The introduction of Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year old, Pakistani-American superhero, as the first female-Muslim headliner captivated the comics world: ‘Marvel is winning new fans by bringing diversity to comic books’ declared Time in a review that spotlighted Axel Alonso, the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. For Time and other media outlets, Alonso’s attempt to broaden the ‘faces and the stories of Marvel’s comics’ was a project that embraced the multicultural spirit of America. Introducing a racially and religiously-diverse Ms. Marvel was a much-anticipated move that sought to represent what Stan Lee called ‘the world outside [the] window’ more accurately. The new series gained massive popularity and reached the top five of The New York Times Best Seller. Not everyone was thrilled about this radical transformation of the beloved American superhero; some fans viewed this innovation as a disruption of an established storyline that betrayed the crux of Ms. Marvel. The series writer Willow Wilson recalls: ‘I thought they were going to need an intern to open all the hate mail’. Among them, a small group went so far as to accuse Wilson and Sana Amanat (director of content and character development), both Muslim American women, for ‘promoting jihad’.
The split reaction to the creation of Kamala Khan illustrates one of the basic dilemmas of the American society: it shows the prevalent push towards celebrating multiculturalism as an essential American value while exposing the Islamophobic attitudes that have been normalised as part of a broader nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Plainly, the failure to distinguish between the Islamic faith and radical militancy in popular discourse is a phenomenon that haunts the Muslim American experience today – to the extent that it has inspired a new corpus of literature that seeks to undo the negative stereotypes associated with the racialised Muslim subject. Among these works, Moustafa Bayoumi’s This Muslim American Life stands out as a serious critique of the marginalisation of Muslim Americans. Bayoumi suggests that since the War on Terror, members of the Muslim diaspora are not portrayed as ‘complex human being[s] but only as purveyor[s] of possible future violence’ – a point that partly explains some of the more extreme negative reactions to Kamala Khan. With this in mind, I would like to raise a few questions: what is at stake with the introduction of a Muslim superhero into an environment that is both increasingly supportive of ‘diversification’ and increasingly Islamophobic? If superheroes essentially serve to codify national membership by representing positive values of a national community, how does Kamala complicate this incentive, particularly in the Trump era? To put it differently, how does the presence of a Muslim headliner obfuscate the general function of the superhero as a national emblem in the public imagination?