Newly-minted Oscar-nominee and Emmy-winner Riz Ahmed has become just as well known for his activism as for his performances in projects like “Sound of Metal” or “The Night Of.”
Now the actor, musician and producer is taking his fight one step further, by launching a multi-layered initiative for Muslim representation in media, in partnership with the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, the Ford Foundation and Pillars Fund. Powered by USC Annenberg’s new study on Muslim representation in media — which found that less than 10% of top grossing films from 2017-2019 had a Muslim character on screen, with less than 2% of those characters having speaking roles — the coalition has created the Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, as well as the Pillars Artist Fellowship, offering selected grantees an unrestricted award of $25,000.
The grantees will also receive mentorship from the fellowship’s advisory board, made up of Muslim artists, including Ahmed, Mahershala Ali, Ramy Youssef, Lena Khan, Sana Amanat, Karim Amer, Rosa Attab, Nida Manzoor, Jehane Noujaim and Hasan Minhaj.
The project spawned from Ahmed’s 2019 speech at CAA’s Amplify conference, where he made an impassioned plea for the entertainment industry to reevaluate its role in perpetuating negative stereotypes about Muslims and the real threats members of the community face in their everyday lives, no matter how famous they are.
“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 said. “The representation of Muslims on screen — that feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded.”
Looking back on that presentation, as well as his 2017 address to Parliament in his native England, Ahmed tells Variety, “It’s not a speech I wanted to give. No offense, but this is an interview I don’t want to have to give. This is a study none of us want to have to do.”
“But sometimes, when you’ve got a feeling anecdotally and experientially, and you’ve been gas lit, you need that data,” he explains. “You need to bring the big guns to come in, and show you that this isn’t just in your head.”
Ahmed has certainly brought in the big guns for this new initiative, building a coalition of parties from his Left Handed Films production banner, Pillars Fund (led by Kashif Shaikh, Pillars Fund’s co-founder and president, and Arij Mikati, managing director of culture change), the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s Dr. Stacy Smith and her research leads Dr. Katherine Pieper and Al-Baab Khan, and the Ford Foundation, to create a solution to the problems of erasure and misrepresentation of the Muslim community in media.
The first step in crafting the call to action, though, was defining the problem beyond Ahmed’s personal experiences in both the entertainment industry and the world at large, and the best way to do that was through research. Ahmed recalls coming to that realization when he and his social impact advisor Esme Peach were working to craft the Amplify speech, and noticed a dearth of data when it came to the representation of Muslims on screen: “I was trying to write a speech without much to really build it around.”
The Ford Foundation’s Noorain Khan and Darren Walker were in the audience at the conference, and immediately inspired by Ahmed’s speech, and the fact his call to action was focused on research, quickly singing on to help get a plan funded.
“There’s no point of research, if you don’t do anything about it,” Noorain, director of the foundation’s office of the president, explains. “You can’t even offer up this research and then six months later come out [with a solution] and have real action. You want to get in the moment where they viscerally understand the erasure, lack of diversity, the misogyny, the anti-Blackness, the layers and layers of this.”
The dream, Ahmed recalls, was to create something like a “Muslim MacArthur Grant,” referencing the fellowship program, often known as the “Genius Grant,” which has financially supported extraordinary creative minds since 1981 – which is where the USC Annenberg and Pillars Fund teams come in.
The four organizations worked in tandem for the better part of two years, collecting the data and come up with a plan of action to support it, and now they’re revealing the results.
The USC Annenberg study, entitled “Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies,” found that, out of the 200 top-grossing films studied, only 19 (or 9.5%) had at least one Muslim character on screen, meaning that 181 of the films had no Muslim characters who spoke at least one word across the plot.
“We always start with the same question: What is the prevalence and context surrounding the Muslim community in popular film?” Dr. Smith says. “They provide a current snapshot of what we like to call agenda-setting films to allow folks to really understand, what the picture is that they’re getting of a community and how distorted is that from the real world that we live in?”
In this case, Smith adds, “[Muslims are] 24% of the world population — that’s greater than the United States population. And yet, in 181 films, they’re erased.”
The study covers the top 200 movies released between 2017 and 2019, across four countries: the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, representing the global nature of Muslim community.
“That was something we contemplated beginning — should it just be the U.S. and focus on Hollywood? — and I’m so excited that it’s more expansive than that,” Noorain Khan says. “For the 1.8 billion Muslims across the world, there’s so much to represent. There’s so many untold stories, and this study contains all of that.”
