Can Hollywood repair what TV has done to Muslims?

More creative storytelling creates space for a broader understanding of the world

Riz Ahmed, who starred in the film adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s book ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, in conversation with Hamid, right, and Kieran Yates at the 2018 London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre. Photo by India Roper-Evans
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If there is one thing that religious and motivational texts have in common, it is the use of stories to convey big ideas. The heroes, anti-heroes, villains, truth-tellers and mavericks bring to life the grand archetypes of our lives and lay out universal human struggles. Through hooks in a well-told story, we are swept through dilemmas of all kinds. In the course of watching stories unfold, we pick up things and learn about life.

Our perspectives and frames of reference are shaped by stories. They help us make meaning of a complex world and even influence our actions. Stories aren’t just a bit of fun or trivia, although they can be. They are powerful and they can change lives and affect societies. Which is why the darker side is that we can be vulnerable to fake news stories and at risk of perpetuating stereotypes that can be harmful and even dehumanising.

I’m reminded of this every time someone asks if, as a Muslim woman, I was forced into marriage. Or every time an eyebrow is raised when I express an opinion. Or whenever someone asks me if I sympathise with terrorists. Even a simple but somehow ridiculous observation that "you speak English very well" is a reminder of how deep stereotypes run sometimes, of Muslim women as inarticulate or lacking autonomy.

These might sound like small discomforts in a daily life and easily brushed off, but they can be disruptive and demeaning to me as I go about my day. Now multiply that by the 1.8 billion Muslims around the world. It is not just about the numbers. It is how these microaggressions are magnified into sweeping narratives. There can be oppressive or discriminatory policies at play. The limitations on what Muslims can be, for example. In mainstream films and some fictional stories, Muslim actors are often still trapped in roles depicting the stereotype of a taxi driver who is also a terrorist and an oppressive husband, or the victim-terrorist paradox.

We need more people from more diverse backgrounds so we have more varied and nuanced perspectives

Where are the new stories and new frames of references? After all, the ones who hold the power to tell the stories hold the power to shape our societies.

When you think about it, the jobs we hold in high esteem are often service-oriented: doctors, dentists, engineers, lawyers, pharmacists. They are all so important that society would break down without them. But there are also the jobs that shape society in other ways, inform us of the world, facilitate policies and tackle stereotypes: journalists, editors, authors, producers, screenwriters, film-makers, and so on.

These callings are especially relevant in today's increasingly polarised world and can go a long way to help societies pay attention to more than one version of a story or just one story. We need more people from more diverse backgrounds to choose these vocations so we have varied perspectives and more nuance in our films, books, TV scripts, that is – in our storytelling. This would then, in the long run, make a crucial difference to how we see the world.

Hollywood actor and Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed is a rarity as a Muslim on a global stage in the arts. Ahmed has been advocating for two decades for more representative and creative Muslim stories and storytellers. “Rectifying and re-imagining Muslim representation in film means empowering Muslim filmmakers,” he said recently, and he is absolutely right.

This week, along with his production company Left Handed Films, the Pillars Fund and sponsorship from Netflix and Amazon Studios, 10 upcoming Muslim filmmakers was announced as the Pillars Artists Fellowship.

In addition to an unrestricted award of $25,000, each fellow will be mentored by industry experts – on topics such as how to navigate the business of Hollywood, professional development and creative guidance in their fields, along with access to Muslim actors, directors, producers and writers, including Riz Ahmed himself, screenwriter Bisha K Ali, actor Mahershala Ali, the comic book editor Sana Amanat, film director Lena Khan, TV writers and director Nida Manzoor, the comedian and writer Hasan Minhaj and actor Ramy Youssef, film directors Nijla Mu’min, Jehane Noujaim and Bassam Tariq.

On an individual level, we all tend to be rightly aggrieved when we don’t get to tell our side of the story. Because the people who tell stories hold power. And conversely, the most powerful are those who get to tell their own stories. I wish our new cohort of storytellers the very best.

Published: March 21, 2022, 8:00 AM