Black Panther and the Islamphobia Debate

“First, I need to tell you who I am,” is how Somali Canadian researcher Hodan Mohamed opens her response to  Faisal Kutty’s critique of  Black Panther (2018).  Mohamed then demonstrates her qualifications to speak on both Islamophobia and anti-Blackness. She writes, “I am an educator, researcher with a focus on diversity and inclusion, curriculum development, public engagement, immigration, and Criminal Justice System working with underserved and underemployed Black youth in Toronto.”  Like so many other Black women, Black Muslim women have to establish our credentials just to be taken seriously in any discussion. Black women experts are often dismissed by people who lack cultural competence or knowledge of the field.  In this case, we should pay careful attention to the writings and thoughts of Black women. While much of my graduate work from 2004-2008 focused on colonial surveillance of Muslim communities in Northern Nigeria, as an African American Muslim I do not speak for Nigeria.  But I hope to highlight important voices we should listen to in discussions on why Black Panther’s #BringBackOurGirls rescue operation was important  and point to better ways at responding to our discomfort. The debate about Islamophobia in Black Panther highlights intra-Muslim racial power dynamics, where the Black Muslim issues and concerns are subsumed for the sake of a monolithic ummah.

This picture was in 2017 featuring recently released  Chibok girls meeting with President Buhari. Today, 100  of the Chibok girls remain missing.

Roughly half of Nigeria’s 186 million population are Muslim, and  40% Christian and 10% indigenous African faiths. According to a 2015 Pew study  with the top 10 largest Muslim populations,  Nigeria ranks the 5th ahead of Egypt. Nigeria’s Muslim population is largely concreted in the North of Nigeria.  Boko Haram, whose name “Western education is forbidden,”  brazen abducted of  276 girls from their school in the north eastern Nigerian town of Chibok. Obiageli Ezekwesili, former minister of Education in Nigeria and Vice President of the African Division of the World Banks founded Bring Back our Girls and according to the website,. It spread to social media via the millions of Nigerians and Nigerian-Americans on twitter who were joined by social justice advocates all over the world.” It then went on to become one of the largest social media campaigns.  Black Panther includes a brief scene where the soon to be crowned King of Wakanda,  T’Challa extracts Nakia who is in on a spy mission in the Simbasa jungle where Boko Haram hides out. Daniel Oruba writes Black Panther executive producer, Nate Moore explains the purpose for the scene:

The notion that Wakanda exists, has all these resources, and is in Africa — a continent that is plagued by conflict of different kinds — we knew we wanted to tell a story of whether or not they’d feel a sense of responsibility.

And [missing Chibok girls] is a conflict that is unfortunately still ongoing. We wanted them to come face to face with a real thing.

We would have been cheapening what Wakanda meant if we didn’t tackle that, because this is a real thing that people should be aware of if they are not. We didn’t want to exploit it, we wanted to shine a light on it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWfCFShtj28

 

Nigerians of all faith were elated when the Black Panther paid homage to an issue that their nation was still grappling with.

 

While Nigerians celebrated the inclusion of Boko Haram, some Muslims living in the West  felt uncomfortable that a Muslim led insurgency was mentioned at all in the Box office record breaking film.

Kutty writes, “The scene inadvertently reinforces what colonial studies experts such as University of Toronto Professor Sherene Razack call the stereotypes of the barbaric Muslim man, oppressed Muslim woman and imperilled non-Muslim.” Some people were upset that the kidnapper used wallah, a Hausa word and kefiyyas, something that Boko Haram members frequently wear.  A Muslim chaplain  Sami Aziz wrote in Medium that the film didn’t show the balanced portrayal of Muslims.  However, one of the rescued offered Islamic prayers and said Allah. Others pointed to the rescued girls taking off their scarves. While girls threw off the large scarf but still wore small head coverings more akin to traditional clothing of the region.  

