Raf interviews Muslim actors for their top tips on how to nab a terrorist or Jihadi bride role
Why are Muslims more often than not portrayed as terrorists that go tick-tick-boom in TV shows and films? With a debate still raging after ‘Nadia-gate’, and the representation of a Muslim woman on BBC’s Bodyguard, I asked Muslim actors about their experiences within the industry.
I met Adam, 42 in Islington. He started getting parts in TV shows around 2005; playing troubled types who join a terror organisation by stopping to chat at a book stall in an East London high street. Sarcastically, he tells me that the roles gradually changed – now he’s playing troubled thirty-somethings in charge of handing out extremist leaflets at a book stall in East London, but it involves more screen time. Adam jokes that his break into theatre came at Paddington Station in a police line up. A member of the public called the police after seeing him play a terrorist in a BBC docu-drama the night before.
His advice for any aspiring Muslim actor is to take a trestle table to auditions that require a Muslim stereotype. Part of the story line will call for a book stall scene where the actor will hand out extremist literature on the high street – bringing your own trestle table shows you are serious about acting as a Muslim on TV.
Abdul-Haqq, 28 from Surrey was an understudy to Dev Patel in a play about a radicalised Muslims by a middle class guy from Surrey. The actor was required to be able to say “Allahu-Akbar” in a Birmingham accent just in case Dev Patel fell ill. This proved a challenge for Abdul, so every night for a month he practiced saying “Allahu-Akbar” in a brummie accent. He got so immersed in playing his role that his worried wife felt the need to report him to the police.
After the drama, Abdul-Haqq went on a court-mandated sensitivity course, and a white man from Richmond got lottery funding to put together a stage production of the whole ordeal with Riz Ahmed playing Abdul-Haqq playing Dev Patel playing a terrorist brummie after reading an article in The Guardian about the incident involving Abdul-Haqq and his wife.
Alan Sheikh, 21, a white convert who plays radicalised ginger Muslim converts, says he’s not bothered about people thinking he perpetuates stereotypes of Muslims. He cites character actor Eddie Marsan who has spent twenty years playing characters on the nonce-spectrum. That doesn’t mean he’s perpetuating paedophilia or is a paedophile, does it? No one thinks middle-aged white men are all nonces.
“So when I play a white ginger that becomes radicalised by Islam I believe the audience is on my side because I’m still white and therefore I’m more than just a Muslim.”
Roles for Muslim women actors are harder to come by than men, Bushra, 28 tells me at a cafe in Bradford.
“I wasn’t always an actor, I used to do modelling – mainly book covers for white women authors, you know stuff like “Behind the Veil”, “Lifting the Veil”, and my favourite because they used a red veil: “Romancing the Veil”. But I got tired of a life hiding behind a veil, showing nothing but a bit of eye cleavage, or eyevage as I like to call it. An author of a book whose cover I was modelling for suggested I audition for the dramatised version of his book on TV. He said I would be perfect because even though I had huge on screen time – I had zero lines to say. So long story short, I got the part and now I’m on to my 14th Jihadi Bride [role] on screen”.
“The trick to playing Muslim women on screen is to have an absurdly expressive face. Actors have to communicate that they have no agency or that they are about to be groomed into being a Jihadi Bride with little to no dialogue and that’s no mean feat.”
Playing Muslim women characters in film or TV is all about successfully doing the ‘reverse-Nadia’, i.e big facial expressions, but instead of expressing joy you show lack of agency. Part of the genius of writers from the Home Counties is how they’ve done away with the need to actually give words to Muslim women characters to say.
Retired character actor Assed Sharif says that acting roles for Muslims include playing collateral damage in targeted drone strikes. Assed goes on to say that it’s no coincidence that the golden era of television runs parallel with the war on terror but for white middle aged men the golden era was them behaving badly, but being afforded a redemptive character arc that makes us root for them. See characters like Dexter, a serial killer who extra-judicially murders bad guys, like we do with drone strikes, so that makes him the good guy. Or Tony Soprano, a Mob boss who kills his mum but has crippling anxiety, or Don Draper who steals valour and is an alcoholic womaniser. Despite nuance given to ‘bad’ or flawed characters in other television shows, the depictions of radicalised Muslims have never been three dimensional.
Raf is a vegetarian Muslim who does current affairs with jokes. Follow him on Twitter @1Rafz
All work published on MD is the intellectual property of its creators, and requires permission to be republished. Contact us if you have any questions.