Riz Ahmed Decries 'Dehumanizing' Portrayal of Muslims on Screen

Sound of Metal star Riz Ahmed spoke out against the "stereotypical" depictions and underrepresentation of Muslims in the film and television industry, stating such "dehumanizing and demonizing portrayals" end up in lives lost.

Ahmed, who is English-Pakistani and Muslim, made his remarks in a video as a new study examining Muslim portrayals on screen was unveiled on Thursday. The study was conducted by the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, with Ahmed as one of its backers.

The actor and his production company Left Handed Films also partnered with the Pillars Fund—a grant-making organization that invests in Muslim community initiatives—to create a $25,000 fellowship for Muslim artists in the U.S. and the U.K.

The USC Annenberg study, which surveyed 200 popular films rom the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand between 2017 and 2019, found Muslims made up 1.6 percent of nearly 9,000 speaking characters, despite accounting for 24 percent of the world population. Across 100 U.S. films, only 1.1 percent characters were Muslim.

Of the 200 films, only five featured a Muslim man as a lead or co-lead. One had a Muslim woman as part an ensemble lead role. A look at 41 primary and secondary Muslim characters involved in violence found 53 percent were "targets" and 39 percent were "perpetrators." Nineteen percent of primary and secondary Muslim characters died by the end of the film.

I'm fed up of seeing Muslim characters on screen either negative or non existent. The industry must change. Our new study proves what many of us always felt about #MuslimsInFilm. The cost is measured in hate & lost lives. Full speech here: https://t.co/bsfpQw4Wfe pic.twitter.com/2itt6IaESB

— Riz Ahmed (@rizwanahmed) June 10, 2021

In the 13-minute YouTube video, Ahmed recalled his Oscar nomination—the first time a Muslim earned one in the Best Actor category—as a "bittersweet moment," despite his personal gratitude and Muslims viewing his win as a point of pride.

Ahmed earned the nomination at the 2021 Academy Awards for his lead role as a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing in Sound of Metal.

"Alongside that gratitude and their pride, I also felt tremendous sadness," he said. "How is it that out of 1.6 billion people, a quarter of the world's population, none of us had ever been in this position until now?"

"I asked myself, 'If I'm the exception of the rule, what must the rule be about people like me?'"

Ahmed contended that "progress that's being made" by a few Muslims in film and television "doesn't paint an overall picture of progress" if most on-screen depictions remain either "non-existent or entrenched in those stereotypical, toxic, two-dimensional portrayals."

"Couple of us are slashing our way through the undergrowth with a machete," he said. "But a lot more people are planting poison ivy in our wake."

Ahmed cited several Muslim actors whose "exceptional" work is being undermined by harmful portrayals of Muslims. HBO's Silicon Valley, which stars Kumail Nanjiani, runs alongside Homeland, a show that was promoted with billboards depicting "Claire Danes lost in a terrifying sea of burqas." Mahershala Ali won two Oscars from the same Academy that has awarded "frankly racist films" Oscars such as American Sniper, The Hurt Locker and Argo, according to Ahmed.

Our new study in collaboration w/ @rizwanahmed @pillars_fund & @FordFoundation is out! We analyzed the portrayal of #Muslim characters in 200 top films from 2017-2019. Read the study https://t.co/pw9lE1gafw & thread for details, including a new resource for creating change. pic.twitter.com/4qkhv65KQh

— Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (@Inclusionists) June 10, 2021

And as Ramy, starring Ramy Youssef, airs on Amazon Prime Video, so too does The Boys, which Ahmed recalled having "loved and binged" as a "very self-aware" show with a "multiracial" cast. That is, until he was left "gutted" upon seeing Muslims turning up only twice: once to "hijack a plane" and another time as "supervillains whose superpower is to suicide bomb people."

Ahmed said the significance of the "misrepresentation" of Muslims is "measured in the lost potential of untold stories," "unfulfilled careers of lost storytellers," "lost audiences," but also "lost lives."

"We know that when people don't know a minority group, the on-screen representations are far more impactful," Ahmed said.

"Isn't it tragically a matter of math that you end up with Donald Trump winning the presidential election on the back of an Islamophobic campaign, passing the travel ban?" he continued. "Isn't it just math that you're going to end up with the New Zealand [mosque] shooting?"

"Isn't it tragically a case of just math that you're going to end up with the massacre of three generations of one family this week in Canada—two parents, a grandmother and a 15 year-old daughter, leaving a nine-year-old child behind?"

In March 2019, a gunman killed 51 people in mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. And on Sunday, a man in the Canadian city of London was accused of deliberately ramming a car into a Muslim family, killing a grandmother, her son and his wife, and their 15-year-old daughter. The couple's nine-year-old son survived and was hospitalized following the attack.

"This is the result of dehumanizing and demonizing portrayals of Muslims," Ahmed said. "The Islamophobia industry is one that measures its cost in blood."

During his speech, Ahmed also recounted a 2006 incident following his return to the U.K. after The Road to Guantanamo's premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. Upon his arrival to Luton Airport, he said, he endured harassment at the hands of "unidentified agents," who separated him from fellow cast members and almost broke his arm in an arm lock. Ahmed recalled one of the agents asking him, "Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle?"

"As my career shifted, my experience at airports didn't get much better as my experience at Luton Airport after Road to Guantanamo," Ahmed said. "In fact, my experience at airports continued to resemble those early audition rooms."

"I'm moved into an interrogation room this time rather than an audition room, but everyone looks like me, no one wants to be there, and everyone is forced into the role of a terror suspect."

Riz Ahmed attends a Berlin press conference
Riz Ahmed attends the "Mogul Mowgli" press conference during the 70th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 21, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Ahmed recently criticized “dehumanizing and demonizing portrayals of Muslims" in films. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

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