The Art of Muslimness

Maatin Patel - 07 12 18

Over a recent dinner conversation, a friend asked me if I’d seen Bodyguard, the record-breaking BBC drama. Having closely followed the debate over ‘Nadia-gate’, I alluded to the fact that I try my best to steer clear of anything involving lazy, harmful Islamophobic stereotypes. To which, they responded:

“But it wasn’t Islamophobic because it wasn’t the brown man who turned out to be the terrorist, it was the woman!”

This is the state of Muslim representation across the dramatic arts, in a nutshell. So used to seeing brown men on our screens as destroyers of the West, barbaric, backwards, women-hating terrorists (or, on occasion, IT engineers), to the white gaze it must truly seem exotic and a subversion of the norm to have a woman take up the cultural mantle. And to be fair to my friend, their perspective was likely representative of the vast majority of the record-breaking audiences that tuned into Bodyguard, too gripped by the fast-moving action and complex dynamics of the cerebral, layered, lead characters to bother noticing the cardboard cut-out villain.

Not only are we being unfairly and grossly misrepresented, but the points of views of those who choose to discriminate, abuse, and other us are being validated, upheld, and mainstreamed further and further. 

But I don’t want to explain why limiting brown roles to terrorists and oppressed women is a bad idea (it is), or debate whether the series was a hot (Richard Madden) Islamophobic (that ridiculous opening sequence and ‘twist’) mess (it was, head here for excellent analysis by Tabasam Begum for gal-dem). The finale was viewed by 17.1 million people, making it the most-watched episode of a drama on record. Such lazy Muslim depictions are dime-a-dozen and nothing new, but the impunity of such choices are a far greater cause for concern. And the inevitable consequence is that, especially given the show’s success, until someone who truly understands and can represent the identities of British Muslims is deciding what goes on the air and what doesn’t, we’re going to see a lot more Bodyguards.

BBC’s Bodyguard

Why does this matter? In a society where distrust and hostility towards Muslims is measurably increasing, there seems to be no accountability to treat narratives about Muslims with any sense of caution. We know that hate crimes against Muslims are rising dramatically year-on-year since Brexit, especially against Muslim women. As of this week, Britain’s most notorious Islamophobe has been welcomed into the ranks of the political party whose entire identity was linked to exiting the European Union and which is now on a rampant anti-Muslim crusade. We know that the media has waged a war against a fair representation of Muslims, radicalising people across the country, leading to heinous acts and fear-mongering. It’s the double gut punch that a Muslim feels when hearing about or watching a show like Bodyguard – not only are we being unfairly and grossly misrepresented, but the points of views of those who choose to discriminate, abuse, and other us are being validated, upheld, and mainstreamed further and further.

His biggest crime isn’t inaccuracy or the inability to get beyond his own unconscious biases though – it’s sheer laziness and a lack of creativity to waste all that capital on some boring, tired ideas. 

Let’s reflect on creator of Bodyguard and celebrated author/screenwriter Jed Mercurio’s rebuke to accusations of Islamophobic tropes in his series:

“The other thing is, unfortunately, the reality of our situation is that the principal terror threats in the UK do originate from Islamist sympathisers.”

This is a cleverly constructed remark. No one is questioning the notion that Islamist terrorism poses a threat to society. He circumvents the actual question here: if you only include three Muslim characters in your dramatic world and they are all terrorists, is that right? And what of any semblance of noblesse oblige? What impact are his choices having on audiences in terms of their perceptions of Muslims? Jed Mercurio is among British entertainment royalty, with creative autonomy and numerous successes that give him far greater license to operate than most in the industry. I believe that this comes with a price attached – if you’re given the keys to the kingdom, and have carte blanche to make a commentary about society and impart your own narrative on us as an audience, then there’s some requirement to make good choices or at least have the ability to back them up. Maybe Jed should go up to Huddersfield and meet with the young Syrian refugee bullied and violently attacked by peers in his school for the colour of his skin and upbringing, and then defend the ‘accuracy’ of his drama.

Furthermore, Jed’s pleas for a nuanced and staid viewing from his audience sums up the disingenuousness of the gatekeepers of the entertainment industry. After all, this is the business of playing – creating stories, fantasies, things that are very much not real. As someone operating in the highest echelons of TV writing, his defence contradicts the very essence of good drama, something he knows a lot about. Bodyguard was a success because of its high-stakes conflicts, tensions, and a series of sensationalised characters thrust together in a world that bore no resemblance to real life. His biggest crime isn’t inaccuracy or the inability to get beyond his own unconscious biases though – it’s sheer laziness and a lack of creativity to waste all that capital on some boring, tired ideas. For him to argue realism and accuracy dictated his irresponsible choices means only one thing – it’s time to replace the Jeds of the world with more of our own.

So, how do we hold any of this to account? The Riz Test, created by Dr. Sadia Habib, Shaf Choudry, and Isobel Ingham-Barrow, exists to try and do just that. it is a riff on the better-known Bechdel Test – which measures whether or not a piece of dramatic art contains an acceptable baseline for the development of its female characters – with the same concept applied to Muslim characters that appear on-screen.

Here’s what the Riz Test’s asks:

If the film/show stars at least one character who is identifiably Muslim (by ethnicity, language or clothing) – is the character…

  1. Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of Islamist terrorism?
  2. Presented as irrationally angry?
  3. Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
  4. Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
  5. 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/ TV Show fails the test.

