Muslim Representation in Film and Television
Growing up, I treated “Muslim” as a dirty word. It remained unspoken outside the four walls of my home for as long as I could help it. No one liked Muslims. We were too different. Some may even go as far as to call us “evil.” Granted, I knew none of these opinions actually held any weight. Still, much to my own frustration, I turned my back towards all references to Islam, creating a safety net under the flimsy guise of religious ambiguity.
What possibly could have driven me to labeling both my faith and the billion-plus people who follow it alongside me as “evil?” Why did I use the same monochrome paintbrush I avoided using for others over my own identity? The answer lies in the public relations we all are guilty, in some form or another, of partaking in. We are our own publicists, molding an image together with little scraps we do not even have to find — they are so systematically shoved in our faces, we cannot help but use anything else.
I grew up in post-9/11 New York City. I went to a 9/11 memorial elementary school. That in of itself came with a boatload of misplaced guilt no five-year old could (or should) ever be able to understand. I began building my image around what was a very basic, misleading reality: A few years ago, something bad happened. And it was our fault.
My only other window to the outside world was television, and its messaging did little to alleviate my aversion to identifying as an American Muslim. My dad was an avid watcher of political thrillers like NCIS and its many, many spin-offs. In them, the enemy of the state was always foreign, and almost-always a Muslim terrorist. Never once did I see any woman wear a hijab on screen. So the reference point for my peers about Islam and Muslims was either Arab terrorist or burka-clad, oppressed woman. No wonder my self-issued image was so faulty.
Muslim representation in film and television was always one-dimensional, even prior to September 11, 2001. According to BBC journalist Mohammed Zaheer, Muslims were often portrayed as “sleazy oil rich sex pests, exotic subservient women, misogynists and/or militant terrorists” (“How Muslims became the good guys on TV”). I shudder just reading these characterizations — such “exotic” portrayals may add buzz to otherwise bland storylines, but in actuality, they undeniably “other” American Muslims to a point of no return. Expert on Arab and Muslim representation Evelyn Alsultany claims that Muslim identities were often conflated together in her 2012 book, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11, whether they were Middle Eastern, African, or South Asian. This is true — we have to compromise consistently. We must pretend to see ourselves in non-Muslim brown actors or Arabs that singularly represent the polyglot that is our faith. According to Alsultany, “With this conflation established, it is easy to conceptualize the United States as the inverse of everything that is ‘Arab/Muslim’: the United States is thus a land of equality and democracy, culturally diverse and civilized, a land of progressive men and liberated women” (Alsultany 9). I experienced it; the emphasis on our differences ultimately led to large-scale vilification post-9/11. So many American Muslims, especially my generation, have had our entire existence framed by an event that occurred before we were even born.
In recent years, plenty of Muslim actors have made long strides and won several accolades in Hollywood, big names including actors Ramy Youssef, Kumail Nanjiani, and Mahershala Ali. One such actor, Riz Ahmed, gave a speech at Britain’s House of Commons, warning that a lack of diverse representation on television screens was leaving Muslims vulnerable to extremist propaganda. “In the mind of the ISIS recruit, he’s a version of James Bond, right? Everyone thinks they’re the good guy. Have you seen some of the ISIS propaganda videos? They’re cut like action movies. Where’s the counter-narrative? Where are we telling these kids that they can be heroes in our stories?” questions Riz, echoing a desperation that exists in all of us trying to combat the negative stereotypes that define our faith. Terrorist groups hold the promise of recruiting heroes, the same who are left to be the villains in every other Western film or TV show. The American media does not realize that by leaving Muslim audiences to grasp for straws, they become largely responsible for the vulnerable population to turn elsewhere — somewhere that would celebrate them for who they are, regardless of its dangerous outcomes. “People are looking for the message that they belong, that they are part of something, that they are seen and heard and that despite, or perhaps because of, their experience, they are valued,” said Ahmed. “They want to feel represented. In that task we have failed” (“How Muslims Became the Good Guys on TV”). When we don’t see ourselves as heroes, when we don’t see ourselves valued, where else are we going to turn? Religious fanatics know this and are ready to exploit it.
