Muslim Representation in Film

Letter #24

I have found myself writing and thinking a lot about Muslim representation in film as of late. As I am slowly transitioning my focus towards getting more directly involved in the world of film, I am also forced to confront and think deeply about my own identity, the stories I would like to tell, who I want to be as a writer, actor, and director, and what kind of world I would like to create for myself if there isn’t already one that I feel is welcoming to me. I say if there isn’t already one that I feel welcomed in because the “representation” that we see today of Muslims in film, particularly in regards to Western media is not exactly what practicing, devout Muslims would like to see themselves represented as. 

This question of Muslim representation in and of itself is a rather complicated one. We are used to talking about representation in terms of race and culture, for groups such as Blacks, Asians, the Indigenous, etc. However, being Muslim, while it can be considered a cultural group, a very nuanced one at that, is a religious group first, and I think that the preferences and needs of Islam’s religious representation takes precedence over that of the cultural representation of it. Muslims are not simply Arab, or South Asian, they come from all walks of life, be it White, Black, Brazilian, Ethiopian, Spanish, Mexican, Swedish, German, you name the place, and there are Muslims there. So Muslim representation should firstly cater to represent the similarities amongst these various cultural groups through the similitude which comes from their shared faith. Not that there is a concrete step by step approach to accomplishing this, as the steps Muslims in film are taking today are just as instrumental and important, but I firmly believe that pinpointing the discrepency between religious representation and cultural representation is something that needs to be addressed in media as soon as possible.

So, what is the difference between religious representation and cultural representation in regards to Islam? This is how I would define it —

Religious Representation is providing a platform, opportunities, and representation on screen, behind the scenes, and during production to people who live and adhere to the teachings of Islam to the best of their ability. The content and opportunities created should tend not only to these people and what they need, but what their faith requires of them so that they can create an environment united on that front rather than what one person or a few people pick and choose to be acceptable. For example, religious representation of Islam in film would look like a story involving a Muslim character, played by a Muslim actor, who is never asked to compromise their Islamic beliefs or values at any given point of the role that they must play, meaning their involvement in things like sex, nudity, gambling, removal of hijab, etc. never ever come up in the screenplays and scripts. And while these are things that should not be policed on any individual in their personal lives, I think it is important to, at the very least, have a space where if Muslims would like to step into film, they do not need to fear that they will have to change who they are or who their religion asks them to be in order to step into a character.

Many actors are ridiculed and harshly treated when they take roles that portray Muslims in a light that is deviant from what Islamic values hold, and while ridicule and enmity towards these people who simply may not have known any better is unacceptable, that is something many young Muslim actors are afraid of dealing with when they step into this field. I know many individuals who are Muslim and would like to become actors or filmmakers but simply feel like they could never thrive in such a setting because they would have to compromise their beliefs in order to find success. And when that is the case, we find that the only people stepping up for such roles are those who are in fact willing to compromise Islamic values to become actors or writers. You can compare this scenario to how many women in the industry must engage in nudity at young ages on screen or endure sexual harassment in order to get their foot in the door. More often than not, it goes against what they want to do, but it seems like it is the only way.

Cultural Representation on the other hand, looks something like anything you would normally see in Western film and television, however it just happens to feature Muslim characters. Maybe the main character goes to the mosque and prays or they wear a hijab and talk about how they want to get married but can’t stop having sex with random people they meet, but thats the furthest it goes. Other than their being visibly Muslim, the conflicts their characters face may require the actors to explicitly compromise Islamic values to put forth a particular story, that many practicing Muslim households wouldn’t even bare to watch. A lot of the time, these actors simply grew up in Muslim environments but might not actually know anything in depth about their religion. 

I have researched lots of shows today that are renowned for their Muslim representation, but have found that the actors in question are not actually that dedicated to the belief system they represent. And without being conscious of it, they are degrading a whole religious faith to a mere culture that people can participate in freely. For example, there is a particular show I watched, that featured many Muslim female characters who wore hijab, niqab, and various types of modest wear, but when I looked up the cast, I found that basically none of them actually wear a hijab in real life. And by no means am I attacking them or judging them for not doing so, but hijab is mandatory for Muslim women, and one would assume that actors representing Muslims on such a large platform would be true to that basic element of those whom they represent. 

So in the time that I have spent thinking about these things, I have found that there are many holes in the plot of whatever is going on in film and with Muslim inclusion in it. It’s kind of life how the media talks about women losing their rights in Afghanistan now that they are under the control of the Taliban, even though America upholds one of the most oppressive patriarchal systems the world has ever seen. We all know the west is incredibly islamophobic, and I am starting to believe there is a propaganda involved in this idea of Muslim representation and who and what stories they choose to put on screen. All the while, Muslims who actually can represent their demographic are not stepping up to change the narrative that is currently in play, so that is what I hope to do, insha’Allah.

