Can more Muslim representation in the film industry counter radicalisation?

Left: Former MEP, David Campbell Bannerman, Ron Schleifer, and EGIC director, Matthew Robinson

STOCKHOLM – The Western film and television industry’s “entrenched and closed off” nature toward diverse representation can contribute to radicalisation of second and third generation migrants from Western culture, a round table discussion by the Euro-Gulf Information Centre (EGIC) heard.

 The role of the film industry and wider societal and cultural strategies for attempting to counter radicalisation were debated at the roundtable ‘Strategies for Countering Radicalisation: A Euro-Gulf Perspective’ at the EGIC satellite office in Stockholm.

  The roundtable was moderated by Mr David Campbell Bannerman, British conservative party politician, strategic consultant, and former MEP. He visited the frontline with ISIS control in 2015 and was the UK special advisor on the Northern Ireland peace process in 2007. The panel included Mr Niall Stewart (keynote speaker) – film producer, policy analyst, BAFTA award winner for Outstanding Factual Content; Dr. Ron Schleifer – senior lecturer in the School of Communications at Ariel University; Ms Kerstin Dejemyr – change maker, expert in pedagogic development; Dr. Dzalto Davor – professor in religion and democracy, University College Stockholm; Ms Diane Greif, legal expert; and Ms Helene Rennervik- empowerment architect, senior leadership, and development. 

 The discussion would focus not so much on law enforcement and counterterrorism, instead it would take a wider societal inspection into the process of radicalisation and the impact of culture and education within this. 

 Mr Stewart began by outlining the “entrenched and closed off” nature of the film industry to diverse representation and talent. He summarised common factors that can lead an individual to become radicalised -- a placing of blame on Western society, powerful need to belong, searching for a better identity and purpose. Citing academic Karen Walker, writing for the Centre on Global Counterterrorism Co-operation, he added that particular identity crises affect second and third generation Muslim migrants, who feel alienated both from the Western culture surrounding them and the cultural heritage of their parents and grandparents. This makes them more vulnerable targets to radicalisation as a way of a “powerful need to belong” and in their search of a better identity and purpose. Going back to the film industry, Mr Stewart added that such feelings of demonisation and vilification by Western society could be engendered by the representation of Muslims in Western film and television. 

 As particularly problematic films, Mr Stewart listed ‘The Kingdom’ (2007) and ‘The Four Feathers’ (2002) and even ‘Aladdin’ (1992). 

 He quoted Star Wars actor Riz Ahmed who made a speech in 2021, noting that progress of negative portrayal of Muslims on screen was “limited”. 

 Evidence of cause and effect, such as the link between Muslim representation in films and TV “appears to be anecdotal”, that negative representation could well “contribute to their alienation”, though this “could be opinion,” Mr Stewart said.

 Despite this, he affirmed that cultural films and theatre can “offer a unique way to deradicalise” by allowing a way of “seeing past extremist echo chambers” and giving more nuanced perspectives.

 Mr Stewart dedicated the last word to Toronto actor Ali Momen who noted to the Canadian Broadcaster CBC that if “art can teach us how to love, art indeed can teach us how to hate.”

 Ms Helenne Renervik, who is Swedish and spent 30 years living in the Middle East, concurred with Stewart about the power of cultural and educational strategies that attempt to counter radicalisation, highlighting that non-violence “starts at home”. 

 She focused on the familial sphere and the importance of knowledge and education to better learn to communicate. Young men often feel left out of this and collaboration and finding something in common carry great importance. She notes that there is a lot of emphasis on religion as the source of conflict and adds that it can also be a source of peace-making. 

Ms Kerstin Dejemyr agreed about Muslim representation, stressing the importance of the responsibility we hold in what we diffuse. 

 Dr. Dzalto Davor added that moderation is “not always better than radical”, for example in crisis moments or personal relationships. Within the current existing power structures, normality is “dangerous” and constitutes a “primary target”. He added that media and propaganda discourses propagate the idea of radical extremism as a normality and the way the world should be. According to him, this “prevents questioning” and the focus shifts to “any type of otherness” in society. 

 Dr. Ron Schleifer, expert in psychological warfare and lecturer at IDF (Tactical Command College and Staff College), travelled from Israel to attend the session. He started by arguing that targeting potential candidates for radicalisation starts early on. Once radicalised, he argues that there is “hardly any chance to persuade them” against their extremist views.

 He added that sending them to prison is not a good option either as it leads to the radicalisation of other inmates. Whilst agreeing with the other speakers about Muslim representation in film and education at home, Schleifer maintained that “the elephant in the room” of radical Islam is the most important point and main challenge in this.

  Tackling the issue of radical Islam from a Western perspective can hinder progress, he adds. Dr. Schleifer highlighted that cultural and linguistic differences are an obstacle in understanding the issue and labels being “PC” as the biggest obstacle. By using softened terminology and not calling the problem by its true name, he said, is not “properly dealing with it”. He names religion as the third barrier of hindering understanding.

 He claimed that in the Western world, religion does not play as a great a role as in Muslim society, where it is placed as “number one”. Not speaking Arabic limits an understanding of the “effect and impact of religion.” A distance from the language and culture such as this, he noted, can lead to a belief that their way of thinking is “crazy”.

  According to Dr. Schleifer, a fundamental point is that Muslim society perceives the world as “those who are Muslim and those who are not yet Muslim.” Promoting secularism would be “in the interest of Western society, would not last long and would postpone the problem by two or three generations.” 

 “Cultivating peaceful Islam”, is to him, the “most necessary strategy in the long run.” He concluded that peaceful interpretations of Islam in the media, about spiritual Islam, and the beauty of Islam, could very well attempt to counter radicalisation. 

 Legal expert, Ms Diane Greif from Switzerland, spoke about how anti-Semitism has been affected by radicalisation. She talked about the demoralisation that occurs during victimhood and how if at that point, a religious, political, or educational authority diffuses radical propaganda, it can lead an individual down the path of radicalisation that keeps them in this state of “victimhood.” She talked about anti-Semitism as a “scapegoat” to emerge from this “victimhood.” 

 All panellists agreed in varying degrees that greater Muslim representation in films and the media and the importance of radicalisation can play a part in countering radicalisation. Dr. Schleifer focused on a more profound cultural understanding and diffusion of the cultivation of peaceful Islam. 

Mr Stewart focused on wider societal implications of better Muslim representation in the film industry, more jobs for Muslims in film, as well as the pedagogic nature of films. He noted, however, that this is a “simple formula for a very difficult question.” 


Countering radicalisation panellists