Radicalisation, Film and Islam

by Niall Stewart*

In recent years, a range of commentators, government reports and academics have sought to analyse the rise of radicalisation amongst Muslim communities around the world. A range of factors have been identified as being crucial to the rise of radicalisation or extremism amongst these communities. For example, New Straits Times columnist Nurul Izzati Kamrulbahri noted that these factors included ‘poverty, peer pressure, lack of education achievement [and/or opportunity] and an immature understanding of ideology.’[i]

This is the societal backdrop to radicalisation but the combination of factors which leads a particular individual down the extremist path appears to be a narrative of meeting the wrong person at the wrong time whilst in the wrong frame of mind at a difficult period in the individual’s life. This would account for the fact that not every young person in a family becomes an extremist and also for its rarity in Muslim communities. 


The extremist narrative for a person that has few employment or education opportunities is powerfully attractive. For a start, the individual is told that the problem is not them but a Western society which oppresses them and their religion. It is a seductive story of black and white, good versus evil. There is no confusing grey to muddy up an issue and so undermine the extremist view that the only justifiable response is violence and martyrdom. Commentators on muslim radicalisation have noted that the motivation for individuals to become radicalised is through a variety of factors such as their need to belong as well as their search for a better identity. These individuals also want more out of their lives through a sense of purpose or adventure and as a means to atone for their past sins.[ii] The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) report on the role of gender in countering violent radicalisation noted that for radicalised women, one of the attractions is the sense of camaraderie and sisterhood being so much greater in the ISIS/Daesh communities than anything they had experienced in the ‘shallow relationships’ of European societies.[iii] However, it should be noted that muslim extremists tend to be male with a House of Commons Library report published in October 2021 noting that 90% of those arrested for terrorism-related offences were men.[iv] Individuals also tend to be younger with the House of Commons Library finding that 51% of these individuals are aged under 30.


Academic Karen Walker, writing for the Center on Global Counterterrorism Co-operation, noted that the radicalisation narrative misleads such individuals into believing that their identity is under threat and they will become heroes by choosing martyrdom. Walker also observed that there are particular identity challenges for second and third generation Muslim migrants whose cultural identity can sit awkwardly between their Western persona and the culture of their parents and/or grandparents.[v] These individuals, alienated from Western society, are vulnerable to the promises of seductive hate preachers who take advantage of their feeling – however misplaced – of being demonised by the Western country of their birth.[vi]

These feelings of demonisation by Western society can stem from their perception of how Muslims are portrayed in the Western film and television culture. This subject was researched by the late Jack Shaheen, an American of Lebanese descent and former professor of mass communications, who examined a thousand films for their treatment of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11. Whilst the professor did find some American films worthy of praise for their depiction of Muslims, his research identified a number of films such as ‘The Kingdom’ (2007) ‘The Four Feathers’ (2002)’ and American television dramas such as ‘24’ for being guilty of vilifying or denigrating Muslims. This research substantiated his earlier findings on Hollywood’s treatment of Muslims before 9/11. In this research, Shaheen identified films such as ‘True Lies’ (1994), ‘Father of the Bride Part II’ (1995) and ‘Aladdin’ (1992) as belonging to the list of films which denigrate Muslims.[vii] A more recent study, commissioned by the UK television regulator Ofcom, entitled ‘Broadcast expectations of minority ethnic audiences’ in November 2021 found that Muslim participants in the study’s focus groups were concerned at  ‘stereotypical portrayals of their community on mainstream channels. When asked to describe these portrayals, participants mentioned the characterisation of Muslim people as ultra-conservative, disrespectful to women or violent. There was a general sense of concern that these types of attitudes could and did increase discrimination and racism.’[viii]

One female participant in the focus groups observed that ‘Muslims are always shown as extremists. The mainstream broadcasters’ shows never show Muslims like us, people who are moderates and successful. What can we do? I get very upset, but we can’t stop people from showing such stuff.’[ix]

Toxic or unfairly stereotypical representation of Muslims in films has had a long history. One of the earliest was the 1921 film ‘The Sheik’ which starred Rudolf Valentino. This was followed by ‘The Four Feathers’ (1939) which the British Film Institute thought had an unmistakeable ‘whiff of racism.’[x] In 1962, the much-lauded film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ thought nothing of blacking up the British actor Alec Guinness for an Arab role. This approach was also adopted for the 1966 film ‘Khartoum’ which also had Lawrence Olivier in dark make-up and similar costume.

