British Muslims are turning to extremism because they do not see themselves represented as heroes on screen, according to the actor Riz Ahmed.
In a speech at the House of Commons, Ahmed said: “When we fail to represent, people switch off. They switch off their telly, they switch off at the ballot box. They retreat to fringe narratives, which are sometimes very dangerous.
“In the mind of the Isis recruit, he’s a version of James Bond, right? Everyone thinks they’re the good guy. Have you seen some of the Isis propaganda videos? They’re cut like action movies. Where’s the counter-narrative? Where are we telling these kids that they can be heroes in our stories?”
Delivering the Channel 4 Diversity Lecture to an audience that included the Culture Minister, Matt Hancock, Ahmed recalled growing up in Wembley, north west London, with his family. “I remember when they’d be watching TV downstairs in the lounge, I’d be upstairs and all of a sudden I’d hear one of them call out, ‘Asian!’
“I’d pause my game and run downstairs just to go and look at Sanjeev Bhaskar on Goodness Gracious Me, Meera Syal in Bhaji on the Beach, Parminder Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham, Jimi Mistry in East is East.
“If you’re used to seeing yourself reflected in culture, I really want you to take a minute to understand how much it means to someone who doesn’t see themselves reflected back. Every time you see yourself in a magazine or on a billboard, TV, film, it’s a message that you matter, that you’re part of the national story, that you’re valued. You feel represented.”
Black and minority ethnic people feel alienated because so much of Britain’s “national story” is white - from the way history is taught in schools to the glut of all-white period dramas on television, said Ahmed, seen most recently in the Star Wars prequel Rogue One and the Sky Atlantic/HBO drama The Night Of.
“What people are looking for is a message that they belong. That they are part of something, that they are seen and heard and valued. They want to feel represented.
“If we don’t step up and tell a representative story, we’re going to start losing people to other stories. We’re going to start losing British teenagers so the next chapter in their lives is written by Isis in Syria. We’re going to start losing MPs like Jo Cox, who are murdered in the street because we’ve been sold a story that’s so narrow about who we are and who we’ve been and who we should be.
“In the 1930s we had a very similar situation to what we have today: political polarisation, economic disenfranchisement after a big financial crash, rising inequality, systematic scapegoating of certain minorities. What’s at stake here is whether or not we will move forwards together or whether we will leave people behind.”
Ahmed began his film career in The Road To Guantanamo and Film4’s Four Lions, and went on to critical acclaim in The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Nightcrawler. His performance in The Night Of earned him a Golden Globe nomination. But like other BAME actors, including Idris Elba and David Oyelowo, he has found more opportunities in the US.
“We end up going to America to find work,” he said. “I meet producers and directors here, I think they’re being honest when they say they want to work with me but ‘we don’t have anything for you, all our stories are set in Cornwall in the 1600s’.
“It’s weird because Asians are such a big proportion of the population here. Asian doesn’t even mean people that look like me in America. When I say I’m Asian they look at me, see I’m not Chinese and think I’m crazy. But it takes American remakes of British shows to cast someone like me.”
Ahmed said the government must step in to increase representation in the creative industries, citing figures showing that only 1.5 per cent of TV drama directors are from BAME backgrounds.
He added: “Sometimes it’s very easy to look at the screen and say, ‘Oh, look! It’s changed so much! There’s Riz, there’s Idris, there’s Michaela Cole in Chewing Gum… but these examples are often prominent because they are the exception that proves the rule.
“I’m getting on a plane to LA to attend the Star Wars premiere and I still get that second search before I get on the plane.” He had the surreal experience “of being asked for a selfie by someone who’s swabbing you for explosives”.
Ahmed said he had no political ambitions but joked that "as a Muslim socialist creative type, I can't rule out a leadership bid for UKIP. These are topsy-turvy political times."