Riz’s speech resulted in the creation of the “Riz Test,” which included five criteria that rated Muslim representation in Film and TV:
“If the film/show stars at least one character who is identifiably Muslim (by ethnicity, language or clothing) — is the character…
- Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?
- Presented as irrationally angry?
- Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
- Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
- If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?
If the answer for any of the above is Yes, then the Film/ TV Show fails the test” (“The Riz Test”).
When I first read this criteria, I couldn’t help but laugh. It just happened to sum up every single Muslim character I had seen on screen. And I knew this because they end up being so glaringly identifiable, simply because of the repetitive stereotyping throughout American media.
How can you spot a Muslim man on television? There have been several attempts in the geopolitical genre that incorporate Muslim men as antagonists or, at most, over-glorified side characters. One award-winning and critically acclaimed show, with an all-star cast and raving (influential) fans including the likes of President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was the Showtime series Homeland. The opening shot of Homeland’s Pilot episode is a loosely-scarfed white woman against a backdrop of barbaric, accented men. It is an image hammered home an awful lot. During a raid on an Iraqi compound, they find a man — “Turns out he’s one of ours,” says a CIA officer, because “an American hero” could never be one of them (“Pilot,” Homeland).
The premise of Homeland revolves around counterterrorism efforts by the CIA, centered primarily around Muslim perpetrators of terrorism in an eight-season run. It portrays U.S. foreign relations as rife with conflict with Muslim-majority countries, including largely picturesque countries like Lebanon and Pakistan picturized as grimy and war-torn. Homeland creates fictional CIA operations involving terrorist groups like al-Qaeda that are very much real. It is the poster-show of the “us versus them” idea that fuels Islamophobia in America. Beyond technical inaccuracies in its portrayal of Islam and Islamic practices and a further conflation of Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures, Homeland portrays most of us as conspiring against the government, or having to prove our loyalties, or cooperating by giving up information to leave our backward and misogynistic faith behind.
The arc of chief antagonist in Seasons 1 to 3 Marine-turned-terrorist Nicholas Brody is the ultimate amalgamation of this point. Brody converts to Islam after being treated kindly in captivity in Iraq, coaxed by terrorist leader Abu Nazir, and thereby becoming an al-Qaeda agent. He’s turned to religion because he’s in pain; naturally, the terrorist he becomes was just part of the package. This conversion, and Brody’s role in the following seasons, reflect a corrupting influence and manipulative nature of Islam. Brody’s loyalties waver to a confusing extent throughout the series. But as the somber notes of sinister music plays while he is prostrate in prayer, there is one villain that remains crystal clear — Islam.
The series does deviate a little later on and attempt to course-correct, but the damage is done. Key antagonists, threats to the “Homeland,” have only their faith in common. Shows like this, playing on viewers’ patriotic tendencies, with even the title itself — Homeland — normalize invasive U.S. foreign policies in countries they can’t even bother to portray right. Zaheer writes: “Studies have shown a direct correlation between people’s exposure to negative portrayals of Muslims in the media and their willingness to support policies that are harmful to Muslims or curtail their rights — as well as for military action against them” (“How Muslims became the good guys on TV”). Homeland’s protagonist, CIA officer Carrie Mathison, places Brody under illegal and unauthorized surveillance, using hidden cameras and microphones throughout Brody’s house. Her suspicions regarding his allegiance to al-Qaeda are validated, subliminally championing the perpetuation of policies like the PATRIOT Act. Given the reach of such a series and its impact on attitudes towards us both at home and abroad, it is clear that we are in desperate need of nuanced portrayals on screen.
As a young Muslim woman myself, I knew that the hardest personal impact would be a film or TV show revolving around someone just like me. There wasn’t a very long catalogue to sift through — I chose the 2019 Apple TV coming-of-age film, Hala, about a 17-year old Pakistani-American girl written and directed by a Pakistani-American woman, Minhal Baig. The film hints at Hala’s estrangement from Islam from the very beginning; still, I had hope. The film wouldn’t go in that direction. It was too easy.
I thought I would be able to sit through the subpar acting and bad writing for the sake of some sort of representation. But very quickly, the film’s (intentional or unintentional) agenda unraveled. By the end of the film, Hala takes off her hijab as a show of defiance and freedom.
