Muslim Characters Absent From 87% of Top 200 TV Shows, New Study Finds

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Muslim characters are largely absent from television shows and, when they are portrayed, they are still negatively stereotyped in many ways, according to a new study.

The report, which is from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative examined 200 top-rated television shows from 2018 and 2019 aired in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. The results of the study show the “disheartening reality of Muslims on screen,” the report states.

Across nearly 9,000 speaking characters, the ratio of non-Muslim characters to Muslim ones was 90 to one. About 87% of the shows that were examined didn’t feature any Muslim characters, and about 8% only had one.

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There didn’t appear to be any progress over time, either, as Muslim characters didn’t grow in number from 2018 to 2019. There were also no variations by country.

“Muslims make up 25% of the world’s population yet were only 1.1% of characters in popular television series,” said Al-Baab Khan, the study’s lead author. “Not only is this radical erasure an insult, it has the potential to create real-world injury for audiences, particularly Muslims who may be the victims of prejudice, discrimination, and even violence.”

About one-third of the Muslim characters that were depicted onscreen were perpetrators of violence while nearly 40% were targets of violent attacks. Many of these characters were tied to foreign locations, and nearly half only spoke in non-English languages.

When it comes to professions, the largest percentage of Muslim characters with a job were criminals (37.2%) while 15.7% worked in law enforcement. Male characters were also more likely to be depicted with a job than female characters.

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Female Muslim characters were also subject to other stereotyping, including more than half of whom wore a hijab — despite males being dressed in a variety of clothes. Muslim women were often depicted as “fearful and submissive to their male counterparts,” the study finds.

Riz Ahmed, who supported the research through his production company Left Handed Films, said in a statement: “TV shows are the stories we bring into our homes. They play a big part in shaping how we understand the world, each other, and our place within it. This study reminds us that when it comes to Muslim portrayals, we’re still being fed a TV diet of stereotyping and erasure.”

“For Muslims this sends a message that they don’t belong or don’t matter. For other people, we risk normalizing fear, bigotry and stigmatization against Muslims,” the statement continued. “Networks and streaming services need to embrace their responsibility to ensure Muslims of all backgrounds see themselves reflected in our favorite TV shows. And they would be wise to embrace this gigantic opportunity to reach and connect with an underserved global audience – not just as part of a passing diversity fad but as a decisive shift towards inclusive story-telling.”

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