“Muslims are the most geographically and racially diverse group in the world,” Ahmed adds, which demonstrates why “the Muslim struggle is also a global struggle.” “The nuance, and the level of detail, how extensive the scope of the research has to be, is a testament to how relevant it is to all of us around the world of every racial background and every country.”
Al-Baab Khan and a team of eight Muslim students conducted the research, using their own lived experiences as members of the community to inform their work, which was a major benefit to the project’s efforts. “When they’re watching the content, they can really pick up on nuances that someone who doesn’t have that understanding may miss,” she notes. “There’s so many things that we’ve picked up in our own cultures, that it’s important to be able to bring that insight when we’re evaluating content, because we have to bridge together what storytellers want us to see, versus what we actually see.”
The researcher explains that the study first defined a Muslim character based on a set of explicit and implicit cues, in order to accurately judge whether a character is Muslim for the quantitative analysis.
“We also included instances of ambiguity — whether another character would wrongly identify a character as Muslim, or make those kinds of prejudices or judgments — in the definition,” Al-Baab adds. “We included where the character lives or the languages that we speak, because we can’t just assume that just because they speak Arabic that they’re Muslim, which is a common misconception people have.”
In assessing Muslim representation qualitatively, Al-Baab says the team created 16 measures to evaluate each character including: their relationship to violence; their relationships to other Muslims; and whether they interact with other Muslims; and family or friend relationships. “We also looked into their wealth status to see are they depicted as more poor, middle class or wealthy,” she adds. “And then we looked into occupations, attitudes around occupations and education.”
One finding she found particularly notable was that more than half of Muslim portrayals were shown as an immigrant, refugee and migrant.
“I found that personally connecting because I am an immigrant; my family and I came to America during a national tragedy,” Al-Baab says. “But what was also important to note was, that yes, those experiences exist, but just like my family, and millions of other Muslims around the world, we evolve, we grow, we establish ourselves, we integrate ourselves, and we take advantage of any opportunities that we have, so it’s important to see that reflected on screen as well.”
Other storylines that the study found were being left behind were narratives around Muslim children; only seven characters were children under 12 years of age. Also, none of the 23 animated movies in the study featured a Muslim character.
“That is one of the biggest disconnects of what we see on screen and what is being taught to the younger generation,” Dr. Smith notes. “For the Muslim community, this communicates value of you’re not seen, you’re not heard, you’re not worthy, you don’t belong. That is a horrible message to be sending. To the out group, it says this group isn’t worthy, they don’t belong, they don’t matter.”
“There are so many Muslims in the world, and to think that the kids in particular don’t see themselves reflected, that’s a level of irresponsibility that is egregious and problematic,” she adds. “We know that social exclusion is processed as pain, so this is psychologically and physically harmful.”
Ultimately, the study confirmed much of what Ahmed said in his previous speeches, but that didn’t make the results feel any less like a sucker punch.
Something that Ahmed found “really heartbreaking, but strangely unsurprising” in the study was the relationship between Muslim characters to acts of violence. Nearly one third of all Muslim characters instigated violence across the plot and more than half of the characters were targeted by violence.
“Basically, Muslims only exist in the imagination as perpetrators or victims of violence. What does that do?” Ahmed asks, nothing that this of the most dangerous tropes prevalent in media portrayals of Muslims.
“I would go so far as to say that this is a question of life and death,” he explains. “We’ve seen in some experiments that were run by the Department of Homeland Security, with students who are generally liberal-leaning, that if you show them footage of Muslims acting crazy and violent, then suddenly, the sample size will say, ‘You know what, yeah, let’s invade Iran, let’s put up a Muslim Ban.’ If you show them the opposite, guess what? People feel differently.”
“We’re at a time right now in India, in Kashmir, in Myanmar, in the United States, in the U.K, where elected officials are saying crazy shit and passing very disgusting, discriminatory laws. We have armed extremists killing us in our homes, in our places of worship. We have state sponsored violence,” Ahmed continues. “When you dehumanize a group and you erase a group from our collective imagination, it’s a lot easier to dispose of them. And so the stories that we are telling on screen really affect — and this is something that we see in the report — the laws that get passed, the countries that get invaded, as well as the potential lost, as well as the hearts broken.”
Shaikh was similarly unsurprised by the study’s findings, but equally disappointed by its results. “I’ve always said that people don’t wake up and hate Muslims or have this opinion of Muslims. It is something that is created. It’s a culture and it’s facilitated, and that’s what this research is showing. It either confirms biases or creates these biases.”
