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Why can't Spider-Man convert to Islam?

The appearance of a Muslim character in a comic book is being celebrated, but she is not going to end Islamophobia.

Last updated: 27 Nov 2013 19:43
Leon Moosavi

Dr Leon Moosavi is a sociologist of race and religion based at the University of Liverpool.
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"Emphasising Kamala’s identity crisis suggests that being an American Muslim is always a difficult undertaking," writes the author [Reuters]

There's a strong current of Islamophobia gushing through our era. In various places, Muslims are still perceived as causing problems with their alleged insistence on being different. From Canada, to the UK, to Burma, and beyond, there are intense debates today that construct Muslims as a troublesome "race" who need to be contained. So when I heard about a new superhero that is going to eradicate this globalised Islamophobia, I was excited.

Commentators have celebrated Marvel's new Muslim superhero, Kamala Khan (aka Ms Marvel), as a refreshing example of a strong Muslim woman who will normalise Muslim identity. Some even went as far as saying that Khan is "a much needed counter to Islamophobia in show business" and that "Marvel's work is a watershed moment in breaking down fear and ignorance." I wish these commentators were right, but sadly, I think they are overlooking some finer points of Kamala's character that may suggest she is part of the problem rather than the solution.

A Muslim shapeshifter

From the limited information we have about Kamala, we know that she is a 16-year-old "shapeshifter", who comes from a conservative and restrictive family. She apparently struggles with an identity crisis between her Muslim and American identities. This loose characterisation does not sound like a refreshing portrayal of a Muslim character to me, but in fact, is consistent with typical outdated stereotypes of Muslims. In particular, the idea that Muslim women are trapped by family, tradition and Muslim men is an old orientalist trope that is still projected onto Muslim communities today. It is the same logic that has been used to justify the criminalisation of Muslim clothing and the invasion of Muslim countries.

Her ability to "shapeshift" brings to mind the common Islamophobic accusation that Muslims routinely practice taqqiya where they deliberately conceal their true beliefs for the sake of sinister plots.

In this respect, it may not be a coincidence that Kamala rhymes with Malala, as both of their stories may give the impression that Muslim women need saving from Muslim men. The question that has been asked about Malala, may fairly be asked about Kamala as well: Is she really an empowered Muslim woman or is she an appropriated tool whose narrative coalesces with the portrayal of Muslim men's ruthless domination needing to be curbed? It will be interesting to see what role Kamala's white male friend "Bruno" plays in respect to this. It would be tragic if he is the one who Kamala feels safe to confide in, or who helps liberate her, or who gains an intimate relationship with her, because all of these correspond with racist imaginings of how the hierarchical relationship between white men and brown women should be.

Kamala's identity crisis bothers me as well. Jews, Blacks and Muslims have all been told that surely they cannot reconcile a "Western" identity with their ethnicity, race or religion. Surely, the clash of civilisations manifests in their personalities and they are troubled, if not schizophrenic. For me, this identity crisis is over-theorised by academics, politicians and journalists, because in the real world, minorities find it quite easy to adapt, integrate and just get on with their lives. At most, they face just as many tricky questions about their identity as anyone else does.

Emphasising Kamala's identity crisis, her struggle between her heritage and her environment, and her desire to find stability suggests that being an American Muslim is always a difficult undertaking. It needn't be, and we needn't insist that American Muslims must always be overwhelmed with internal tension.

I may be reading too much into this but I also find Kamala's superpower significant. Her ability to "shapeshift" brings to mind the common Islamophobic accusation that Muslims routinely practice taqqiya where they deliberately conceal their true beliefs for the sake of sinister plots. Shapeshifting is cunning and manipulative, just as orientalists imagined Arabs to be and just as far-right Islamophobes like to imagine all Muslims are today. As Jews were once represented in the past as selfishly infiltrating society, Muslims today are also likely to be considered as stealthily introducing Sharia into society. And what better way to justify this than by claiming Muslims, as shapeshifters, alternate their persona to dupe unsuspecting liberals.

Islamophobia is not about to disappear, and suggesting it will because of the appearance of a Muslim character in a comic book, does a disservice to those who confront it in all its seriousness in their everyday lives.

Fighting Islamophobia with comics?

I am not suggesting that Marvel intends to promote Islamophobia. In fact, Marvel expresses an unequivocal desire to be anti-racist on their website, and at the same place also provide a surprisingly honest dissection of some of the prejudicial mistakes they've made in the past. Now even though two Muslims have created Kamala, I wonder if such mistakes are being made, because being a Muslim does not mean you are immune to internalising dominant views of your group, even if they are Islamophobic.

If a cartoon character was to do anything about challenging Islamophobia, it would be one whose Muslim identity is there but is insignificant - just a taken-for-granted part of their life. Or it would be one who comfortably practises Islam without it being a burden. In this regard, I would be more excited about Kamala if she was a superhero who just happened to be a Muslim, or if she wore a headscarf without it being an issue.

There's still hope for Kamala as her story is yet to be written, and it would be wonderful if Kamala did undermine Islamophobia, but I expect she will be no different than the many other Muslim comic book characters that have existed in the past, who come and go, usually unwittingly reinforcing simplistic stereotypes about Muslims. I, therefore, won't be making bold claims that "Marvel is taking powerful steps… to help end Islamophobia" until Spiderman converts to Islam! Of course, that will never happen because it would be devastating for business.

So let's be clear: Marvel's new character is more realistically about identifying a niche in an ever-growing Muslim market rather than the beginning of an equality campaign. Yet even if it was a deliberate attempt to tackle Islamophobia (like Naif Al-Mutawa is admirably trying to do with THE 99), comics will never be able to end Islamophobia because too few people read them. They are also competing with many other voices that still strongly stigmatise Muslims in a context of well entrenched Islamophobia that has existed for centuries. I hate to be so pessimistic but Islamophobia is not about to disappear, and suggesting it will because of the appearance of a Muslim character in a comic book, does a disservice to those who confront it in all its seriousness in their everyday lives. The appearance of Muslim characters in film, TV, music or cartoons can be a good thing, but only if they are portrayed in ways that do not reinforce stereotypes about Muslims as uniquely problematic. I'm not sure that Kamala Khan does this, as many hope she will.

Dr Leon Moosavi is a sociologist of race and religion based at the University of Liverpool.

Follow him on Twitter: @Leon_Moosavi  

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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