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Empowering Muslims to tell their own stories

A newly funded fellowship for Muslim artists puts power into the hands of Muslim creatives.

Riz Ahmed in “Sound of Metal.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

(RNS) — This summer, a study appeared that showed what many Muslims already knew — if not with the precision of survey data, then in their bones, their weariness.

Of the top grossing films of the years 2017 to 2019, according to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, fewer than 10% showed a Muslim character on screen. Fewer than 2% had Muslim characters in speaking roles, despite the fact that about 25% of the world’s population is Muslim. More than one-third of the Muslim characters perpetrate violence, and more than half are targets of violence.

The trope of the inherently violent Muslim, in other words, is alive and well.

These numbers align with the refrain I’ve heard for years now from Muslims of all backgrounds: “Muslim Americans are tired of defending themselves.” They are tired of reacting to stereotypes on film and TV, and the constant demand to justify their existence by explaining to people who they are not.

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Given the enormity of the entertainment industry, and given its long history of depicting Muslims as violent, the challenge is as overwhelming as it is complex. Many who see the dangers of this problem have sought to address it, though an effective solution has remained elusive.

Now, a few groups led by the Pillars Fund have come together with a constellation of Muslim celebrities to usher forward a promising and innovative effort titled the Pillars Artist Fellowship. The program, also backed by the Ford Foundation and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, will grant unrestricted cash awards of $25,000 and mentorship from leading Muslim artists, including Riz Ahmed, Hasan Minhaj, Nida Manzoor and Mahershala Ali.

Kashif Shaikh. Photo courtesy of Pillars Fund

Kashif Shaikh. Photo courtesy of Pillars Fund

“We spoke to creators all over the country — writers, directors, storytellers, actors,” said Kashif Shaikh, co-founder and president of the Pillars Fund, which advances Muslims in leadership for the social good, “and they told us that something like this would move the needle over the next several years in making sure that Muslim voices are present in the biggest pop culture phenomena.” 

Just a few months after launch, the fellowship has drawn more than 600 applicants, as well as a groundswell of enthusiasm from the broader Muslim community.

“The reaction has been so overwhelmingly positive that it’s almost embarrassing,” said Shaikh. “People who aren’t even applying are telling me how excited they are, and many of those who are applying have used precious time in their video submissions to say that even if they don’t receive the fellowship, they’re grateful to know something like this exists.”

The force of the Pillars Artist Fellowship, though, is not just in its coalescence of high-powered organizations and creatives, nor even its sheer scale. What’s intriguing is the thoughtful vision: Rather than simply providing a model-minority counternarrative to the standard conception of Muslims as violent, the fellowship seeks to provide a more authentic sense of reality by supporting those artists, makers and thinkers who represent diverse segments of the Muslim community.

I think it’s really about reflecting life as it is, and about being able to push folks to realize that we’re not actually getting to know Muslim communities if we’re not seeing all the different ways to be Muslim,said Arij Mikati, managing director for culture change at the Pillars Fund. “There are 1.9 billion Muslims in the world, and there are 1.9 billion ways to be Muslim. That offers a window into the plurality of Islam for people who might not belong to the Muslim community.”

Arij Mikati. Photo courtesy of Pillars Fund

Arij Mikati. Photo courtesy of Pillars Fund

Growing Muslim talent gets around the kinds of inclusion that lead to tokenization. Rather than creating a new flattened stereotype, or even just plugging Muslims into more roles, the Pillars Artist Fellowship seeks to shift the tide by putting power into the hands of those who can tell authentic Muslim stories.

Authentic doesn’t always mean upbeat salesmanship. “The vision of this fellowship is not to create positive stories about Muslims. That’s not what we’re interested in,” Shaikh said. “The true purpose here is to empower Muslim creators to tell the stories they want to tell, as messy as they are, as nuanced as they are.”

Part of the vision for more diverse representation of Muslims on screen, as Mikati eloquently describes it, is to strengthen the foundation of religious pluralism in a country and in a world where it has been deeply compromised.

“What makes the Muslim community in the United States special is that it is the most ethnically diverse and racially diverse faith community in the country. That offers us a real opportunity to say, ‘If we do this right, we could be a model for what a truly pluralistic community can be.’”

Mikati believes that having more diverse representation of Muslims in TV and film is not just a way to help Americans better appreciate their Muslim neighbors — it would help Muslims better understand one another, too.

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“For those of us who may have more privileges as Muslims, including being Sunni, which is a more privileged denomination, or being Arab, which is the most likely ethnicity to be seen on screen, enhancing diverse representation of Muslim offers us a window into other ways of being Muslim,” she said. “We don’t often get that, and it’s so important for us to build relationships and build empathy internally, too.”

The Pillars Artist Fellowship is another in a long line of attempts to address the long-standing problem of Muslim erasure and misrepresentation in popular culture. Yet there’s something that feels different about it, something promising, hopeful and affirming.

Like many of the applicants said in their video submissions, I’m not sure how it will turn out, but it warms my heart that this program exists.

Actors Ramy Youssef, left, and Mahershala Ali in season 2 of “Ramy.” Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

Actors Ramy Youssef, left, and Mahershala Ali in season 2 of “Ramy.” Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

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