 

Real life Boko Haram Image source: http://urhobotoday.com/?p=13488

However, the response amongst some non-Black Muslims was pointedly different than that of Nigerians. For about a decade, a toxic ideology, disintegration of traditional Islamophic authority tied to indigenous African institutions, and collapse of the state has led to Boko Haram. The two minute scene explored sex trafficking and child soldiers, two war crimes that fuel groups like Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army (which was a warped version of Christianity). Asha Noor, a Somali American community organizer who works on Islamophobia in Michigan says:

It may not be the best depiction, but it is accurate. But in the movie, it was dealt with by Africans. That is the ideal way of how issues should be dealt with in Africa should be handled, rather intervention from outsiders. Now all these South Asians and Arabs complaining about the depiction about something that has happened and is happening. But they’ve been silent.  You need to be the number one advocate for girls taken by Boko Haram.

What makes it even more tragic is that while the depiction of Muslims behaving badly embarasses us Muslims in the West, we are not uplifting the voices of Nigerians who have been affirmed or the stories of the victims of Boko Haram atrocities.

The Muslim derailing of Black Panther is reminiscent of 2014, when Middle Eastern activists derailed MIchelle Obama’s signal boost of the  #BringBackOurGirls hashtag.  Instead centering Black girls who were lost, Muslim twitter centered Pakistan, Yemen, and  some threw in Somalia to be inclusive. Four years later, many of the girls haven’t found their way home. And just the week alone, 100 more school girls have been kidnapped. Likewise, our discomfort with negative depiction of Muslims keeps our communities from supporting local communities facing real and imminent threat.

This raises the question, what makes something Islamophobic? The Islamophobia Research & Documentation project explains that Islamophobia was was first introduced in 1991 to mean “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.” The website provide a working definition:

Islamophobia is a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure. It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social and cultural relations, while rationalizing the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve “civilizational rehab” of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise). Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended.

How are some films that depict conflict in Muslim communities Islamophobic and some not?  Just because something makes us uncomfortable doesn’t make it Islamophobic.  Like Hodan Mohamed, numerous Black Muslim thought leaders contend that the scene was not Islamophobic. The scene spoke to a real issue that is affecting communities in the region. Dawud Walid, who has been in the forefront of addressing Islamophobia in Michigan also shared his thoughts on the film,

Why are some non-Black Muslims focused on this aspect of the film, rather than centering Nigerian narratives or even the narrative of the film? Layla Poulos proposed, “Perhaps they couldn’t relate to all those Black bodies.” Asha Noor, the pointed out, “You don’t have them attacking other Marvel white centered films for their anti-Muslim depictions. They don’t see themselves in T’Challa, and they don’t aspire to be part of that. So all you have is critique. They just stress me out. I don’t have time for that.” Those arguing that the film is Islamophobic are pitting Black Muslims against their two identities. To watch the film, they have to wrestle with whether celebrating this moment is betraying their faith.  It truly is exhausting when non-Black Muslims excercise their cultural capital to speak for all of us, and derail important conversations that Black Muslim should be having.

As Dawud Walid pointed out there was a lot of Islamic imagery, including homage to the great mosque of Djene. In Wakanda there were numerous representations of Muslim cultural identity including but not limited to Fulbe, Wolof, Tuareg, Hausa, and Mandinke. These included certain robes tied to Muslim clerical linages, Sahelian/Sudanese cultural elements including dress and architecture, pendants that many Africans wear that hold verses of the Qur’an,and  names that evoke Muslim identities. Costume designer Ruther Carter highlights that the Tuareg were important in representing the merchant tribe. Some of these Muslim elements reflected in the Pan-African imagery of Wakanda go largely undetected by people unfamiliar with West African or Sudano/Sahelian cultures. Black Muslims showed up to the film wearing their traditional African garb, and they were welcomed and embraced by their kinfolk of all faiths. 

Following the publication of the Kutty’s article and the viral social media post, some Muslims, mostly from South Asian and Middle Eastern heritage, said that they were boycotting the movie. I don’t think that my essay would sway them to watching the film. Nor is that necessarily my interest. What makes this tragic is that the Black Panther could do a great deal in uprooting  anti-Blackness and starting difficult conversations in our faith community. It happens to be that Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslim communities have long histories of anti-Blackness, narratives and depictions that date back to trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trade, which are now exacerbated by global white supremacy, and model minority narratives as strategies for assimilation in the West.  

