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At the 20th anniversary of 9/11, American Muslims are considering what the last two decades have meant for them and their communities. As part of that ongoing conversation, PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz spoke with Kashif Shaikh, co-founder and president of Pillars Fund, on Sept. 14 about the ways Muslims have been depicted in stories and on screen in the years since 9/11. The fund aims to build up American Muslim civic institutions, and amplify Muslim narratives and leadership.
Watch the conversation in the player above.
Shaikh, who was born to Pakistani American parents and raised in the Cincinnati suburbs, said that as he was growing up, he felt Muslims were often “othered” and portrayed in a negative light in pop culture. Harmful tropes pictured people yelling on airplanes, or portrayed women as needing to be “liberated” from their seemingly oppressive symbols of their Muslimness, like removing a headscarf.
He said that Hollywood has often reinforced stereotypes, “whether it be about Black folks, about LGBT folks — and they were doing the same thing about Muslims.” As part of the work of his foundation, he said that their goal is not necessarily to advocate for positive portrayals of Muslims, but rather “to have a multitude of representation of Muslims, because Muslims are so nuanced — they have so many stories to tell.”
Pillars Fund provides grants to Muslim organizations and leaders engaged in social good, as well as an artist fellowship to help emerging Muslim writers.
A 2021 study by his organization and USC Annenberg, “Missing and Maligned,” looked at 200 top-grossing movies between 2017 and 2019 in several countries and found that out of almost 9,000 speaking roles, fewer than 2 percent were Muslim characters. Overall, only about a quarter of Muslim characters represented were female. An overwhelming majority — almost 91 percent — of the 200 films did not feature even one speaking character who was Muslim. Part of his work is to make sure that changes.
“We’re really pushing to make sure talented [Muslim] filmmakers and storytellers are going to get opportunities that they haven’t been afforded before,” he said.
Below are highlights from the live discussion.
Growing up, Shaikh said he had always seen his Muslim identity as centering around basic values like giving to charity or being kind to parents and neighbors.
But after 9/11, he felt his identity was being questioned by society at large, particularly because of the preponderance of narratives around the attacks and its perpetrators.
“For me, the change after 9/11 that was so interesting — and at points crippling — was that, all of a sudden, your identity was completely under interrogation,” Shaikh said.
He believes he learned to justify things about his identity — even with friends. He recounted a memory from a childhood pizza place in Ohio where his family often went, but following 9/11, he felt like everyone would stare at them. “It was so strange. I just remember that like it was yesterday.”
“For those that were around then, I think we’re forgetting just how weird of a time it was in those couple of years after 9/11 … for Muslims, it was particularly strange because every time you turned on the TV there was some new way to talk about yourself,” he said
Shaikh said the most basic problem has been that Muslims on screen have traditionally been represented in a negative light, associating them with terrorism or subjecting to “othering,” when they are made to seem different from other Americans. Film and television has reinforced those harmful tropes, he said.
“I knew that the portrayals were incredibly negative — [but] I actually didn’t recognize just how erased we were from the screen,” Shaikh said of his organization’s 2021 analysis of popular movies.
Many in the film industry have even questioned whether there are Muslim filmmakers and creators, Shaikh said. His organization hopes this research and their other work can help provide a resource to showcase Muslim talent and storytellers.
It’s only been in the last couple years that Muslim Americans can be proud of some of the examples of onscreen representation Shaikh said.
“It really took the next generation to break through to be able to do this … and create stuff,” said Shaikh, who pointed to the successes of shows like Hulu’s “Ramy” and Peacock’s “We Are Lady Parts.”
Shaikh’s favorite thing about those shows is that there’s “a boldness and an audacity” in the storytelling that are going to draw people into these very specific stories about Muslims.
“We’re slowly starting to see representation that I think we can look at and be like: That is really cool and interesting,” Shaikh said.
There’s so much more room for greater representation moving forward, Shaikh added, especially for Muslim women. The Pillars study found that, out of 200 popular movies in the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand between 2017 and 2019, only about a quarter of Muslim characters were female. Only one film among the 200 had a Muslim woman in an ensemble lead role.
“Hollywood is incredibly guilty of discounting the stories of Muslim women, particularly,” Shaikh said. “And when they have been represented they’ve mostly been represented as victims or people who are not in control of their destiny.”
Vignesh Ramachandran is a digital news editor for the PBS NewsHour. Ramachandran is also co-founder of Red, White and Brown Media, focused on building media representation and sharing South Asian American stories. Previously, he was at ProPublica, the Stanford Computational Journalism Lab and NBC News Digital.
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