Negative Stereotyping of Muslims in Western Media

Misconceptions Fuel Bias
Riz Ahmed attends the 93rd Annual Academy Awards at Union Station on April 25, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty)

Last week’s report from the prestigious Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism (ASCJ), at the University of Southern California (USC), about the “missing Muslim characters on screen (particularly American films)", added to the newly-started campaign by Pakistani-British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed, who complained about the same problem, and recently tweeted: “I'm fed up of seeing Muslim characters on screen either negative or nonexistent”.

The USC’s report, titled “Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies,” declared that its purpose was to “explore the prevalence and portrayal of Muslim characters in popular films”.

The report contained both quantitative and qualitative analyses of about 200 top-grossing films that were released between 2017 and 2019 in the US (100 films), Britain (63 films), Australia (32 films) and New Zealand (five films).

Researching demographic and social factors, the report divided the roles of and by Muslim characters according to gender, race/ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, identification and disability.

For each role, the report examined the following two aspects:

First, whether it was verbal (direct statements), or non-verbal (apparel, setting and artifacts).

Second, whether it reflected specific stereotypes of Muslims.

The near-absence of speaking Muslim characters (as opposed to characters who didn't intelligently speak throughout each film) was the report’s first observation: six percent were speaking Muslims in Australian films; one percent in each of American and British films and none in the New Zealand films.

Of the approximately 200 films, only 19 had at least one speaking Muslim character; in other words, 181 films had no speaking Muslim character, and out of the 100 American films, there were only nine.

As for gender, of the 144 speaking Muslim characters, 76 percent were male and 24 percent were female, but 185 films did not have any speaking Muslim women or girls.

As for race/ethnicity, out of the 144 Muslim characters, 67 percent were Middle Eastern or North African, 21 percent Asian, six percent Black American, and four percent were White.

Beside the above-mentioned quantitative analyses, the report contained qualitative analyses about the implications of being a Muslim, “foreigner” or “other”. 

Seventeen films were completely about Muslims from the fantastical past, without any modern conveniences, like “Aladdin,” the American film, and sixteen films were about modern Muslims, like “Ali’s Wedding,” an Australian film.

Most of the rest were about topics that included Muslims and non-Muslims, past and present, in different parts of the world, and in different settings.

In almost all of the films, there were clear indications of Muslims’ non-English languages; non-Western citizenships; and non-Western clothes:

First, about 76 percent of the Muslim characters wore clothes related to Islam.

Second, about 50 percent spoke with a non-Western English accent.

Third, about 40 percent didn’t speak English at all.

Fourth, about 70 percent were shown as immigrants or refugees.

Fifth, accordingly, about 90 percent were shown as “outsiders”.

Only four percent were shown as Westerners.

Most of these observations were found in American films, and, the report continued, “only one percent of the characters portrayed in the 100 top-grossing U.S. films were Muslim” Consequently, “stereotypical portrayals as foreigners and threatening outsiders may have contributed to the rise of hate crimes against Muslims worldwide”.

The report observed that “the number of potential anti-Islam attacks in 2019 exceeded 500 in the U.S. That same year, nearly half of all hate crimes in England and Wales were targeted against Muslims. In 2019, 51 individuals were killed and more were injured in a shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand”.

The report concluded by saying that “violence against Muslims – online and offline – demonstrates dangerous biases … While the causes of such violence are complex, one arena that may exacerbate biased views of the Muslim community, is the mass media.”

Pakistani-British actor Riz Ahmed announced his support of the report, and called upon world-wide efforts to, first, stop the continuous negative stereotype of Muslims in Western films, and, second, to initiate affirmative actions to push qualified Muslim actors and actresses to the front of film-acting.

Ahmed recently tweeted that “the negative representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted; the people that get killed; and the countries that get invaded. The data doesn’t lie. This study shows us the scale of the problem in popular film, and its cost is measured in lost potential and lost lives”.