Can a 16-year-old Marvel superhero change the face of Islam in America?

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Ann Arbor (informed commentary) – The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s streaming superhero TV show, Ms. Marvel dropped on Disney+ this week, and it’s a revolution in the portrayal of Muslim Americans on TV.

The story revolves around a 16-year-old Pakistani-American girl from Jersey City who resents her strict, protective parents and wants to attend a comic convention to *gasp* at night and wear a Captain Marvel uniform. like cosplay. The hero, Kamala Khan, is engagingly played by Iman Vellani, a young Pakistani-Canadian actress. In the end, she sneaks off to the convention with a boy-who-is-a-friend (not a boyfriend) Bruno Carelli, played by Matt Linz (who played Henry in AMC’s The Walking Dead). Her grandmother had left behind a bracelet, and Kamala adds it to her Captain Marvel ensemble in hopes of winning a best costume contest at the convention. It turns out the bracelet is kind of like Aladdin’s lamp, granting him extension superpowers. She uses these powers at the convention but inadvertently causes chaos. She returns home to find her mother in her room waiting for her, aware that she has escaped. She is grounded.

At one point in the first episode, when she despairs of being allowed to go to the convention, she says, “Anyway, it’s not like brunette girls are the ones saving the world.”

Obviously, the aim of the series is to refute this defeatist point of view.

The TV series is written by Pakistani-British comedian Bisha K. Ali and direct Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah, Meera Menon and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

The streaming show is based on the award-winning film Ms. Marvel comics and graphic novels, which were started by Sana Amanat and G. Willow Wilson, both Muslims, with art by Adrian Alphona.

Sana Amanat is a Pakistani-American raised in Jersey City, so there are plenty of them in Kamala. She had a career in magazine publishing, then was hired in 2009 by Marvel Comics in an effort to diversify the business. She is now the director of content and character development at Marvel and has also worked on other characters, such as Hawkeye.

G. Willow Wilson is a novelist who deploys magical realism techniques and was the author of the early years of Ms. Marvel comics.

Kamala Khan played by Vellani is a likeable character, and she might end up helping American Muslims do what the sitcom will and grace made for gays.

Some Muslim American commentators fear that depicting Kamala’s very devout older brother and his strict parents reinforces rather than dispels some stereotypes. Me, I remember immigrant sitcoms like the Danny Thomas show in the 1950s that had similar tropes. When Uncle Tannous came from Lebanon, he thought Thomas’ American wife was far too skinny and wouldn’t be able to pull a plow. Or there was Jimmy Durante, the Italian-American comedian who poked fun at his own people’s syntax with phrases like “Yeah, we don’t have bananas.” From this perspective, the Ms. Marvel cliches fall into a long line of New World/Old World tropes.

Some conservative Muslims have objected that Kamala Khan does not cover her hair. But I lived in Pakistan and was interested to find that the veil is much less common in South Asia than in the Arab world. (It was not so common in Egypt until around 1990). This criticism may therefore come from the differences between American Muslim traditions.

The generally positive and human representation of Muslims is in any case a big change. We’ve had entire shows, like Fox’s “24,” based on Islamophobia. Muslims have become wicked. Rami Malik (an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian) even got a lot of credence for denying his Bond villain being a Muslim in no time to die. This denial is only noteworthy because the wicked Muslim had become the default.

There were not only dramas. I remember being outraged a few years ago when I saw a CNN report about violence by a small group of Muslim extremists somewhere, and they released stock footage of ordinary Muslims praying in a mosque. to illustrate it.

The American public has not always had a bad image of Muslims. During the Cold War era, they were often seen as allies against godless communism. The Eisenhower administration even helped Saudi Arabia extend rail lines to Mecca to encourage Muslims to go on pilgrimage.

The September 11 attacks were carried out by a terrorist group that included secular individuals such as Lebanese hijacker Ziad Jarrah, who had a Turkish girlfriend and some of his family members were secular Ba’athists. Other members were a strange kind of Muslim nationalist. Al-Qaeda has only ever been a fringe extremist group in the Muslim world, similar to the KKK in the United States, and certainly does not represent Islam. Nevertheless, many Americans continued to tag Muslims in general with extremism and violence over the following years, in very unfair ways.

As I told Tomdispatch this winter, even US law enforcement has been so obsessed with America’s remarkably well-behaved small Muslim community that they haven’t bothered to sufficiently police white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys. , enabling the Capitol insurrection.

There are something like 3.8 million American Muslims now, or about 1.15% of the population, and their number is roughly half that of American Jews. Muslim Americans are roughly divided into four major groups, white converts – mostly Sufis – Arab Americans, South Asian Americans and African Americans.

By South Asia, I mean Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. There are now about half a million Pakistani Americans in particular, which would make them about 13% of America’s Muslim population. The majority are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi rite, but the Shiites form a significant minority (20%?) among them. Their national language is Urdu, which is related to Hindi but with more Persian and Arabic vocabulary. However, Pakistan itself is ethnically diverse, with Indian Punjabi, Pukhtun, Baloch, Sindhis and Urdu immigrants known as muhajirs.

Despite the four broad headings listed above, Muslim Americans are extremely diverse, originating from Senegal and Bangladesh, Egypt and India, Algeria and Malaysia. Many were puzzled to be placed by other Americans under the sign of al-Qaeda, as it comes from a narrow religious tradition and the hothouse atmosphere of Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, and is completely different from their own traditions. It’s a bit like the KKK carrying out a terrorist action in China, and then the Chinese begin to be suspicious of Methodists and Roman Catholics.

Ironically, the Trump administration’s virulent Islamophobia seems to have caused Americans to rethink their view of minority. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that 89% of Americans say they would welcome a Muslim as a neighbor. 79% say they would welcome a Muslim as a family member. I guess that means they would be okay with their son or daughter marrying one. While you have to regret the fanatical 19%, these attitudes are a huge improvement from even a decade ago.

On the other hand, half of Americans have doubts about the compatibility of Islam with democracy.

I myself have doubts about the compatibility of the contemporary Republican Party with democracy.

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