In the 2017 annual Channel Four diversity lecture, the British Muslim film star Riz Ahmed warned of the dangers of failing to represent all of the UK’s diverse communities in the television and film content. Focusing on the British experience, he said that if ‘we fail to represent, we are in danger of losing people to extremism [radicalisation].’ He noted that ISIS propaganda films are ‘cut like action movies’ and he called for a counter-narrative which makes British Muslim young people feel like they’re the ‘heroes in our [British] stories; that they [are] valued.’[xi]


A few years later, in 2021, Riz Ahmed noted that despite ‘the progress that’s being made by a few of us doesn’t paint an overall picture of progress if most of the portrayals of Muslims on screen are either non-existent or entrenched in those stereotypical, toxic two-dimension portrayals.’ The film star pointed to such films as ‘American Sniper’ and ‘Argo’ which ‘dehumanise and demonise Muslim characters ….  unworthy of empathy or incapable of empathy.’


His speech – which was publicised on YouTube and social media heralded the publication of a research study by Ahmed’s production company and the American USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative which analysed 200 films (largely US, UK and Australian) and found that less than 2% of the speaking parts were Muslim characters. By comparison, the Muslim population of the UK is 5.2%. Of the Muslim characters which were featured, 39% perpetrated acts of violence whilst 53% were victims of violence.[xii]


However, some caution needs to be exercised at this point. There is powerful anecdotal evidence of the role played by film and television in radicalisation but — due to the difficulty of separating and analysing the role played by a wide variety of factors that lead to an individual’s radicalisation — no simple link has yet been found between film and television and radicalisation. This is because the studies can show the scale of anti-Muslim content in Western film and television as well as the reaction from the British Muslim community, but the evidence of cause and effect appears to be anecdotal. Individuals are free to point to film and television content as contributing to their alienation, but this is opinion and does not explain why so many people – who are exposed to similar film and television content – do not become extremists. 


Perhaps the last word on this subject should be given to the Toronto actor Ali Momen who now regrets that his acting break was playing a suicide bomber in the 2008 film ‘Traitor’. He noted to the Canadian broadcaster CBC that if ‘art can teach us how to love, art indeed can teach us how to hate.’[xiii]


Whilst the role of film and television in engendering radicalisation is unclear and needs further research, there seems to be common agreement that culture offers a unique way to de-radicalise individuals. A UK Government study about de-radicalisation in 2011 which was titled ‘Prevent Strategy’ did acknowledge that there was limited evidence that de-radicalisation programmes were successful as it found that their methodologies are not proven and needed further development. However, the report did note that culture was one means to address radicalisation and cited the use of local theatre production as a means to raise the issue of extremism in local communities. 


In an article for the Conversation website, Keele University Film Studies lecturer – Maria Flood – wrote that ‘Film has the power to change how we see the world: Watching a film brings us face to face with people and situations we wouldn’t normally encounter.’[xiv] The United Nations (UN) noted the importance of such soft powers in preventing the threat driven by distorted interpretations of culture. To this end, the UN Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) was established in 2005 to ‘improve cross-cultural relations between diverse nations and communities. It also works at the grassroots level, promoting innovative projects that build trust, reconciliation and mutual respect.’ In order to achieve this goal, UNAOC works with a ‘global network of partners including States, international and regional organizations, civil society groups, foundations, and the private sector’ including the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.[xv] In other words, culture has been identified as having the unique power to make individuals see past their extremist echo chambers and appreciate that they share so much with people of other races and faiths who are not their faceless oppressors who deserve death. 


The way that film and television can open this window of understanding is multi-faceted. In Malaysia, the documentary ‘Perempuan Radikal’ (Radical Women in Malay) adopted a part documentary, part animation approach to dealing with the issue of radicalisation. Other approach used in Malaysia is through feature films, such as Polis Evo 2. In Indonesia and India, counter-extremist narratives have been adopted for romantic comedies as well as dramas.[xvi] Best-selling US author and TV producer Reza Aslam argues that more authentic and nuanced portrayals of Muslim characters in mainstream television programmes are needed.[xvii]


Columnist Nurul Kamrulbahri, noted that sophisticated approaches must be adopted for these counter-narratives for ‘radicalisation can never be killed with taunts and guns but with empathy and respect.’ Shows such as the American crime drama ‘Blindspot’ has started this journey but as Riz Ahmed has observed, there is a considerable journey to travel to achieve fair Muslim representation.