I also want to take this chance to beg you all to be careful what you listen to in the media. It really is like 9/11 all over again with the propaganda they are pushing forth. I know people who personally have family back in Afghanistan and they couldn’t be happier with America leaving the country. 

I also want to note that, the shows and films out which depict Muslims, those that I have seen at least, are very much authentic. I am no perfect Muslim, and can deeply relate to the characters in these shows, their conflicts, their concerns and character traits but if I was asked to write these stories or take part in acting these roles, I would turn them down in a heartbeat. Not because I am better than anyone, but because it would be backwards to depict a Muslim doing things that go against Islamic beliefs publicly, when hiding your faults, your sins, and shortcomings is one of the most basic teachings of the religion. So when you engage in a role like that or even perpetuate it, its like throwing your beliefs out the window and selling your principles for material gain. And personally, I can’t get behind that, and wholeheartedly believe there has got to be another way.

What sparked this internal dialogue for me was this video I watched of Riz Ahmed, an incredible Muslim actor, who discusses misrepresentation of Muslims in film. While I do not agree with him on certain views, I deeply appreciate the inspiration he has provided me with to step into this world and pursue some form of change in it that would hopefully create a space of comfort not only for me but those like me. Ahmed leans more on the side that any Muslim who wants to act can play any role whatsover, which I agree with, although to an extent. Where I draw the line of what a Muslim actor does, (and I speak for myself here), is where the role interferes with my Islamic values. I have no problem playing a non-Muslim character, but only as long as I am not participating in activities that are outside the boundaries of my religious convictions.

I hope that is clear, if I get into it again I will simply be reiterating. But you can watch his speech then come back here and compare with where he and I differ. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Here is the video —

There is always so much more to say on this topic, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say as time goes on, insha’Allah. But I’ll stop here for now.

B <3

Currently Reading:

The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka

This is my first time reading Kafka believe it or not. My sister has been telling me to read The Metamorphosis and I had been putting it off for some time, reason being that I’m kind of put off by classics or anything canon (despite my being an literature major, I know…) but sometimes I am proven wrong and that feels good and gives me hope. Anyway, I am really really enjoying these short stories. They were actually inspiration for me to write that short from last weeks newsletter, along with a fantastic short story collection by Raymond Carver titled Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?.

I’m just starting The Metamorphosis as I finished all the other shorts and just finished The Stoker which was really funny. Can’t wait to read more Kafka after this.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

I discovered this book after watching a pretty interesting interview on Youtube with the author. I started reading it a little while ago but just picked it back up. Kind of like a lot of films I have seen lately or even people and ideas I have been engaging with in life right now, this book is layered but full of absurdity and comedy making its consumption a lot smoother and less dense. I think sometimes we need that break from deep abstract thought and just need to mindlessly exist at times. And not to say this book is mindless, but it’s so smart in its approach that you can enjoy it without thinking too much, despite the fact that there is a whole lot to pick apart and analyze. Not today though.

Films I’ve Watched Recently:

Sound of Metal
By Darius Marder

I don’t know why exactly I put this film off for so long, but I am very glad I was able to watch it. The whole dialogue above definitely sparked my taking the time to give it a viewing and I did not regret it whatsoever. The acting was incredible. I loved the settings and cinematography especially, it was very fitting for the mood of the film, this eery, looming, all-encompassing dullness that became prevalent throughout the film. The only issue I would mention is that (and it’s kind of a big one), the representation of deaf people and deaf communities in this film are actually far from accurate according to various deaf people who have commented on the film. Kind of a shame when you think about, especially to the extent in which you walk away from the film absolutely pitying anyone who has ever lost their hearing, but that should not be the case whatsoever, and that is according to people who actually live with deafness.

Several Friends
By Charles Burnett

Hilarious. Very smart, real, and just cool af man. This is the type of film I want to be making right now. Its only 20 minutes and some, watch it if you find the time!

The Virgin Suicides
By Sofia Coppola

This scene right here ^^^^ I would argue is the most powerful scene in this film. It literally only screened for a second or two, but it hit. The absolute disconnect these girls had from the life around them was apparent then more than any other point in the film. Everywhere else they were simply acting, and it was when they were alone and in their own company, on the same page, you see the utter disappointment with their lives that they are subjected to. This is another film I put off for a while thinking that it would be overwhelmingly dark or painful to watch, and while it was painful, it was also funny, touching, and a joy to watch. I’ll definitely rewatch this sometime soon. I’m also an even bigger Sofia Coppola fan because of it. I saw one her first short a while ago called Lick the Star which was really good! And then of course, there is Lost in Translation with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, and you really don’t even need me to get into how wonderful a film that was.

That's all from me for this one. Thank you for reading. And please drop a like, comment, or even send a personal reply to these emails if you feel inclined to. I'll be here. 

B <3