The erasure of Black Muslims in media was particularly troubling to Shaikh. “Islam as its really understood and practiced in the US, is largely shaped by Black Muslim communities,” he says, noting that large portion of the American Muslim population is Black. The study, however, showed that the majority (66.7%) of Muslim characters were portrayed as Middle Eastern/North African (MENA), 20.8% were Asian, 5.6% were Black/African American, 4.2% where white, and 2.8% were multiracial/ multiethnic. Other intersectional factors showed even poorer results. Only 1 Muslim character was identified with the LGBTQ community and 1 Muslim character was shown with a disability.
Al-Baab explains why the disproportionate racial and ethnic portrayal of Muslim characters is concerning, “When we see story writers and creators have this image of what a Muslim is, it ends up being so binary. And it’s important that we see that reflected on screen, so we can elevate the voices of Black Muslims, South Asian Muslims, Middle Eastern Muslims, Australian Muslims, American Muslims. The Latino Muslim community is the fastest growing Muslim community in the US.”
“The Muslim religion has been so racialized,” Mikati chimes in, saying that one of the benefits of the study is helping to explain that “there are the 10,000 ways that you can be Muslim.”
“A lot of people in the industry are so distanced from Muslim communities, and probably believe they’ve never met one, when they have. I think probably a lot of people that meet me would not assume right away that I’m Muslim,” she continues. “People have a very specific idea of the way they’ve racialized Muslims, and even thought about, what the politics of Muslims are, the ways they practice, the very limited ideas of gender that they believe all Muslims have, etc. We’ve been boxed in in this way, that is going to be completely expanded because of the data that this shows.”
The research study is the foundation for Pillars Fund’s Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, written along with Dr. Maytha Alhassen, which is a guide to create change within the film industry – a list of solutions to address the erasure and misrepresentation of Muslims in film in a call to action for studios.
“This group from USC really helped us figure out what are the practical solutions that are short, medium and long term that we can ask of the industry,” Mikati explains. “What can they do today? What can they do next year? What can they do three years from now, to really make sure that we cut this problem off at the tracks right now. These solutions are aimed at all players in the industry, from film schools and festivals to producers and casting directors.”
As part of the Blueprint, the coalition is launching the Muslim Visibility Challenge, which calls on industry power players and studios to sunset terror tropes and to secure a first-look deal with at least one Muslim creator over the next eighteen months.
“Plotlines that center violent terrorist characters, not only inaccurately depict Muslim communities, but they also create a false persona and flatten art,” Mikati says, of asking the industry to literally change the narrative portrayed onscreen. “They flatten the opportunity for the abundance of narratives that Muslim people all have within us, that we’ve all experienced, that are new narratives that can be told and can be really exciting to share. They limit the integrity of artists and their creative visions and really flatten the abundance of talent present.”
Of asking the studios to invest in Muslim creators with dedicated production deals, like Ahmed’s Left Handed films recently inked with Amazon Studios, Mikati adds, industry gatekeepers will demonstrate their dedication to telling authentic stories about Muslim communities. “Let us tell you who we are, rather than telling you what we’re not, by constantly playing defense,” she explains. “We want to play offense; we want to share with you proactively who we are. And we really believe that that will increase the number of three-dimensional and fully fleshed-out Muslim characters on screen.”
In crafting the next steps, Mikati explains that the organization “wanted to make sure that our work was deeply driven by what our communities said that they needed. And unanimously across the board, what artists said was, ‘I just need resources.’”
“What a lot of people don’t know is that the Muslim community in the United States is the most likely faith community to live in poverty. And in the UK, over 50% of Muslims also live in poverty,” she adds. “That means that a lot of Muslims actually don’t have the privilege of choosing storytelling as a vocation. So, we want to make sure that it’s not a limiting factor to hearing stories from the abundance of talent that exists within our community.”
Ahmed recalls working through that same scenario when deciding to pursue his acting career. “I couldn’t afford to go to drama school. I basically got a grant,” he says, sharing the story of how his benefactors helped get him to the point where he is today.
In addition to the financial hurdles endured from the time he entered drama school through graduation, the actor still wasn’t sure that he had a future in entertainment. “I thought, ‘How am I even going to have a career as an actor?’” Ahmed says. “What am I going to do, play like cab driver or terrorist number three for the rest of my life in order to be able to provide for my family? I feel I’ve got more to offer.”
Though Ahmed has since carved out an impressive career, the fact that he’s one of the few is absolutely not lost on him. The financial barriers to entry for Muslim creatives were a major reason the team decided on making sure the grant was unrestricted.
