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Islamic superheroine combats prejudice against Muslims

Ms Marvel 480 pixels

At what point did Islam become synonymous with terrorism? Prior to 9/11, the IRA claimed the mantle but the past 14 years has seen a seismic shift in attitudes. PhD candidate Maria Norris is researching the role of the government and media in perpetuating this link between terrorism and identity.

In May 2013, British soldier Lee Rigby was murdered in Woolwich by two men, allegedly to avenge the killing of Muslims by British armed forces. In the aftermath of Rigby’s killing, several Mosques and Islamic community centres were attacked in retaliation.

Both events fall under the legal definition of terrorism in the United Kingdom but only one was considered a terrorist act. It’s not hard to guess which.

MariaNorris 113x148For LSE PhD student Maria Norris (pictured right), this anomaly has provided the focus of her thesis which investigates the inextricable link between counter-terrorism policy and identity; a link which she claims is fundamentally altering the concept of British identity.

Case in point: The UK Government’s Prevent Strategy, when first established in 2007, allocated counter-terrorism funding for every council area with a minimum of eight per cent of Muslim residents. This was regardless of risk and in places where terrorism was not even considered likely.

While the strategy was reviewed in 2011 and demographic-based funding abolished at that time, the link was already entrenched in the public’s mind.

Only weeks ago, a man sympathetic to a far-right group in the UK was found with bomb-making materials but was not prosecuted due to ‘a lack of evidence of an intention to commit an act of terror’.

“The incident didn’t rate a mention in the media and the Crown Prosecution Service did not consider a nail bomb, clear far-right connections and statements expressing a desire to burn all immigrants enough evidence of an intention to commit terrorism. The individual was prosecuted under the Explosive Substance Acts instead,” Maria explained. “If the situation was reversed and he was a Muslim he would not have been given the benefit of the doubt.”

The association with terrorism and identity is an insidious one, she claims, reflected in such events as the French banning of the hijab and full veil coverage in 2010; the 2009 referendum on minarets in Switzerland; and the recent anti-Islam protests in Germany.

Unsurprisingly, the last 10 years have seen a meteoric rise in Islamophobia, with Muslims becoming the new ‘suspect’ community, fed by the media and popular culture, leading to a soaring number of crimes committed against people who follow the Muslim faith.

“This identity link has been compounded by a simplistic focus on British values and a distortion of the Islamic religion, implying the two cannot sit alongside each other,” Maria says.

While it is Islamic extremists who have committed terrorist acts, the Muslim identity is now cloaked in a negative light and its millions of followers criminalised worldwide. This is resulting in the construction of boundaries framing British Muslims as the ‘Other', effectively separating them from the national community.

But within this highly-charged atmosphere there are signs of a shift in one particular sector that is challenging this narrative and providing Maria with a direct link to her PhD research.

The comic book industry is an unexpected ally of the Islam faith, yet it has created a powerful character to combat hatred and prejudice towards Muslims in the form of Kamala Khan – a fictional 16-year-old Pakistani-American girl with super powers living in New Jersey.

Since Marvel created Khan in 2013 – its first Muslim character to headline her own comic book – Ms Marvel has built an enormous global fan base, reaching #2 on the New York Times Best Seller list of paperback graphic books in November 2014 with Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal.

Just last month, in April 2015, Ms. Marvel Volume 2: Generation Why  debuted at #4 on the same list.

Her popularity is not confined to the Muslim community either, with consumers drawn from all religions and countries in the world.

“Ms Marvel has been hailed as the most important comic book in the world at the moment,” says Maria. “She is disrupting the negative narrative of the Islamic faith and is a rare symbol of change and hope, portraying Muslims in a very positive and powerful light.”

The book counters the relentless negative portrayal of Muslims in the media, providing a voice for diversity and representing a culture that is widely ignored in the entertainment industry.

Kamala (Ms Marvel) and her family are devout Muslims and while she draws inspiration from the Quran – which is quoted in the comic book – she is not defined by her religion.

The success of Ms. Marvel reflects a rise in minorities being represented in a positive light in comic books. This is illustrated by the success of characters such as Nadimah and Qadir, two Muslim supporting characters in the new Batgirl book as well as the female Thor. The new version of Batgirl is vastly outselling the previous male-led title.

“Comic books are leading the way in terms of diversity; much more so than films and television,” Maria says.

She is due to complete her thesis this summer.

“After that I plan to continue my research on how terrorism policy is restructuring national identity alongside conducting postgraduate studies on the comic book industry and its positive representation of Muslims and minorities.”

Additional notes

Maria Norris is a final-year PhD student in LSE’s European Institute, researching British counter-terrorism strategy and legislation, with a focus on nationalism, security and human rights. She teaches for LSE 100 and the Government Department and is based at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights.

In February 2015 she organised a week-long project on Comics and Human Rights, establishing a partnership between LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights blog and Talking Comics.

Posted May 2015