Kutty’s article didn’t reference Africanist scholars or even Northern Nigerian Muslims who would be directly impacted by the film.  Had he done so, then perhaps his article would have opened up nuanced discussions about Islam in Africa, African Islam, and Black Orientalism.  But to do that, one would have to dig a bit deeper, to do so would mean to recognize the rich 1400 years of Islam in Africa and the agency of Black Muslim voices in practicing and interpreting their faith. With a film on track to reach one billion in sales, as Muslims we are not seizing the opportunity to increase awareness about #BringBackOurGirls and even raise funds  to support Boko Haram’s victims. Instead, we are arguing about how it makes Muslims look. This is stressful. It is tiring. And ain’t nobody got time for that.

 


I offer up a few  to people who are not Black watching the film.

  1. Be humble and don’t argue.  Especially with Black Muslims or Africans about the film. This is especially the case if your opinion is contested by scholars, organizers, activists and leaders whose work is on the front lines of addressing anti-Blackness and Islamophobia or they are Africanist scholars. When exploring the complexities of our multiple identities, Black Muslim voices should not be subsumed in service of a “monolithic” ummah. Within the framework of cultural competency, that is akin to cultural destructiveness.
  2. Evaluate your implicit bias. If your main take away was that one short scene where one group of bad guy may have perhaps claimed the same religion as you, maybe you need to explore some of your ability to relate to Black characters. One place to start is the Black-White implicit association test https://implicit.harvard.edu/ . If you’re not happy with the results, the test isn’t wrong. It means you have to do some work to interrupt that bias.
  3. Lean into the discomfort you feel in that film. De-center yourself and how your identity groups are depicted in the film. This may be the time when you have to explore where you identities are privileged and targeted. It may not be fun to recognize that  your faith identity may be oppressive to other groups (i.e. women, religious minorities in Muslim majority societies, people whose societies were raided and traffic to fuel the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trade for 1400 years); It’s called intersectionality.
  4. Read #BlackMuslimReads. This would be the time to start exploring  African scholarship on Orientalism, African Islam, and Islam in Africa. I offer up my bibliography on race and slavery in Muslim societies https://margariaziza.com/info-and-resources/race-and-slavery-in-muslim-societies-bibliography/. This would be the time to dive into the works of  Black American scholars like Sherman Jackson, Dawud Walid, or Su’ad Abdul Khabeer who lare experts in Black orientalism to see if your take has some basis
  5. Get trained.  Sign up for anti-racism training course.  MuslimARC offers some to help provide you with some critical cultural competency and a shared language to understand many of the issues of power, cultural domination, and narrative shift. We hope you take this as an opportunity to begin a long journey of collective liberation.  

 

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Black Panther and the Power of Imagination

I was in the mountains at a training retreat when Black Panther (2018) was released in theaters. So I only glimpsed the initial reviews during intermittent breaks in my program. My consolation was that in the thin crisp mountain air,  I had time to work with brilliant leaders of color and reflect on my leadership strengths.  It was just a movie, I told myself. I could geek out on getting to root causes of social problems in the Inland Empire, drawing on the historical context of the rise of the nation state and white supremacy.  As an anti-racism educator I draw upon my strength of historical context, as well as my others strengths in strategy, learning, input, and connection to dream, plan, and build a multi faith multiracial world that could be.  I have done that since I was a child, first with a notebook and colored pencils, then with a typewriter, a word processor, a desktop, then a laptop.  I used those skills to dream, plan, and build imaginary worlds. Science fiction and fantasy writers often created worlds where someone like me would never exist. I  sketched and wrote to create my own stories with characters who were idealized versions of people who looked like my multi-hued family.  Watching Black Panther, felt like a long awaited home coming. It was an epic, a fantasy, an Afro-futuristic world that gave life to my unrealized dreams.  