“That means artists can use the money for whatever they want. It could be for rent, it could be for a film they want to make, it can be for medical bills, it could be for taking an exciting class to learn a new skill,” Mikati explains.
“When you think about all that loss [of storytelling talent], that’s why this unrestricted cash grant is a game changer,” Ahmed agrees. “It’s about trusting artists; it’s not saying, ‘Hey, listen, you’d make it if you’d just be a little bit less like yourself, if you fit more into the boxes of an industry that’s trying to back you into a corner. No; You be you, we believe in you. Pay the rent, do what you’ve got to do and we’ll help you build a network.”
These grantees will also receive mentorship the star-studded advisory council, in a rare opportunity to commune with people who share their faith background and can help navigate the industry.
“We also wanted to pair the grant with the incredible talent that already exists and is succeeding in our community. That’s also very, very limited, because there are just aren’t that many Muslims that have ‘made it,’” Mikati says pointing to Ahmed. “This is a rare find right here. And we want to make it a less rare find. That’s something that’s so important the folks in the Advisory Committee are doing. I think they all have this philosophy of when you climb the ladder, you take your hand down and pull someone up with you.”
“It’s an abundance of riches,” Noorain says of the group of mentors, and the plan of action in general. “it’s bigger and more ambitious and more tangible than I think we could have imagined at the beginning.”
“As a funder, Ford is very passionate about unrestricted funding, and making sure people are empowered with the resources,” she explains. “But this is really next level because it allows us to continue the conversation. All the creators who are going to get the fellowship, are going to produce more and hopefully better material, such that, if we were to do on subsequent research study, what people have to say will be different. It’s the thing that’s going to change the results looking ahead, in a really tangible way.”
For his part Ahmed hopes that the mentorship program helps solve the “chicken or the egg” conundrum of access for creators, where the argument often is that talent or filmmakers don’t have enough experience to work on the project, but never get the experience to get hired.
“Any creative talent is 90% experience and honing your craft; geniuses don’t come out the oven fully baked,” he says. “This fellowship a game changer, because it means that we can put the time and energy into finding the talent and nurturing the talent. An that’s how we’re gonna see long term change. I don’t want to be a rare case. It’s ridiculous that you could fit all those Muslim creators around this table, and still be able to fit in the rest of us.”
The roadmap also includes several resources, including extended reading lists and tools like the “Riz Test” (which was established by British academics Dr. Sadia Habib and Shaf Choudry and evaluates media by five criteria to measure how Muslims, similar to the “Bechdel Test”) to run their scripts through to check for bias and stereotypes. The plan also includes talent banks like ARRAY Crew, Color of Change’s Writer’s Room Database and the Muslim List, which Pillars Fund created in partnership with the Black List in 2021. Pillars is also currently building a Muslim Talent Database in collaboration with Disney, to be launched in Fall 2021.
The group also urges Unions conduct internal audits and survey their members to understand how many people self-identify as Muslims, to be able to more accurately represent the demographics of Muslims in the entertainment industry, so pipeline programs can respond by committing to goals that increase that membership.
But the question is — will Hollywood step up to make the necessary changes?
“There reason to be optimistic and pessimistic at the same time, is that unlike other groups and other aspects of inclusion, this is not about your race or ethnicity or your gender,” Pieper says. “This is about something that is personal. It’s about what people believe, it’s about a faith community that they’re part of, and in that way, it cuts across all other indicators.”
By that token, Pieper notes, inclusion programs across the industry can be that entry point, making sure that Muslim representation is part of their efforts
“The reason to be pessimistic, is now we’re asking people to think about inclusion in a much broader way,” she adds. “It’s not just about what people look like or what we immediately think of when we see them. We’re asking people to think about who is someone actually as a person, and how are we inclusive of that. That’s a harder ask.”
At the end of the day, Ahmed believes that this study and this call to action not only are unique, but something that should be a no-brainer for the industry to sign on for.
“There’s not much out there like this,” he says. “If you want to support this change, this is where you put your money, right now, there’s no better place to put it. And if you don’t put your money into this, as a studio, what are you saying?”
But far as his expectation of action from the industry goes, the actor doesn’t fall on either side of the optimism spectrum.
“I feel like I’m neither of those right now, because they’re both stances you take on things that are out of your control. This isn’t out of our control,” he explains. “I feel determined. I know it’s a long road ahead, but we’re all here around this table, and we’re talking about this. And this conversation ain’t going away.”