In the UK, the British Film Institute adopted diversity standards in 2014 that put the issue of diversity and inclusion at the front and centre of all its development and production activities. Other key UK players such as BBC Film and FilmFour have adopted the standards, but an LSE study in 2020 questioned whether the standards are robust enough to deal with structural racial inequality in the industry.[xviii] There is also the scope of the standards which covered 235 films made between 2016 and 2019 but over 600 films were made that had not adopted the standards. Public broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel Four are monitored by the UK media and communications regulator Ofcom for their diversity employment both in front and behind the camera. Despite years of work, so called BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethic) community members are still under-represented at senior levels of the UK’s public service broadcasters.[xix] These are the roles where the crucial commissioning decisions are taken and so are crucial to the success or otherwise of all diversity and inclusion initiatives. 


There is also the issue of diversity for the entry level roles. Despite a profusion of BAME employment and production opportunity schemes by various film and television stakeholders, the impact is likely to be limited because these schemes generally only offer fixed-term contracts with no guarantee of renewal. Moreover, the UK film and television industry is dominated by freelance contracts that make it hard for newcomers to build their careers. The Creative Industries Council in the UK found that in 2019, over half (54%) of people working in film and video production were self-employed. This is considerably higher than the 18% of the total UK workforce. This freelance culture also means that new entrants find it hard to stay in the UK film and television industry unless they are supported by the largesse of their parents or other family members. This discriminates against entrants from lower socio-economic groups so that middle and upper-class individuals – who tend to be white – often enjoy an economic advantage in forging long term careers in the industry as well as many enjoying the networking benefits of a private education. 


The creative sector is crucial in the long term for inclusion because creative sector employment is a key growth area for all of the world’s nations. For example, between 2010-15, employment growth in the UK creative sector was 19.5% compared to a UK wide average of only 6.3%.[xx] The growth of the creative sector in terms of employment is so important because these jobs are largely resistant to automation. The 2017 independent Bazalgette review of the UK creative industries assessed that 87% of all creative workers in the UK were at low or no risk from automation.


There is also the power of investment to drive forward the inclusion priority. Chinese economic power in terms of box office revenue meant that Hollywood executives had to ensure that the villains of the film ‘Red Dawn’ went from being Chinese to North Korean.[xxi] This underlines the importance of growing the film and television industries in the Muslim world and especially the Arabian Gulf. These industries will ensure that the Muslim world is not reliant on the whims of commissioners in either the West or anywhere else for content that serves and reflects their communities. 

By financing international productions as well as making their own content – both for home and international consumption – the Gulf States will become key players in making sure that Muslims do not return to being the faceless villains or cliched background figures of global cinema blockbusters. Instead, the power of investment and hosting international production will ensure that Gulf talents are given the opportunity to star, direct, produce, write, and crew international films which entertain and inform audiences across the world. In this way, Muslims – as consumers, investors, producers – will have the opportunity to shape globally distributed content. This is an opportunity that has been largely closed to the Muslim world — bar honourable exceptions such as Abbas Kiarostami, filmmakers involved in films like ‘Persepolis’ (2007) and initiatives in the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — since Rudolf Valentino starred in ‘The Sheik’ in 1921.


By shaping content to show Muslims as fully rounded human beings with the same fears, hopes and indeed desires as everyone else in life, this inclusive story will help to isolate and undermine the extremist narrative once and for all. By having access to such films through streamers, broadcasters and local cinemas, young Muslim people will feel more involved and at home in their societies especially if they are employed in these creative industries. Whilst the factors that lead individuals to extremism may remain unclear, the cultural way to neutering the radicalisation narrative is not. These factors are simple and can be summed up as follows: more Muslims in creative sector jobs as actors, directors, writers, producers with better education and skills training, and more diverse and inclusive films and culture in general.

 18 May 2022


* During his award-winning career, policy consultant Niall Stewart has worked across film, television, radio and digital production as well as policy for the House of Lords Communications Committee, European Parliament, Independent Film Trust and the UK film and television producers' trade association PACT. 



[i] Nurul Izzati Kamrul Bahri, ‘Not one factor behind radicalisation,’  New Straits Times (Malaysia), 13 February 2018, https://www.nst.com.my/opinion/columnists/2018/02/334992/no-one-factor-behind-radicalisation. Nurul Izzati Kamrul Bahri is a researcher at the Foreign Policy and Security Studies, Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia and credited as a columnist for the New Straits Times.

[ii] Ibid., Afua Hirsch, ‘The root cause of extremism among British Muslims is alienation,’ The Guardian, 19 September 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/19/british-muslims-driven-to-extremism-alienated-at-home.

[iii] Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, ‘Understanding the Role of Gender in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalization That Lead to Terrorism Good Practices for Law Enforcement,’ May 2019.

[iv] Grahame Allen and Megan Harding, ‘Terrorism in Great Britain: the statistics,’ House of Commons Library, 14 October 2021, Number CBP7613.

