by Aysha Qamar
Everyone is talking about the 69th annual Emmy Awards- where two Muslims took the stage. It was an unheard of sight for many to see two Muslim men, on prime-time television, being portrayed so positively. Actor Rizwan Ahmed and actor-writer Aziz Ansari won two top categories for shows that challenged stereotypes.
For nearly seven decades, a South Asian man had never won an Emmy in an acting category.
British Pakistani actor Rizwan Ahmed, also known as Riz MC, became the first Asian and first Muslim man to win an Emmy Award. An Emmy is an American award that recognizes excellence and achievement in the television industry, similar to the Oscar, for films.
The actor won the award of Outstanding Lead Actor In a Limited Series, for the HBO drama “The Night Of”, in which he plays the role of Nasir “Naz” Khan- the son of a Pakistani cab driver from Queens, who is wrongly convicted of murder.
Nasir and his family are presented as a multi-dimensional family living in a complex community, before Donald Trump took office and announced his first travel ban, which is a breakthrough in the portrayal of Muslims on television series.
Before Ahmad, only one other South Asian had taken home an acting award from the ceremony- Archie Panjabi, who won an Emmy for her role in “The Good Wife” in 2010.
Ahmed’s award comes as not only a success to South Asians, but to Muslims as well in the portrayal of his character, Naz, who represents and challenges issues of race and Islamophobia.
“It’s always strange reaping the rewards of a story that’s based on real world suffering,” Ahmed said in his acceptance speech. “But if this show has shown a light on some of the prejudice in our society, Islamophobia, some of the injustice in our justice system, then maybe that’s something.”
In a previous interview, the actor said, he’d “rather be broke” than play “Terrorist No.3.”
Ahmed told reporters after the Emmys that “what we’re starting to see is more awareness around how beneficial it can be to tell a diverse range of stories and to tell them in a way that’s authentic.”
“And I think awareness is the first step to real change,” Ahmed added.
While Naz’s ethnic and religious identities were carefully represented, Ahmed told the New Yorker, they were only secondary to the plot, which follows a young man accused of murder and entangled in the criminal justice system.
“It’s just nice to have complex characters,” he said. “I play someone called Nazir or Jamal or whatever, but it’s not about that, necessarily, without there being any erasure of my background or heritage. It’s just not the focal point, because it’s considered pedestrian. It’s no longer exotic.”
Ahmed is known as an activist who continuously emphasizes the importance of diversity and representation. His belief that the media can combat terrorism and hate, as well as his wish to become a positive role model for peers and youth, has encouraged him not to feed into the negative portrayal of colored people on screen.
He has pushed for the globalization of stories and talent, saying, “TV is in particular a global medium. People are streaming shows or watching them all around the world, so hopefully we’re going to see a globalization of the stories we’re telling and a globalization of the talent pool.”