Western productions often fall short when it comes to portraying minorities, and Muslims are no exception.
To be fair, they have come a long way since exclusively featuring Muslims as oppressed women and terrorist men. Creators seem to be putting more effort into presenting Muslim characters in a more authentic light, but they haven't always done a good job.
Perhaps in a less evident - yet just as problematic - manner, Western media continue to enforce stereotypes regarding the Muslim community and fails to fulfill its alleged message of inclusion and positive representation. Muslims are still fetishized and represented by under-developed characters who are almost always at odds with their religion and culture. So, let's take a look at the empty half of the representation glass:
First things first, there's no denying that several Western productions have cast Muslims in a positive light through well-rounded characters. However, more often than not, creators end up repeating outdated, inaccurate plots and neglect to focus on the most relevant aspects of the Muslim identity.
While working on Muslim characters, creators seem to choose from an exclusive set of samples: The hijabi who hates her religion and rebels against her family, the gangster Arab man who is selectively religious, the queer character who is rescued by the "White Savior" — the list doesn't go on for long.
Yes, many people from Muslim backgrounds - especially women and members of the LGBTIQ+ community - struggle with their faith and their experiences are definitely worth shedding light on. However, the issue lies in the way these experiences are depicted and in the prejudiced focus on such scenario cases. These characters are envisioned in an extremely narrow lens and the complexities that come into play are often diluted, not to mention the increased focus on their sexual lives in a way that promotes fetishization rather than empathy and acceptance.
The complex aspects of the Muslim identity are often made trivial and tackled in a shallow manner, with creators merely scratching the surface of what it means to grow up in a Muslim community. Characters are depicted in black and white, always jumping from one extreme to another, and their entire roles overwhelmingly revolve around the fact that they are Muslim.
Newsflash: Not every Muslim teen despises their religion and dreams of breaking free. Not every hijab-wearing young woman feels oppressed and is desperate to strip down when her parents are not in sight. And while we're at it, not every Muslim woman wears the hijab. Plus, this should go without saying, but not every practicing Muslim man ends up working for the so-called Islamic State (Daesh).
Creators claim to champion positive representation, yet continue to center their efforts on displaying Islam as a hindrance to one's mental health and well-being. This undermines the experiences of the many modern-day Muslims who are perfectly at peace with their religion and lead successful lives, not despite their religion nor because of it, but simply because there is more to their personalities than their faith.
Come on, is a confident Muslim character who goes on with their life without religion overshadowing their entire backstory really too much to ask for?
This is the positive representation we are talking about: The one where religion is simply a sole aspect of the character's identity rather than its entirety; the one that refutes stereotypes instead of perpetuating misconceptions; the one that humanizes Muslims and views them as an active part of the Western community instead of lumping them with the "others."
We can do without the token hijabi who serves no purpose to the plot other than scoring producers some PR points. We can do without the oppressed Muslim woman being married off to an older relative. And we can definitely do without the Muslim man with a lousy temper speaking gibberish in broken Arabic.
The same goes for Muslim representation across different fields, including in the fashion and beauty industry, which has seen a rise in Muslim inclusion as of late.
Representation should take place off the screen as well
Contrary to the common practice, a few Google searches and some old-fashioned costumes are not enough to bring a Muslim character to life. Including a Muslim character should automatically mean having Muslim creators, and preferably casting Muslim actors, to help build a genuine character with proper representation. Ideally, this should be someone who is personally acquainted with the experiences depicted in the production or has reliable methods of authenticating them.
The bottom line is, more energy should be put into researching Muslim characters and relaying accurate information. Muslims are already vulnerable targets in the West and we definitely can do without works of fiction inciting further hate and bias.