[v] Karen Walker, ‘Reorientating Cultural Values: Ideas to dissuade youth from joining violent extremist groups,’ Center On Global Counterrorism Cooperation, April 2011.

[vi] Afua Hirsch, ‘The root cause of extremism among British Muslims.’

[vii] Jack Shaheen’s findings can be found in his books Guilty — Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11 (Olive Branch Press, 2008) and Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Olive Branch Press, 2001). Tom Perry, ‘Critic accuses Hollywood of vilifying Arabs,’ Reuters, 1 May 2008, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-arabs-critic-idUSL0132230620080501.

[viii] See study commissioned by Ofcom: Ethnic Dimension Research and Consultancy, ‘Broadcast expectations of minority ethnic audiences,’ November 2021, page 39, para 4 and 6.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] British Film Institute review of The Four Feathers (1939) written by Mark Duguid can be found at http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/438237/index.html.

[xi] Hannah Ellis-Petersen, ‘Riz Ahmed warns lack of diversity on TV will drive young to Isis’, The Guardian, 2 March 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/mar/02/riz-ahmed-warns-lack-of-diversity-on-tv-will-drive-young-to-isis.

[xii] Of the 200 films analysed for the latter study (including 100 from the US, 63 from the UK, and 32 from Australia), less than 2% of speaking roles were of Muslim characters. In US and UK film this fell to 1.1% in both instances. This compares to national population percentage estimate of 1.1% in the US and 5.16% in the UK. The study was reported in a news article headlined ‘Riz Ahmed calls for urgent change in ‘toxic portrayals’ of Muslims on screen,’ The Guardian, 11 June 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/jun/11/riz-ahmed-muslim-portrayals-screen.

[xiii] Jackson Weaver, ‘The fight for Muslim representation in Hollywood — and the danger of falling behind’ CBC News, 19 June 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/muslim-representation-hollywood-media-1.6072136.

[xiv] Maria Flood, ‘Five films you need to watch to better understand radicalisation,’ The Conversation, 23 August 2019, https://theconversation.com/five-films-you-need-to-watch-to-better-understand-radicalisation-122225.

[xv] UN, Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, ‘UNAOC: Alliance of Civilizations,’ September 2013, https://www.un.org/youthenvoy/2013/09/unaoc-alliance-of-civilizations/; UNESCO, ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’, https://en.unesco.org/preventingviolentextremism; UNAOC brochure - https://www.unaoc.org/docs/UNAOC%20Brochure.pdf. UNESCO states that ‘It is not enough to counter violent extremism --- we need to prevent it, and this calls for forms of "soft power", to prevent a threat driven by distorted interpretations of culture, hatred, and ignorance. No one is born a violent extremist – they are made and fueled.’ https://www.unesco.org/en/fight-against-violent-extremism.

[xvi]  Marco Ferrarese, ‘Malaysian filmmakers highlight “collateral damage” in fight against extremism,’ 28 January 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Life-Arts/Life/Malaysian-filmmakers-highlight-collateral-damage-in-fight-against-extremism; Nurul Izzati Kamarulbahri, ‘Films fight extremism,’ New Straits Times (Malaysia), 28 January 2019, https://www.nst.com.my/opinion/columnists/2019/01/455409/films-fight-extremism.   

[xvii] Mohammad Zaheer, ‘How Muslims became the good guys on TV,’ 21 June 2019, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190620-how-muslims-became-the-good-guys-on-tv.

[xviii] Andrew Pulver, ‘BFI diversity standards failing to tackle race discrimination in UK film industry,’ The Guardian, 15 July 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/jul/15/bfi-diversity-standards-failing-to-tackle-race-discrimination-in-uk-film-industry. Clive James Nwonka, ‘Race and Ethnicity in the UK Film Industry: an analysis of the BFI Diversity Standards,’ London School of Economics and Political Science, July 2020, https://eprints.lse.ac.uk/105675/1/Race_and_Ethnicity_in_the_UK_Film_Industry_An_Analysis_of_the_BFI_Diversiy_Standards_Report_SPREAD_PRINT_VERSION.pdf.

[xix] Ofcom, ’Broadcasters facing diverse talent drain,’ 29 September 2021, https://www.ofcom.org.uk/news-centre/2021/broadcasters-facing-diverse-talent-drain.

[xx] Lisa Campbell, ‘Creative sector is “highly resistant to automation”, report finds,’ The Bookseller, 22 September 2017, https://www.thebookseller.com/news/creative-sector-highly-resistant-automation-report-finds-642642.

[xxi] Tom Brook, ‘How the global box office is changing Hollywood,’ BBC Culture, 21 October 2014, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20130620-is-china-hollywoods-future.