London, United Kingdom – From Bodyguard, the British TV thriller series, to the US CIA drama Homeland, the representation of Muslim characters on screen has often been perceived as problematic at best.
Men are seen as marginal figures who are culturally backward and associated with misogyny, violence and anger. Women are portrayed as oppressed victims with little to no freedom of choice.
Tired of the stereotypes, a new charity aims to change the script for representation in the entertainment industry and end the co-use of anti-Muslim tropes.
UK Muslim Film was launched last week and seeks to “bring the Muslim experience into the heart of British culture” through film and television.
It’s designed to serve as a hub year-round, hosting film screenings and masterclasses, among other things, and promoting aspiring storytellers with a fund reserved for aspiring filmmakers with Muslim backgrounds – and other under-represented groups – to help bolster their presence in the industry.
With the support of the British Film Institute (BFI), the charity will also advise productions on how to better represent Muslims in the cinema and avoid perpetuating offensive, negative stereotypes.
“Faith was almost used as a weapon”
British actor Sajid Varda, its founder and CEO, told Al Jazeera he was inspired to start the project after seeing the entertainment industry portray Muslims after 9/11.
“It was very much about faith [after that]”Said Varda.” The story was more about Muslims, Islam and negativity … [and] Belief has been used almost as a weapon to create misrepresentations with negative associations. “
He hopes to help reverse these trends and promote better understanding between Muslims and other communities.
“The mass media has a huge impact on informing people, that’s the power of storytelling,” he said, linking the misrepresentation of Muslims to a rise in Islamophobia.
“It is a very powerful educational tool, especially for people who would not normally come into contact with certain minority groups. Hence, it can be dangerous for the media to maintain common tropes such as: Muslims are terrorists, Muslim men are misogynist, Muslim women are oppressed, and Islam is a threat to the West. “
“Muslims don’t feel included”
Varda isn’t the first in the entertainment industry to raise concerns about how Muslims are portrayed on screen, or whether they are at all.
Oscar-nominated British actor Riz Ahmed, speaking to the UK Parliament in 2017, warned that the historic and widespread failure to promote diversity in films and television programs is alienating young British Muslims and other minorities.
Ahmed, who was the first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor by the Academy Awards that year for his appearance on the Sound of Metal, said people would “switch themselves off” from mainstream society if they weren’t represented by their cultural accomplishments would see.
“People are looking for the message that they belong, that they are part of something, that they are seen and heard and that they are valued despite or maybe because of their experience,” said Ahmed. “You want to feel represented. We failed in this task. “
The film fans Shaf Choudry, Isobel Ingham-Barrow and Sadia Habib were inspired by the speech and founded the so-called “Riz-Test”.
If the answers to the following questions are “yes”, then the movie or TV show failed the test, which means that typical Islamophobic tropes have been immortalized, at least to some extent.
- Speaking of victims or perpetrators of terrorism?
- Presented as irrationally angry?
- Presented as superstitious, culturally backward or anti-modern?
- Presented as a threat to a western way of life?
- If the character is male, is he portrayed as misogynistic? If female, is she portrayed as oppressed by her male colleagues?
According to the Riz test’s own Twitter reviews, much of the industry is still failing.
In support of these findings, Varda said, “Muslims don’t feel included, we don’t feel valued or valued, especially when you are looking at content that appears on the screen.
“So our whole ethos is to change the script. We have to deal with the negative stereotypes and tropes because they have a direct impact on the Muslims on the streets. “