Films and television programmes are powerful mediums that are often taken for granted. They can connect us to cultures and people locally, nationally and globally. They are major sources of entertainment and escapism and excitement; they educate us about society, people and cultures. But, if you are Muslim, that excitement also comes with a dose of apprehension. Muslims see time and time again how carelessly (or intentionally) film- and television-makers bandy around stereotypes about Muslim communities. The ways in which Muslims are represented in films and in television are consistently shocking.
And so, Shaf Choudry and I created the Riz Test.
The Riz Test, named after actor Riz Ahmed, who spoke in parliament on diversity and representation, is a simple – but crucial – idea. We used academic research and our own experiences to come up with five simple criteria to be utilised by film fans to call out racist and Islamophobic stereotypes.
The way it works is this:
If the film or television show stars at least one character who is identifiably Muslim (by ethnicity, language or clothing), is the character:
Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?
Presented as irrationally angry?
Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic, or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?
If the answer for any of the above is yes, then the film or television show fails the test. Already, the Riz Test has been embraced by film and television fans who have been using the criteria to call out Islamophobic representations in the latest box-office hits.
Muslims presented on the television and on the big screen as dangerous problems, and as threatening to the Western way of life, has dire consequences on how society comes to perceive Muslim communities
For instance, just this week, the BBC’s Bodyguard has been heavily critiqued by audiences who have applied the Riz test criteria to the show. Bodyguard’s writer, Jed Mercurio, has faced growing anger on social media about the show’s depiction of a Muslim woman as paradoxically both oppressed and a dangerous terrorist. Jack Shaheen, who examined more than a thousand films, similarly commented upon the contradictions in portrayals of Muslims; Muslim men have been both mocked as incompetent and lecherous sheikhs, and yet demonised as dangerous terrorists.
Anjli Mohindra, the actor playing Nadia in the show, has also attempted to defend the role as “multi-layered”: “This character felt real – she wasn’t a plot device. I was able to give her a personal backstory which I then felt compelled to bring to life. The role wasn’t black or white (or even brown) – it was multi-layered and complex. Just like life.”
Yet, this supposedly sympathetic portrayal of a Muslim woman simply serves to perpetuate Islamophobic prejudices. In fact, Bodyguard is guilty of promoting what Professor Evelyn Alsultany calls “simplified complex representations”: “These are strategies used by television producers, writers, and directors to give the impression that the representations they are producing are complex, yet they do so in a simplified way. These predictable strategies can be relied on if the plot involves an Arab or Muslim terrorist, but are a new standard alternative to (and seem a great improvement on) the stock ethnic villains of the past.” In this case, the idea that the show is being “sympathetic” to the plight of the Muslim woman is merely another way of presenting a newly packaged Orientalist trope about Muslims.
So, why is the test so crucial now? For my co-author, Shaf, and I, the idea of actively calling out media representation of Muslims and making the industry more aware of escalating Islamophobia was in the pipeline for around four years. We have worked together on anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia campaigns for four years, and as avid film buffs, seeing the ways in which Muslim communities are represented in film and on television was increasingly infuriating. Sadly, the situation is still getting worse. In 2016, Jack Shaheen, the foremost expert on Muslim and Arab representation in Hollywood, who sadly died last year, had emphasised how the Islamophobic portrayal Muslims was at its most shocking now than it had ever been in the four decades or more that he had researched and written about the topic.
And, at its heart, cultural representation is a system of communication that allows us to make sense of the world, of ourselves and others, and of what it means to belong. We must ask these important questions about films and television programmes, about who is speaking and for whom. We must discuss the Orientalist and taken-for-granted tropes that persist about Muslim men and women, often in hits shows that we passively consume.
Because Muslims presented on the television and on the big screen as dangerous problems, and as threatening to the Western way of life, has dire consequences on how society comes to perceive Muslim communities. Such racist and Islamophobic ugly stereotypes lead to alarming real-life incidents of verbal and physical abuse against Muslims. We need to persist in challenging worrying representation.