Muslims’ mixed reactions to the recent TV series Ms. Marvel (streaming on Disney+), portraying a Muslim American superhero, illustrate the divide between Muslims and Islamists in the West.
Some Muslim commentators are praising the series with the Qatar-aligned news site Middle East Eye describing the character as “the superhero American Muslims needed.” Hardline Islamists, however, are less pleased. Indeed, their harsh criticism of the series confirms the extent to which they reject Muslims’s integration into Western countries. This division reveals the declining power of unified Islamism in America and suggests that there may be more opportunities for moderate Muslims to reject the Islamist control over their communities.
The Qatari news network Al Jazeera described the plot as being about a “a Pakistani-American teenager [played by Pakistani-Canadian actress Iman Vellani], who develops incredible powers and finds herself pursued by supernatural bad guys, all while grappling with familial and religious obligations.” While the show received overall low ratings, Muslim viewers seemed enthusiastic.
As can be observed in the numerous positive reviews of Ms. Marvel, many Muslims liked seeing “something they hadn’t seen reflected in pop culture before: themselves — in a normal light.” Indeed, several praised the series for providing a welcome contrast with the “Muslim roles in franchises like Marvel [that] have usually been relegated to villains or terrorist characters.”
Some applauded Ms. Marvel for representing “a huge number of Muslim females who don’t wear a headscarf and aren’t consumed by angst over their faith.” In a piece published by the Independent and titled “Ms Marvel is the Muslim representation I’ve been waiting for,” the author criticized previous “frustrating” portrayals of Muslims as “the oppressed housewife or daughter to the violent terrorist.”
G. Willow Wilson, the writer of Ms Marvel comics, and Sana Amanat, editor of the comic and executive producer of the series, claimed to “know the many lines along which the character [of Ms. Marvel] could be criticized and that traditional Muslims might want her to be more modest.”
In reality, many Islamist didn’t want Ms. Marvel at all. One said that “no self-respecting Muslim has ever asked for this,” another asked if Muslims could “please go back to being represented as terrorists?,” and a California-based cleric described Ms. Marvel as “a character that shows young [Muslim women] the path to Hell.”
Even if Wilson and Khan had created a character with a hijab, this wouldn’t have solved the issue of Ms. Marvel’s supernatural powers that some Muslims saw as completely un-Islamic. But while Wilson has mentioned right wing-bloggers who denounced her work as an attack on American values, she has not acknowledged the numerous Islamists who consider her work an attack on Islamic values. Islamist’s fears would certainly be confirmed by Wilson’s claim to have created a “socialist-Muslim-homosexual alliance” and that she loves it.
In response to the series, Samir Hussain, a Canada-based Islamic studies teacher who is respected by many American Islamists, wrote that “positive ‘Muslim’ representation is overrated” and what is truly needed is “positive Islamic representation.” Hussain pointed out that “overemphasizing the former has led to a proliferation of individuals who are Muslim only in self-identification but do not benefit Islam as religion.” He concluded that if “your representation doesn’t lead to a better understanding of Islam, it’s fruitless, or worse, counterproductive.”
AJ+, a social media channel operated by Al Jazeera and often seen as its leftist and seemingly Westernized cousin, got a lot of pushback when it declared that the show was a “a step in the right direction after decades of Hollywood undervaluing Muslim and South Asian stories.”
In the comments section, a mother complained about having to explain to her daughters that “some moslems love their own desire more than [God]” and expressed worry about her children being confused about what is Islamic and what isn’t.
Other Muslims condemned the show as an attack on Islam. One wrote that “as a Muslim the most heinous crime you can commit is to associate partners with Allaah” and denounced Ms. Marvel as “just another agenda to expand their market and try to dilute the creed of the Muslims.” Another concluded: “I guess Hollywood doesn’t understand Islam enough, to the point where they think it’s just about how to wear or talk, that is not the case!”
Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, founder of the Islamist Lamppost Institute, wrote that “Disney is trying to subtly ridicule Islamic norms and portray them as too strict” and shared a friend’s warning to Muslim parents about the “seeds of rebellion and individualism our kids are being exposed to.” One of his followers replied: “I’m already disgusted by the girl’s choice of clothes while being interviewed on the talk shows.”
Concerns about the future of Muslim children were repeated elsewhere. Abu Eesa, a UK-based Islamist cleric who has regularly lectured in the United States for the AlMaghrib Institute, told his followers that “every day, parents are realising just how much filth, lies and kufr [disbelief] is in the content their children love so much and consume so innocently” and that “parents are now seeing the agendas of the story-tellers too whether that’s Disney, Marvel, or even their favourite authors.”
He warned parents that “in the next few years when your children start to go off the rails in a myriad of ways, you’ll have no-one to blame but yourself.” A Muslim convert complained about there being “so much slick, flashy stuff trying to seduce our kids away from us.”
Mohamed Boonaa, a Canadian artist with a history of antisemitic statements, expressed his “theory that shows like […] Ms. Marvel present a palatable white washed version of Islam that is non-threatening, non-political and void of religious integrity,” and called instead for “pop culture that reflects our values and faith unapologetically and does not need to adhere to the ever changing moral standards of others.”
Siraaj Muhammad, founder of the Islamist publication Muslim Matters, described an episode of the Ms. Marvel series as “hot garbage” in a now deleted post on Facebook. Muhammad concluded: “Can we please go back to being represented as terrorists? I prefer culturally clueless Hollywood writers over pandering traitors who need to de-de colonize their minds.”
Muslim divisions about representation are, of course, not new. In 2021, hardline Islamist Daniel Haqiqatjou mocked Muslims who are “are apparently fine with living alone, no marriage, no children” and see it as all worth it “as long as Hollywood pumps out movies with hijabi characters (lesbian pothead hijabis, of course).”
In 2017, Haqiqatjou had already asked his followers if they thought that videos “normalizing” Muslims by showing them “drinking, sleeping around, eating bacon, being gay,” helped or hurt Muslims.” He was relieved to find out that his followers agreed with him about such videos being “harmful to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”
These divisions over “representation” are perhaps inevitable as a new generation of Muslims born and raised in the West understand Islam as possessing an important cultural dimension, rather than seeing the religion as a “complete way of life,” as Islamists so often describe it. While many Muslims are eager to watch movies and series that include Muslim characters with whom they can identify, Islamists reject any representation of Islam or Muslim that doesn’t advance Islamist objectives and view it as a dangerous threat to Islamist ideology. As the Muslim demand for realistic representation grows along with the ensuing Islamist backlash, will more Muslims realize that Islamists are the ones who are most determined to impose an extremist interpretation and portrayal of Islam?
Martha Lee is a a research fellow at the Middle East Forum’s Islamist Watch and a frequent contributor to publications such as The American Spectator, The Daily Wire, and The Algemeiner.