Meeting my expectations to an almost-perfect extent, I found myself sitting through a story of this first-generation teenage girl and her immigrant parents, like me, and yet, so… insulting. Hala portrays a hyperbolic disconnect between immigrant parents and their daughter, and while there is much baggage within every immigrant family to make this storyline work, Baig seemed to believe that mashing together every single stereotype about overbearing, out-of-touch immigrant parents into one couple was the best way to go. This is incredibly disappointing given the surface-level healthy relationship presented between the father and daughter; but of course, a brown Muslim man is only written in as an oppressive obstacle.
The film doesn’t make a distinction between religion and culture, which is where the misogyny stems from. Hala’s parents, particularly her father, advocate for and are willing to force Hala into an arranged marriage at seventeen. Theirs seems to be working out (until it is discovered that her father is cheating on her mother with his white colleague) and in reality, many arranged marriages do. Still, Islam doesn’t mandate arranged marriage — but I doubt the average American audience is aware of that, and the film certainly makes no effort to offer that disclaimer.
The life that draws Hala in is one that consistently sexualizes her from the first scene — be it missing her morning prayers because she was masturbating under her covers, losing her virginity to her crush and then immediately regretting it, or sharing an awkward sexual encounter with her English teacher. “I am heard,” writes Hala. “I am seen,” she says, after Jesse, her crush, gives her his phone number. The white boy that enlightens her is presented in stark contrast with her oppressive, hypocritical brown father; the two men are visually paralleled throughout the film. What are we as audiences supposed to believe Hala’s turning point is? Her father’s slap? Sex with a white boy? What makes you assume that Muslim women dictate all of their decisions based on their status among the men in their lives? Sounds… oppressive.
The film presents nothing about the spiritual relevance of the hijab, just how it symbolizes the regulation of Hala’s behavior, while she yearns to live “honestly” and have “freedom.” All she repeats to those who extend a hand is “You wouldn’t understand,” but she never attempts to explain what that means in more than a metaphorical sense. She’s still praying by the end of the film, so this obviously wasn’t some spiritual journey. Ultimately, the removal of her hijab was unnecessary. Freedom from her father would have been symbolized by her mother’s divorce and moving out to go to college. Removing the hijab was freedom from something else, something the film does not bother to explain. So the audience is left to draw their own conclusions, leading to only one culprit — Islam.
At the end of the day, Hala calls for one thing. You either stay with them or you pick us. I am not saying stories like this shouldn’t be made and that these stories don’t exist, but this is a clear perpetuation of stereotypes. There is no counter-narrative. I’m sure people resonated with this story, but there was so much more to explore than her relationship with a boy.
Former Professor of Mass Communications Jack G. Shaheen, author of Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture, advocated for educational portrayals to demystify Islam: “Also, to help bring about needed balance, image makers could reveal in television shows, documentaries, and motion pictures the telling effects of hate crimes brought about by stereotyping. They could show the impact of such prejudices on children, especially how some are taunted during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan” (Shaheen 67). While I agree that education is important, I disagree that Muslim representation should focus on educating the masses. That is not our job. We deserve escapism from the hate crimes we face everyday, and perhaps a normalized portrayal of our lives will actually impact the masses even more, and force them to reconsider their Islamophobia.
Sometimes it feels like my complaints are unwarranted, that I’m screaming into a void and the outside world is just waiting for me to suck it up. But after stumbling upon The Secret Life of Muslims, a first person series of interviews with Muslim influencers dispelling stereotypes about Islam, I found that my feelings are echoed by my fellow Muslims to a raging extent. There are multiplicities of identities that are underrepresented. What is good representation? What do we want? And the answers vary; we want Muslim heroes, strong Muslim women, awkward Muslims, boring Muslims… overall, “just human beings,” a character “who just so happens to be Muslim.”
