At a time when TV-shows are getting more and more diverse, one group seems to be left out from the push for increased representation: Muslims.
As a Muslim myself, I can’t help but notice how the world of TV appears void of Muslim representation. Apart from an inmate on Orange Is The New Black (whose portrayal has been called out as incredibly problematic), Quantico, The Bold Type and a Muslim girl on Degrassi Next Class, Muslim representation on mainstream TV is almost non-existent. Yet, we live at a time where the need for Muslim characters is greater than ever before, not only for Muslims themselves but for non-Muslims in particular.
In the post-9/11 era when Muslims are portrayed as enemies and Islamophobia is constantly on the rise, Muslim characters on TV would help to counter the ever-present prejudice. Muslim women and men are usually put in two distinct boxes: the oppressor and the oppressed, the violently domineering and the quietly submissive. Very little is done in popular culture to break this stereotype, simply because few Muslims exist in those spaces. In fact, parts of mainstream TV perpetuate the existing toxic stereotypes, such as Homeland. Countless films also frame Muslims in a very negative and narrow way.
As long as people don’t come in contact with Muslims, the same tiring stereotypes will continue to be fed. However, if Muslims are brought into people’s homes through TV shows, it would break the distorted narratives of what Muslims are like and show that Muslims are a normal and diverse range of people. While it, of course, wouldn’t suddenly solve all Islamophobia, it would certainly be a positive step towards creating a healthier attitude and a larger understanding of Muslims.
It is not about pretending that misogynistic or extremist views never exist in Muslim communities; it is about steering away from the ever-present one-dimensional view of them. It is about making people understand that strong Muslim women and peaceful Muslim men not only exist but are normal. Muslim representation, if done right, could particularly have a strong impact on younger generations’ view of Muslims which could contribute to a decline of Islamophobia in the future.
It would, of course, also be incredibly important for Muslims to see themselves reflected on TV as well. I still remember how much Sana on the Norwegian show Skam—one of the few Western shows with a main Muslim character—meant to me since it was the first and only time I’ve seen a Muslim character portrayed in a similar culture to mine. Representation is easily taken for granted if you are surrounded by it and as of now, young Muslims have extremely few places to turn if they want to see themselves represented on American TV shows.
If Muslim representation increases, it is also incredibly important that it is done right. For example, films and TV-shows shouldn’t fall into the trap of portraying Muslims as dissociated from their religion for the sake of making them appear as Westernized as possible. Nor should they only be included in storylines or films that surround terrorism, whether they are framed as terrorists or not.
Sure, writing Muslim characters while at the same time achieving a healthy, nuanced portrayal of them could prove itself difficult for non-Muslims since it requires certain knowledge and sensitivity. But filmmakers always have the opportunity to consult real Muslims or, ideally, bring in Muslim writers. The efforts it takes to write Muslim characters are no excuse to not include them and neither is the threat of causing controversy among non-Muslims. After all, it would only further demonstrate the need for Muslim representation.
It is time that we start pushing for Muslim representation as well. Even Obama has stressed its importance, stating in 2016 that:
Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security.
After all, we should always remember to never underestimate the power that representation can have.
Photo: Janko Ferlič