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Riz Ahmed calls out “stereotypical, toxic” portrayals of Muslims

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Hollie Richardson
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Riz Ahmed

Riz Ahmed has shared a powerful video about Hollywood’s misrepresentation of Muslims on screen.

Earlier this year, Riz Ahmed became the first Muslim to be nominated for best actor at the Oscars for his role in Sound Of Metal. While it was of course a groundbreaking moment to be celebrated, it also highlighted how far there is still to go in Hollywood.

The actor and activist has now launched a new initiative for Muslim representation in the media, partnering with Chicago-based advocacy group Pillars Fund and the Ford Foundation, to create $25,000 (£17,700) fellowships for Muslim storytellers.

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The group has also published a study of the marginalisation of Muslims in Hollywood. According to the research, Muslims accounted for just 1.6 per cent of 8,965 speaking characters in 200 films between 2017 and 2019. Female Muslim representation has been particularly low, with the ratio of Muslim male characters to female characters across 200 films in that same time period being 175 to 1. It also found just one Muslim character who identified as LGBTQ+, and there was one Muslim character shown with a disability.

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To launch the initiative, Ahmed has shared a powerful video directed to Muslim storytellers on social media, calling out “stereotypical, toxic” portrayals of Muslims.

“The problem with Muslim misrepresentation is one that can’t be ignored anymore,” he said. “It’s one that I can’t fix alone and the handful of prominent Muslims in the business can’t fix without your help. I ask myself, ‘If I’m the exception to the rule… what must the rule be about people like me?’ What must the unwritten rule be about Muslims, a quarter of the world’s population, and their place in our stories, our culture, and their place in our society, if any?  

He continued: “I’m here to briefly tell you that exceptions don’t change the rules. Exceptions, if anything, highlight the rule and in some ways allow us to be complacent about leaving that rule in place. The progress that’s been made by a few of us, doesn’t paint an overall picture of progress if most of the portrayals of Muslims on screen are still either non-existent, or entrenched in those stereotypical, toxic, two-dimensional portrayals.”

Riz Ahmed in Sound Of Metal
Riz Ahmed earned an Oscar nomination for his role in Sound Of Metal.

Ahmed added: “I think we’re going to look back at this period misrepresentation with the same shame and sadness that we look upon minstrelsy in days gone by. It’s something that has to be changed and it’s something that we can’t change on our own. It’s a structural problem. We have to join hands. What rewrites rules isn’t exceptions, but it’s when the oppressed and the oppressors – whether they’re aware they’re being oppressors, or aware of their complicity in the oppression or not – join hands, open their eyes and made a solemn commitment to take some concrete steps.”

He concluded: “Maybe that’ not just a Muslim struggle; maybe that’s all of our struggle as storytellers to afford all of us that empathy and that humanity.”

You can find more information about the Missing & Maligned study and the Pillars Artist Fellowship on the Pillars Fund website.

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Images: Getty, Amazon Prime Video

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…