By Faiza Patel
November 26, 2013
When Marvel Comics announced the debut of its latest superhero – a 16-year-old Pakistani American-Muslim from Jersey City – it was correctly seen as a positive development. Created and written by two American-Muslim women, Kamala Khan a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, holds promise. “Her brother is extremely conservative,” the editor, Sana Amanat, told The New York Times.“Her mom is paranoid that she’s going to touch a boy and get pregnant. Her father wants her to concentrate on her studies and become a doctor.”
But while Khan is a comic book character, she should not become a caricature. American literature is replete with tales of assimilation from My Antonia to The Joy Luck Club. The overprotective mother and the demanding father are staples of the genre. But with Khan, there is an additional twist: The “conservative” brother.
When talking about Muslims, conservative is often code for someone who embraces a fundamentalist understanding of Islam, which is viewed as just one step short of becoming a terrorist. In his forthcoming book, The Muslims Are Coming!, Arun Kundani identifies two narratives about Islam that have fuelled the “war on terror” and its cousin, Islamophobia. Conservatives believe Islam’s problem is that it has yet to reconcile itself with modernity. Liberals believe Islam has been hijacked by ideologues to produce a new, totalitarian ideology, radical “Islamism.” The idea of religiously conservative but tolerant Muslim doesn’t fit within either of these paradigms. We don’t fully know how Kamala’s brother will behave, but the creative types at Marvel should think hard about whether they are perpetuating stereotypes or accurately reflecting the complexity of a modern American-Muslim family.
Nor should courageous Muslim characters – both real and imagined – be a reason to let ourselves and our leaders off the hook for the pervasive discrimination ordinary Muslims face.
It is ironic that Khan’s superpower is that she is a “shape shifter” who can transform her body into any size or shape. Islamophobia shifts shape too. A recent Oklahoma constitutional amendment banning Sharia (a nebulous body of Islamic law and traditions) was struck down because it discriminated against Muslims, but that didn’t stop its proponents. In 34 states, they pushed laws barring the application of any foreign law that doesn’t follow the federal and state constitutions to the tee. They have won in six states already. While these laws don’t overtly target Muslims, their advocates sure do. Florida state senator Alan Hays likened Sharia to a “dreadful disease” against which Americans should be vaccinated. Other faith communities also suffer. Jewish groups have voiced concerns that the bans call into the question the decisions of religious tribunals used to resolve marriage and contract disputes.
When Gov. Chris Christie nominated a distinguished Muslim lawyer to the New Jersey Superior Court two years ago, there were questions about whether the nominee would apply sharia, not state and U.S. rules. Christie, typically blunt, dismissed the criticism: “This ‘Sharia law’ business is crap. It’s just crazy.” Last year, members of Congress, spearheaded by Rep. Michele Bachman (R.-Minn.), charged that Hilary Clinton’s long-time Muslim aide, Huma Abedin, was part of an Islamic conspiracy to influence U.S. foreign policy. Prominent Washingtonians took up Abedin’s defense, including Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), who declared that the attacks had “no logic, no basis and no merit.”
Although most American-Muslims cannot rely on defenders like Christie or McCain, they surely need government protection. The two percent of the American population who are Muslim make up a whopping one-quarter of the docket of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to latest data from the FBI, hate crimes against Muslims have jumped 50 percent from to 2008 to 2011. The ability to gather together to pray is one of the fundamental pillars of religious liberty, but the Department of Justice has found that Muslims face major obstacles when they try to build mosques.
Government agencies have been assiduous in documenting and fighting these types of discrimination. But such support quickly falls away when Muslim communities complain that they have been spied upon because of their faith. Faced with documents that raise extremely troubling questions about how the New York City Police Department monitored Muslims, the city’s political leaders have by and large been unmoved. The Justice Department may come to the aid of communities seeking to build mosques, but it has ducked repeated calls to investigate the NYPD’s infiltration of these same institutions. The FBI investigates hate crimes against Muslims, but it continues to target the religiously observant among them as potential terrorists.
In this context, the arrival of Kamala Khan is cause for celebration. She may make a few people think that Muslims can be heroes as well as villains. But vanquishing anti-Muslim prejudice will take a more sustained and energetic effort by Kamala’s human counterparts.
Faiza Patel is co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security program and lead author of the report Foreign Law Bans.