Riz Ahmed launches new effort seeking to increase Muslims in Hollywood

June 11, 2021 GMT

(RNS) — Hollywood star Riz Ahmed has launched a new initiative meant to increase the representation of Muslims in Hollywood, both on and off the screen. While the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor is spearheading the effort, he is joined by some of Hollywood’s leading Muslim professionals.

The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion and the Pillars Artists Fellowship, in partnership with the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and the Ford Foundation, will offer select grantees an unrestricted award of $25,000.

The effort grew out of a USC Annenberg study on the representation of Muslims in film. The study found only 9.5% of top-grossing films from 2017-2019 had an onscreen Muslim character, and less than 2% of those characters had a speaking role. Muslims make up roughly 24% of the world’s population.

The survey included data from 200 films and found that not a single animated film featured a Muslim character. Furthermore, only seven of the characters were children under the age of 12.

In a series of impassioned Twitter posts, Ahmed made a case for the new program and for increased representation of Muslims in Hollywood.

“These stats are crazy,” Ahmed said in one post. “When it comes to #MuslimsInFilm we are either invisible or villains. So we assembled the #MuslimAvengers to try to fix this. Will the industry now step up?”

The so-called Muslim Avengers is a reference to the program’s prominent advisory board, which will include notable Muslims involved in the film industry, including Mahershala Ali, Ramy Youssef, Hasan Minhaj, Sana Amanat, Lena Khan, Karim Amer, Rosa Attab Jehane Noujaim, Nida Manzoor and Ahmed.

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The effort will also seek to balance the representation of Muslims in cinema. The study found that 66.7% of Muslim characters in films were of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) ethnic backgrounds. A further 20.8% were Asian, and 5.6% were Black or African American. Smaller percentages were white (4.2%) or multiracial (2.8%). In an interview with Variety, Kashif Shaikh, the president of Pillars Fund, an NGO, pointed out those figures under-represent the number of African American Muslims in the United States. 

The new effort reflects previous speeches Ahmed has given, including one in 2019 at the Creative Artists Agency’s Amplify conference and another in front of the British Parliament in 2017.

Ahmed received both Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations in 2021 for his performance in “Sound of Metal.”