Despite making up 25% of the global population, Muslims only account for 1% of characters on popular television shows, according to a report released Wednesday.
The findings, which come from an analysis of 200 top-rated television shows aired in the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand between 2018 and 2019, indicate yet again that the global entertainment industry has either sidelined Muslim voices entirely or cast Muslim actors in roles rooted in stereotypes.
“What we’re seeing is content creators and casting directors that have no imagination,” said Stacy Smith, the founder of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and the lead author of the study.
“This is people being lazy with a group of people that routinely are being dehumanized as either perpetrators or victims of violence, or with disparaging comments.”
Such storylines can contribute to a host of concerns in the real world, including aggression toward and fear of Muslims, Smith said.
The report, titled “Erased or Extremists: The Stereotypical View of Muslims in Popular Episodic Series,” was released with support from the USC initiative, Pillars Fund and the Ford Foundation, as well as actor Riz Ahmed and his production company, Left Handed Films.
Among the shows review as part of the study, 87% did not feature a single Muslim character. The 200 scripted series included just 98 Muslim characters out of 8,885 speaking roles — a ratio of about 1-to-90.
When Muslim characters did make an appearance on screen, they were largely portrayed as violent or foreign, and referred to with words like “terrorist,” “predator” and “monster.” Thirty percent of the Muslim characters in the sample perpetrated violent acts against another character, and nearly 40% were targets of violence.
Despite the fact that Muslims are the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the world, the majority of speaking Muslim characters were depicted as Middle Eastern or North African. Only 13% of all Muslim characters were shown as native to countries that are not majority Muslim. Meanwhile, two were depicted as immigrants.
Of all the speaking Muslim characters in the scripted series, about 70% were male and 30% were female. Muslim girls and women on screen typically faced some sort of distress, including emotional duress or physical danger.
“We didn’t see them really leading their own storylines or showing them in empowering roles — which, again, creates this light that Muslim women cannot be leaders and they cannot be empowered,” said Al-Baab Khan, one of the authors of the study.
She said such depictions are harmful because they reinforce the image of Muslim women “as being oppressed, as being fearful or as being less-than, which is not true.”
A separate study released by the same researchers last year found that fewer than 2% of movie characters with speaking roles were Muslim.
“We see that even across all media content in film and TV ... Muslims are extremely erased on screen. And that poses a huge issue because when we think about Muslims in the real world, we make up a quarter of the world’s population,” Khan said.
“It’s really hard to even justify such a disproportionate representation on screen. And it’s really sad because growing up in America, you want to be able to see your own community.”
The issue isn’t unique to Muslims. Hollywood has long faced criticism for its abysmal track record on diversity and the lack of Black, Asian, Hispanic and Latino actors in lead roles.
Pillars, which issues financial grants to Muslim groups, put up a billboard in Los Angeles ahead of next week’s Primetime Emmy Awards to highlight data from the new report and start an overdue conversation about the lack of Muslim representation in the industry.
“We wanted to use Emmy Award season to have folks consider something else, which is that the quantity and quality of characters on screen has a huge impact on the daily lived experiences of Muslims around the globe,” said Arij Mikati, the managing director of culture change at Pillars.
But for decades, she said, television has not included the “beauty, joy, diversity, and richness of our communities and Muslim communities.”
“Representation for representation’s sake is certainly not our goal. The quality and content of characters on screen have a really massive impact on how people all around the world feel about Muslims and also how Muslims feel about themselves,” she added.
“Film can act as a way for audiences to identify with Muslims, and I really believe it’s an opportunity to create greater empathy for and less prejudice towards Muslims off-screen.”
Shows depicting Muslim lead characters with nuance are slowly becoming more common.
“Ms. Marvel,” which features the first Muslim superhero in Marvel Studios’ “cinematic universe,” debuted on Disney+ earlier this year and quickly became one of the production company’s highest-rated projects.
Meanwhile, Netflix’s “Mo” — based on the life of Muslim comedian Mo Amer — documents the story of a Palestinian refugee in Houston. And last year, the British sitcom “We Are Lady Parts,” which follows a punk band made up of Muslim women, premiered on Peacock.
“We know that people are hungry for those stories. They are unique and relatable, and we’re really excited to invite other Americans to learn more about our vibrant communities,” Mikati said. “This is an opportunity for the industry to see the talent that has long existed in abundance.”