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‘Lives Are Quite Literally at Stake’: Riz Ahmed on Seeing More Muslims On Screen

Art can provoke feeling, but its impact has limitations in the face of legal and systemic oppression, said Riz Ahmed, the activist and actor known for “The OA,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “The Night Of,” onstage at the CAA Amplify conference in Ojai on Tuesday, calling for the high-powered industry execs, talent, Wall Streeters and politicos in the room to act on reducing Islamophobic sentiment in the media.

“The efforts of individual artists or storytellers may be bold, they may be progressive, they may act as beacons of hope for other people, but in the face of institutional prejudice and institutionalized obstacles, systemic obstacles, our efforts can sometime still fall flat,” he told the audience, a group that included Obama-era senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, “Patriot Act” creator Hasan Minhaj, playwright Young Jean Lee, Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, and “Just Mercy” stars Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

Ahmed said he has learned hard lessons from fifteen years of getting secondarily searched at airports around the world, even as his work has earned him fans and acclaim. At times, he said, the airport guards swabbing him for explosives would ask for selfies or quote his raps back at him.

“(Hasan Minhaj) could win a Peabody, I could win an Emmy, Ibtihaj Muhammad could win the Olympics, but some of these obstacles are systemic, and we can’t really face them alone,” he said. “We need your help. I’m basically here to ask for your help. Because it’s really scary to be a Muslim right now. Super scary.”

“With all my privilege and profile, I often wonder if this is going to be the year they round us up, if this is the year they’re going to put Trump’s Muslim registry into action, if this is going to be the year they ship us all off,” he continued, citing international incidences of Islamophobia, including Brexit-based nationalism in the U.K. and Uighur Muslims being held in detention camps in China.

His call to action for the Hollywood heavy hitters in the room, then, was to research how Muslims are represented on television and in movies in a data-driven, targeted, systemic way, so that ultimately Muslims aren’t only portrayed as terrorists or bogeymen.

“I think lives are quite literally at stake here,” he said. “The representation of Muslims on screen — that feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded.”

Ahmed, whose presentation won him a standing ovation, wasn’t the only one who took the stage to promote inclusion.

“I’m not waiting for Hollywood,” “Baby Driver” actor and Sign World Media founder CJ Jones, who is deaf, told the crowd. “The goal of my company is to serve and innovate and create and produce and hire deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to become skilled in post-production.”

And actor-producer-director Eva Longoria, at times speaking with her 1-year-old son Santiago on her lap, said that “if you are a woman in this room, and you have a chance to hire a woman, hire her.”

“If you’re a person of color, and you have a chance to hire a person of color, you hire them,” she said. “Because we have to build the pipeline of talent, and we can’t get that experience if we’re never given the opportunity… Be loud about it.”

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