Needless to say, Bodyguard failed the Riz Test miserably. And the sentiment and design of the Riz Test to call out the industry’s pathetic attempts at dramatising Muslim characters is successfully sparking a conversation, predominantly among us creatives of colour and activists who are hyper-aware of the stakes at play and determined to force change. But there seems to be an inconsistency in their measurement that is cause for concern. When analysing another recent BBC show, Informer whose blurb describes it as “Character-driven thriller about Raza, a young second-generation British-Pakistani man from London who is coerced by Gabe, a counterterrorism officer, into informing”, it was declared that episodes one and two had in fact passed the Riz Test. Curious, I thought. Because this could be a story written about me – young, second-generation British Muslim man in London – but instead it’s about a sensationalised version of me that minimises me, my identity, and my entire life purpose to exist and revolve around Islam and terrorism. To me, Informer fails the Riz Test purely in concept, and it too must be called out as yet another failed (and problem-ridden) attempt to capture the brown in Britain experience. The very fact that the production team felt the need to include “character-driven” in their show description felt to me an extremely defensive touch that exposes perhaps a level of self-aware shame at their own poor judgement. But who knows, I might have missed the recruitment call from Gabe asking me to inform, too – I never listen to my voicemails.

BBC’s Informer

diversity in name only – i.e. meeting an arbitrary standard and patting oneself on the back about it – does not affect structural change. 

If we’re not even consistent in our condemnation of Islamophobia on screen, what chance is there for progress? From conversations I’ve had with fellow born-and-raised British Muslims, it’s our dampened, warped expectations that are far more worrying. A starting point would be to recognise that diversity is not the same as representation – we cannot simply be satisfied with seeing a bunch of brown faces on our screens. The term ‘diversity’ has been co-opted to imply forward progress, upwards mobility, and a corrective course of action for the blinding white middle-and-upper-classness of our workplaces and corridors of power and influence. But diversity in name only – i.e. meeting an arbitrary standard and patting oneself on the back about it – does not affect structural change. It is not the same as representation – handing the keys over to those with a diverse set of voices, opinions, lived experiences, putting them on the same footing as their overrepresented counterparts – which in turn creates the ability for them to affect change. That the BBC green-lit multiple seasons of the farcical Citizen Khan is as damaging (or maybe just as pointless) as filling minor roles with non-white, one-dimensional characters just to meet a diversity quota – it does nothing to advance or foster nuanced understanding of our cultures.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, and especially in the US there are good examples where progress is in fact being made. Watching Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show Master of None, I finally felt like I was seeing and hearing my own lived experienced played out in front of me in dramatic form. And yes, there was something extraordinarily comforting and delightful about it. My emotions were distinctly two-fold. There’s nothing quite like someone you don’t know expressing the same feelings you thought perhaps only you had felt – describing, narrating, commenting on things so familiar to you yet entirely unfamiliar to anything you’d seen before on a stage or screen. Secondly, there was a hope, that I as a viewer, and the characters being portrayed, would be better understood by a (white) audience – that they’d finally get it. Would I be able to stop explaining to others that “yes I am Muslim, and no I don’t eat pork but yes I do drink,” without the third degree or a close examination (and sometimes explanation!) of my faith given to me? Most likely not, but that sliver of optimism is a powerful one. It’s one I’ve heard echoed by many others who’ve gravitated so strongly towards art created by people of colour and underrepresented groups that better represents their story, and that we’re finally seeing begin to break through to the mainstream.

The myth that minority equals less appealable has been entirely debunked.

How and why are they breaking through? One must acknowledge the exponential growth of new scripted content on offer, driven forwards by the entry of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu to the marketplace. Their billions of dollars in investment in content creation allows us as viewers a choice like never before in what we’re able to watch. Further, they pose a serious risk to the established TV networks and dusty commissioning processes that are crying out for change. Most importantly, we’ve seen a complete rejection of the question that giving a platform to creators of colour comes with some kind of risk to commercial and/or critical success attached. Whether it’s Master of None, Atlanta, Moonlight, Transparent, or Black Panther – the myth that minority equals less appealable has been entirely debunked. Installing people of colour and other minority-represented groups in decision-making positions is the only way to catalyse this change. We’ve seen it across British theatre – such as Madani Younis, Indhu Rubasingham, and Kwame Kwei-Armah in their roles as artistic directors who have transformed opportunities for creators, casts, audiences and the like, purely by being put in charge.

When people ask me why I’ve decided to try my hand at entertainment, they’re often surprised by my response. For an industry that brings so much joy, hope, and optimism to audiences as a form of escapism and pleasure, it’s jarring to hear that while I retain a great love for the dramatic arts, I am uneasy of their impact. Our culture shapes us – we may not be able to measure or empirically prove quite how, but it impacts and affects us, and exists all around us. At a time of great difficulty for my fellow Muslims living in fear for their safety and equal place in our society, there’s a responsibility to palliate the bombastic and outlandish tone of commentary about Muslims wherever they exist. I’m grateful for the many others before me that have tirelessly beaten down the doors towards progress, and I’m confident that despite the likes of Bodyguard and Informer, we’re entering into a time where entertainment can move towards reflecting our culture through many varied gazes, not just those of the majority. It’s paramount that it does.

Maatin is currently studying for a Masters in Fine Art in Writing for Stage and Broadcast Media at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. You can follow him on Twitter @maatin


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