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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

It's time for filmmakers to train their lenses on real Muslim stories

Typecasting actors as terrorist and villains stifles talent, alienates a huge audience and fails the Riz Test

Riz Ahmed, pictured in a scene from The Sisters Brothers, has spoken powerfully about the on-screen representation of Muslims. AP/Magali Bragard/Annapurna
Riz Ahmed, pictured in a scene from The Sisters Brothers, has spoken powerfully about the on-screen representation of Muslims. AP/Magali Bragard/Annapurna

The opening scenes of the BBC’s blockbuster TV series Bodyguard are certainly gripping. On a train that is about to be blown up in a terrorist attack, the show’s white, male hero searches the carriages for the would-be perpetrator. Then he flings open a door to find a Muslim woman in a black hijab and abaya hiding in the toilet. She looks terrified.

She is wearing a suicide vest and in her hand is the detonator. The lead character, played by Richard Madden, talks her down, explaining to her that she has been indoctrinated by her husband, who is quite happy for her to kill herself in pursuit of his own ideals. After a few well-chosen words, she is liberated from her deadly mission, the hero hugs her and all is well.

So, just a few minutes into the show, we’ve already got our white saviour moment. What else did you expect? It should also come as no surprise that the would-be suicide bomber embodies every available stereotype of Muslim women: timid, easily manipulated, a victim of domestic abuse and brainwashing that has led to extremism and violence.

The real world, of course, is rather different. Across the world, there are 1.6 billion Muslims, each of them with their own experiences. So how is it that almost none of their stories are being told? The film and TV industry prides itself on providing a space in which the brightest creative minds work together to create innovative entertainment. If they drew on the wealth of narratives that exist within the world’s Muslim population, the results could be magical. Now, however, it appears that the best they can come up with is the worn-out trope of the oppressed jihadi bride.

Bodyguard – like most contemporary films and TV shows – singularly fails the Riz Test. Named after the British actor Riz Ahmed, who made a powerful speech to the UK House of Commons last year about on-screen diversity and the portrayal of Muslims, it asks five important questions about films and shows that star at least one character who is identifiably Muslim.

Are they talking about the victim of, or the perpetrator of, Islamist terrorism? Are they presented as irrationally angry? Are they portrayed as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern? Do they appear to be a threat to a western way of life? If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? If female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts? If the answer to any of the above is yes, then the film or show fails.

Unfortunately, very little of what we see today would pass judgement by any of these criteria. A study published last week by the Mena Arts Advocacy Coalition found that only 1 per cent of US television actors are of Middle Eastern or North African origin, and 78 per cent of the roles they were given were as terrorists and tyrants.

Creatively speaking, this is lazy and tedious. It’s also commercial madness. As films such as Black Panther demonstrate, audiences want global stories – stories that avoid stereotypes, stories filled with nuance and wide-ranging perspectives. The global Muslim population is a colossal market that is being shamefully under-served. What a missed opportunity.

It is also a matter of conscience. The stories we tell and are exposed to affect how we see the world. Some people argue that some Muslims have committed acts of terrorism and that this reality needs to reflected. Fair enough. The problem is that that, right now, this is the only story that is ever told. There is also plenty of anger when Muslims step forward to demand sophisticated, non-stereotypical representation on screen.

It’s time to break free of these tired, old arguments and reflect the world we live in. Yet all we ever get to see is more Muslim actors being cast as villains. For example, it was recently reported that the actor Said Taghmaoui, who is of Moroccan heritage, is in line to play the baddie in the next James Bond movie. That’s just more of the same.

How much more interesting would it be to see a Muslim actor on the “good” side for once? While I’d be all for a female, Middle Eastern, hijab-clad James Bond, I am fully aware that is highly unlikely. For now, at least, I can’t imagine a better Bond than Ahmed himself. Now that would be guaranteed to pass the test.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World