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Riz Ahmed wants to end Hollywood's misrepresentation of Muslims. Here's how

Anousha Sakoui, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Riz Ahmed, the British Pakistani star of Amazon's Oscar-winning film "Sound of Metal," has long been disturbed by Hollywood's depiction of Muslims as terrorists.

So he and and a group of activists are launching a series of initiatives aimed at combating stereotypes on screen and hiring more Muslim creators.

The actor and producer has teamed with Pillars Fund, a Chicago-based advocacy group, and the Ford Foundation to create $25,000 fellowships for Muslim storytellers. They have also commissioned a study that highlights the marginalization of Muslims in Hollywood.

Muslims accounted for just 1.6% of 8,965 speaking characters across 200 popular films from the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand released from 2017 through 2019, according to a USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study published Thursday. Yet Muslims accounted for 24% of the global population in 2015, according to Pew Research.

"The cost of this lack of representation is measured in lost potential in terms of storytellers and artists in their careers and what they can contribute, lost audiences in terms of people switching off, and over a billion Muslims around the world who don't get to connect to these stories," Ahmed, 38, said in an interview via Zoom. "This failure of representation is experienced by Muslims as pain, physical pain, in terms of being attacked, in terms of countries being invaded, in terms of discriminatory legislation."

Advocacy for Muslims in media comes as other marginalized groups have sought social justice and equity in Hollywood. After Black Lives Matter protests, the industry's employers and unions have been under pressure to address their role in the lack of diversity across the film and TV business.

 

A coalition that includes Ahmed, Pillars and Ford also unveiled a "Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion," calling on companies in the next 18 months to "sunset" terror tropes and to secure a first look deal with at least one Muslim creator.

"What we're really advocating for is for Muslim artists and creatives to have control and be able to tell the stories that they want to tell," said Kashif Shaikh, co-founder and president of Pillars Fund. "We're not here trying to say that Muslims are all awesome. ... We want messiness, we want nuance, we want to be able to sort of fit in that middle ground."

As part of the initiative, organizers asked USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative's Stacy Smith, as well as a team of Muslim student research assistants, to analyze the depiction of Muslims on screen.

"There's absolutely no reason why casting directors can't act on this data and we would not be able to see a change next year," Smith said.

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