars Fund and Ahmed’s production company Left Handed Films announced a new fellowship program for Muslim storytellers.
The organizations also highlighted some bright spots. Muslim actors like Ahmed, Mahersala Ali, Ramy Youssef and Yahya Abdul-Matten have been celebrated for authentic portrayals of Muslim characters, and have even been recognized for that work.
Last week, the Peacock streaming network released U.K’s “We Are Lady Parts,” featuring the journey of an all-female Muslim punk band. And last month, Disney released the short film ”American Eid” about the Muslim holiday on its streaming service.
“I feel very determined,” said Ahmed. “To make sure that this research doesn’t go unnoticed, that people need who need to see it, see it, that we have the conversation that needs to be had, that they put their money where this month is and fund this program. ... This conversation is not going away.”