Over the past two weeks, I had to swallow a lot of envy as I couldn’t get away from work or obligations to find time to watch the film. Meanwhile, my timeline lit up with my friends and associates  seated on Wakandan thrones, going in large groups and decked out in their finest traditional and African inspired clothing.  I too had been waiting for some time. My interest in Black Panther came largely through the first Black woman superhero, Storm. I came to know her through the X-men cartoons.  In the cartoon, she was beautiful, powerful, magical, cold, and aloof. She was also cut off from her culture. She was always alone. Who loved the gorgeous and powerful Storm? Who loves the magical black girls, the darkly hued warrior women? Over a decade ago, I walked into a comic book store and the cover art answered my question. It was Black Panther. I didn’t know much about him. But rendering of the marriage of Storm and Black Panther took my breath away. A decade later I became reacquainted as Prince T’Challa appeared with his female bodyguards in Marvel’s Civil War. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was on twitter at the time, announced that he was writing the series. Acclaimed author Roxanne Gay wrote the Worlds of Wakanda spin off series. Even though it was a big deal, I had no idea how big it would get.  

Chancellor Williams didn’t pull any punches

Nor did I realize how profound Black Panther would be for me. As a child, I was fed the National Geographic gaze of Africans and I was ashamed of my own history. It wasn’t until I went to high school, and began reading Black nationalist, Pan-African, and revolutionary writings that I started to gain a sense of self, my own history and pride in my roots. Some of the first books I read right after I graduated high school set my journey to become Muslim. The most significant books were Chancellor William’s The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race Between 4500 B.C. and 2000 A.D. and the FBI files of Malcolm X. Becoming Muslim at 18 was not just a leap to faith, it was a leap to embracing my full identity as a daughter of the African Diaspora.  My study of Muslims and the pre-modern world gave me a glimpse of what cosmopolitanism could look like outside of white supremacy. As a young person who newly became Muslim, I dove into medieval Arabic literature. I found texts and historical accounts that countered the egalitarian message that I embraced when I became Muslim. When I transferred to a four year college in 1998, I embarked on a long journey to understand racial formation in Muslim societies, Islam in Africa, and Black identities in the Middle East. Because they didn’t need written language, outside the Arabic literature in sub-Saharan Africa, we don’t have many written accounts of African societies without slave raiding or under threat from a foreign hegemony.

The Black Panther film  was so rich for me, as a child of Diaspora and a scholar of African history. Africanists often do thought experiments to imagine what could be.  Walter Rodney inspired us deeply to think about the underdevelopment. What if whole regions weren’t depopulated as sons and daughters weren’t carried off? What if the railways were built to connect African cities, rather than export raw resources to Europe, Asia, and the Americas? What if mass deaths didn’t occur and Africa was allowed to develop without the influence of colonialism and now neoliberal policies? What if toxic strains of foreign ideologies hadn’t bred internalized racism and dehumanization of other tribes, faiths, or nations?

All of this is some heady stuff for an action film. So many Black women intellectuals have written amazing pieces, such as “Black women ‘never freeze’” by Dara Mathis  there is even a #BlackPantherSyllabus and #WakandanSyllabus. During this cultural moment, while Black folks globally are having deep discussions and more petty debates about who has a right to wear daishikis, some of my co-religionists take umbrage to a 2 minute scene involving Boko Haram and called the film Islamophobic. It is akin to the derailing of the viral #BringBackOurGirls campaign, where some Middle East activists used the hashtag to critique Michelle Obama. Sadly, this week Boko Haram has kidnapped a dozen school girls. While I’m basking in Vanta Blackness, I don’t want my celebration to be derailed. So I’ll save my discourse analysis for another day. But I hope that the film raises awareness to drum up support for African led initiatives to combat Boko Haram. If only there was a Nakia to help bring those girls home. In the meantime, more of you can spend time learning about African history, reading African literature, and uprooting the anti-Black racism that your communities have been complicit in. We should also be more open to the deeper messages in the film and focus our energies on that.  A visionary place like Wakanda can show us that the Black imagination is key for collective liberation. 

 

Some Good Reads

Panther: an A-Z of African Nuggets

Is Black Panther Islamophobic? A Somali Canadian Perspective

 

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