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There are barely any Muslims on popular TV series, a new study says

Archie Panjabi at the Emmy Awards in 2010. Panjabi, a non-Muslim actress, played a Muslim character in the 2018 British limited series <em>Next of Kin</em>, a show discussed in a new study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
Alberto E. Rodriguez
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Archie Panjabi at the Emmy Awards in 2010. Panjabi, a non-Muslim actress, played a Muslim character in the 2018 British limited series Next of Kin, a show discussed in a new study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

Muslims make up 25% of the global population and Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world — but Muslims only comprise 1% of characters shown on popular televisions series in the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.

Those are just two of the findings in a new report issued Wednesday by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Researchers investigated 200 top-rated television shows from 2018 and 2019 that aired in these four countries, and surveyed 8,885 characters with speaking roles.

Apart from the numbers deficit, the majority of the Muslim characters were depicted as adult Middle Eastern or North African [MENA] men, despite the fact that Muslims are the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the world. These characters were also linked to violent acts and behavior. Over 30% of the 98 Muslim characters were perpetrators of violence, while nearly 40% were targets of such attacks. Less than one-third were portrayed as native English speakers, underscoring depictions of Muslims as "foreigners."

Furthermore, the ratio of male Muslim characters to female ones in these television shows is 174 to 1; and when women and girl characters d0 appear, they are typically portrayed as "fearful and endangered." Across the nearly 9,000 characters surveyed as part of the study, only one identified as an LGBTQ Muslim.

"The findings in this study reveal how rarely content creators think about including Muslims in popular storytelling– particularly girls and women," said Stacy L. Smith, founder of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in a press release issued alongside the study. "As a result, viewers would have to watch hours and hours of content before seeing even a single portrayal of a Muslim character– with even more time required to find a portrayal that is not linked to violence or extremism."

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.