Films and TV, particularly in Hollywood and in the United Kingdom, are notorious for not being the best when it comes to diverse representation. For years, they have been called out by people of colour for the lack of diversity in the industry and in awards shows in particular, such as the Oscars and the BAFTAs. This includes Muslim representation — or, the lack thereof — which has been incredibly rare throughout Western media and, up until recently, practically unheard of. It seemed that Muslims were being ignored and treated as though they did not belong in the communities within which they lived and have lived in for over half a century.
Following the Second World War, immigration into the UK increased especially from former colonies such as Pakistan and Yemen. From the 1950s onwards, many continued to enter the country from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia — the vast majority of them Muslim. The reason for the immigration was to find work. Eventually, these people and their children, their grandchildren and possibly even great-grandchildren integrated into Western society and began to see themselves as part of the fabric that created it.
TV has become such a huge part of culture for most of the world. Naturally, people like to see themselves reflected on the screen — their backgrounds, struggles, and experiences — no matter their cultural, ethnic or religious backgrounds. However, many have been excluded from this cultural aspect of Western media. A bulk of Hollywood films, for example, feature white people as primary and secondary characters. The other popular option is to include people of colour whilst imposing some sort of stereotype or trope onto them for, for instance, comedic purposes. Examples include the angry black woman and the smart Asian sidekick.
Naturally, people like to see themselves reflected on the screen — their backgrounds, struggles, and experiences — no matter their cultural, ethnic or religious backgrounds.
According to the Hollywood Diversity Report, of the 1,200 films released between 2007 and 2018, only 27 had leading/co-leading roles played by actors from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. In 2017, 29.3% of characters were from these groups, while in 2019 these figures slightly rose to 36.3%. This increase is due to more films including non-white actors being produced, such as the 2018 Black Panther which featured a large black behind-the-scenes team.
Muslims come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and they are not only limited to South-East Asia or the Middle East; Muslims can be white, Latino, African, etc. For many, whether working in the film and TV industry or not, they may believe that being Muslim means being from only a certain region of the world. For years, Muslims have frequently been depicted in films or TV programmes about war, often shown as victims in war-torn countries, terrorists, or the rare helpful Muslim who wants to aid, for instance, the American soldier protagonist on a mission.
These ‘missions’ are not even necessarily obvious or spoken of; in the 2010 Matt Damon action film Green Zone, Damon’s character Roy Miller angrily rants at the end, complaining about how he barely knows why he is fighting nor what his ‘mission’ is. What is the point of the movie then? Does he at least feel remorse for his actions? Muslims being shown in a negative light is not a recent phenomenon. A film deemed to be a classic by many cinema scholars, Lawrence of Arabia portrayed Muslims — or Arabs in general — as angry barbarians.
Edward Said, an infamous writer and critical thinker, discusses these tropes in his book Orientalism. He states that “from the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was represent itself”. The ‘Orient’, which includes Muslims, has always been viewed as ‘the Other’, and thus has been presented in such a way that they seem like they are from a completely different world. They are inhuman and they are bestial, in comparison with the far more civilised ‘us’, the West.
They are inhuman and they are bestial, in comparison with the far more civilised ‘us’, the West.
When the plot of a movie or a TV episode involved a terrorist, it would almost always be a Muslim. Sometimes this character would not even be played by a Muslim. And so producers would hire someone who ‘looks’ Muslim, that is, someone who looks Arab or South Asian, as though all these appearances are interchangeable.
Recently, the hit Spanish Netflix show Elite became popular for including a hijabi character named Nadia in the main ensemble, amongst other reasons. Nadia is a Palestinian teenager (the actress is Moroccan) born into a Muslim family, who eventually falls in love with Guzman (a non-Muslim). Not long after, she begins to go clubbing, drinking and lying to her parents about her actions, before soon taking her hijab off. Of course, these are things some Muslim girls go through, but a pretty small minority. The majority avoids them because they go against the teachings of Islam and because they are certain of their faith. What Elite does is glorify her actions — but what is the point of having a Muslim character if they do not even practice their faith? By creating characters like Nadia and her brother, who were written as Muslim yet do not practice, Muslims that may have been genuinely excited by the prospect of a complex and interesting Muslim character are simply pushed away.
We live in a supposedly feminist society, where a woman’s appearance should not be an important factor and one can wear what they want. However, this activism seems to disappear when the topic concerns Muslim women. The hijab is supposedly an oppressive garment that veils women from engaging in society and goes against morals, and the only way to free women is for them to uncover. This condescending perspective, ironically, does not apply to Christian nuns who also cover up as part of their faith. Muslim women are regularly attacked because they outwardly show their Islam, and this idea of it being oppressive is therefore dangerous. The same goes for overtly Muslim men; those who wear a thobe in public often get uncomfortable looks.
In a 9-1-1: Lone Star episode in season 1 (a programme about firefighters), was a scene which took Muslims on social media by storm. A female Muslim firefighter’s hijab — miraculously — falls off, revealing her luscious locks to the men around her. She somehow doesn’t realise it for the first couple of seconds, and her male colleagues stare at her and say “wow”, as though they have never seen hair before. Obviously, this whole scene was written to show audiences that this character is pretty and that you should therefore like her! In the same episode, though in a cutaway scene during a montage of sorts, the same character is shown to be praying. The way she prays, though, is what caught people’s attention. When going into sujood (prostration) she spreads herself on the floor like Nutella, face down. This garnered reactions from young Muslims who found this both frustrating and hilarious, remaking it themselves and posting it online to show its silliness. Surely a quick Google search, or even asking a real Muslim, could’ve prevented this? What’s even funnier is that laying down like that is forbidden in Islam, as the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) specifically said “Be straight in prostration and let none of you put his forearms on the ground like a dog” (Sahih Al-Bukhari 788).
It’s not all doom and gloom. The Norwegian teen drama Skam includes a hijabi Muslim character in the featured cast. Skam has been praised for portraying Sana as a normal, concrete human being without reducing her to a stereotype. She defends herself and her religion, and is far more realistic and appreciated by Muslims. The show is curiously structured, with new seasons based on new characters — Sana was not excluded. Season 4 developed and drew out her complex personality, as though she was a real teenager. Following its success, Skam has many international renditions in countries like Italy and France; each contained their own Sana, normalising the presence of Muslims on TV.
It can now be easy to tell whether a film is Islamophobic or propagating stereotypes thanks to the Emmy-winning Pakistani Muslim actor Riz Ahmed, who created the ‘Riz scale’ to determine this. It includes whether or not a male Muslim character is oppressive, or whether there is talk of terrorism. Ahmed also featured in a movie universally enjoyed by Muslims in the West titled Four Lions.It would be far more refreshing to see not only increased Muslim representation on the screen, but better representation. Or rather, to explore the choices that Muslims encounter, particularly, as a young girl wanting to wear a hijab rather than take it off. These are important discussions that can inspire young viewers going through similar experiences, and that can battle Islamophobia by improving the overarching reputation of Muslims in society.
It would be far more refreshing to see not only increased Muslim representation on the screen, but better representation. Or rather, to explore the choices that Muslims encounter, particularly, as a young girl wanting to wear a hijab rather than take it off. These are important discussions that can inspire young viewers going through similar experiences, and that can battle Islamophobia by improving the overarching reputation of Muslims in society.