As was clear with Hala, having Muslims behind the scenes isn’t always good. However, Minhal Baig also worked as a writer behind another smash-hit television comedy series revolving Muslims — Ramy, the Muslim antihero, a step in the right direction, a 2019 Hulu series written, produced by, and starring Ramy Youssef. It is non-terrorist related media starring a Muslim male protagonist who grapples with his faith and identity. He isn’t the perfect, pious Muslim. He is so undeniably American, so undeniably Muslim — and references the struggle of balancing those identities without outright rejecting Islam. Ramy as a show is very overt about Islam and represents things important to us Muslims, such as marriage, family, community, and prayer, but in a Western setting alongside the intricacies of boy-girl relationships, having normal jobs, and even fun. While at some points it feels like Ramy is boxing its female characters and especially their sexuality the same way it attempts to deconstruct male characters, they are still unlike any others I’ve seen — funny and eclectic, figuring out life just as we are.
I cannot begin to explain how odd it was to hear “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Great”) in the opening scene of Ramy through my TV screen, unaccompanied by a bomb blast, but as a call to prayer — what it actually is meant to be, but is never shown as. I swooned while absorbing the liberal use of the Arabic language, turns-of-phrase. and conventional Islamic practices without explaining them. Ramy is a show for us, by us.
Ramy’s strength is its nuance with the way it approaches both the immigrant and Muslim experience in America, with the multidimensionality of a modern, normal, flawed, occasionally hypocritical, always-loving family. It references the Islamophobia we all face on a daily basis; it isn’t the escapism championed by the Riz Test or the Secret Life of Muslims, but it breaks us out of the pigeonhole that places us as the antithesis of progress in this country, all while addressing real, uncomfortable problems that we face. We’re Muslims, but we can also be socially awkward, financially unstable, and romantically foolish. We also have racist uncles. We’re just like you.
It is incredibly heartwarming to see stories that use us as the protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters winning accolades and critical acclaim. Ramy isn’t meant to be the Muslim experience. It is simply the reflection of a Muslim experience. It validates our worth on screen. It symbolizes a door that we must open. And with this feeling that you have to pick one or the other — you’re either like us, or you’re not — Ramy is a poignant reminder that our stories have a place on the American screen.
Luckily, the future looks bright, particularly in the form of an upcoming Disney+ series, Ms. Marvel, about a teenage Pakistani-Muslim living in New Jersey, and the first Muslim Marvel headlining character (“‘Ms. Marvel,’ Muslim Identity and a Changing Hollywood”). Ms. Marvel, or Kamala Khan, is just like your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. She is no terrorist, no oppressed woman, no Patriot pulling all strings to prove her worth. She is a young Muslim with agency. As a Pakistani-Muslim teenager living in New Jersey myself, both me and the Muslim diaspora will be holding our breaths as we await Ms. Marvel on our screens. I have hope that it will be revolutionary. After all, there is no better, bigger reach than a Marvel movie. And something tells me that it is just the start.
Now, at the conclusion of my freshman year, I am old enough to no longer blame myself and my people for an event that not only occurred before I was born, but also is not something I have to take accountability for at all. And while I am still hungry to see someone like me, Muslim, eccentric, and normal, on screen, I am glad that Muslims are taking initiative to make it happen. There will be hiccups (see: Hala), but the more content we put out, the more we branch out from violence and oppression, there will at least be more conversations, and honestly, that is the first step.
Alsultany, Evelyn. Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11. New York University Press, 2012.
Baig, Minhal, director. Hala. Overbrook Entertainment, 2019.
“Dear Hollywood: Stop Portraying Muslims as Terrorists.” The Secret Life of Muslims, www.secretlifeofmuslims.com/season-one.
Farooqi, Sheraz. “‘Ms. Marvel,’ Muslim Identity and a Changing Hollywood.” The Hollywood Reporter, The Hollywood Reporter, 27 Aug. 2019, www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/ms-marvel-muslim-identity-a-changing-hollywood-1234666/.
Gansa, Alex and Howard Gordon, creators. Homeland. Fox 21 Television Studios, Showtime Networks, and 20th Television, 2020
“How Muslims Became the Good Guys on TV.” BBC Culture, BBC, www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190620-how-muslims-became-the-good-guys-on-tv.
Katcher, Ari, Ryan Welch, and Ramy Youssef, creators. Ramy. A24 and Hulu, 2020.
The Riz Test, www.riztest.com/.
Shaheen, Jack G. Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture. Walsh School of Foreign Services, 1997.