Superheroes don’t really exist, right? They’re fantastical pulpy creations that can crush steel with their bare hands, change shape, or fly. They’re a projection of what can but never will be possible.
Not so with Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teen from Jersey City who is acutely aware of the difference between right and wrong. The image of the fourth ‘Ms. Marvel’ superhero, who first appeared as a comic-book character in 2013, has become an unexpected counterweight to anti-Muslim bus ads that appeared in San Francisco in late January.
On January 16th, San Francisco bus’s began featuring ads that said, “Islamic Jew Hatred: It’s in the Quran. Stop the Hate.” There was a picture of Adolf Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini with a caption that read, “Adolf Hitler and his staunch ally, the leader of the Muslim world, Haj Amin al-Husseini.”
The party responsible for the racist ads was a notorious anti-Muslim organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI). The ad campaign orignally began in New York City in the aftermath of Hebdo attacks in Paris, had moved west—to one of America’s more tolerant cities, San Francisco.
But San Franciscans soon grew tired of Hitler’s mustache and the ridiculous claims that Muslims are Nazis. Soon, anoymous graffiti artists and acitivists responded to the right-wing Islamophobic campaign, pasting posters of super-powered Kamala over the bigoted bus ads. Suddenly, the newest Ms. Marvel was a resistance figure of a sort, speaking for the more just side of Islam, albeit in very American terms.
AFDI is led by Pamela Geller, and claims to be a human rights organization protecting American freedom from Islamization. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies AFDI as a hate group.
In the last few years, AFDI has led rallies in Garland, Texas, telling Americans to “Stand Against Jihad” and “Stand Against Sharia” all in the name of free speech. Geller claims that Islamic supermacists are restricting Americans’ right to free speech.
Kamala seems to also feel passionately about freedom of speech. And in one bus ad, there was an image of the superhero with her fist in the air next to a caption that read, “Free Speech is not a License to Spread Hate.” Other posters showed Kamala next to word bubbles, such as “Stamp Out Racism!”
Rarely do comic book heroes make the leap into direct political activism. Kamala has taken an active stance against the negative perceptions that surround Muslim culture and was exciting for Ms. Marvel author, G. Willow Wilson, who tweeted, “Some amazing person has been painting over the anti-Muslim bus ads in San Francisco with Ms. Marvel graffiti. Spread love.”
Other Muslim-American organizations, such as Columbia University’s Muslim Student Association are equally excited. Haris Durani, a fourth year engineering student who heads Columbia’s MSA chapter, said, “I think Ms. Marvel has the power to combat Islamophobia. The emotional response is key. Plus, anyone can read a book, especially a comic book, which makes it even better.”
By playing to feelings, and fantasy, Kamala Khan has challenged racism and defied distorted ideas about free speech. She’s actively countering stereotypes, one imaginatively defaced AFDI advertisement after another.