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It is wrong to say that Black Panther is Islamophobic

The notion that this culturally important Marvel Studios film plays into prejudice is simply misguided

When we are looking at any work of popular culture, its positioning in the era, or the circumstances in which it was produced, are pivotal. Whether that be anti-communist movies made during the cold war, or Black Panther made during the era of Black Lives Matter.

In fact, the phenomenon that has now become Black Panther - which has grossed in excess of $292m to date – continues to defy any of Hollywood's markers of success.

Black visibility

It is of course important to speak about the film's global success but also to view it as a possible platform in the conversation around black visibility, not just in terms of film, but in culture more generally.

Its intention appears to be to make possible for the black community an imagined future of empowerment, strength and aspiration, an Afrofuturism serving the world as a source of good.

One wonders if it were not more crucial an act that such critics - who cry injustice and Islamophobia of this scene - speak out against these real irreligious, heinous acts - instead of aligning themselves with an imagined attack on Islam

It seems, therefore, almost strange that a small - but pointed - number of Muslims have chosen to take issue with a few minutes of the film. They specifically wish to call out what they consider the supposed "Islamophobic nature" of the scene where young hijab-wearing African girls are rescued from the clutches of masked men.

Without rehashing the scene at any great length, there is an accusation that it purports to portray Boko Haram and their real-life kidnapping of young Muslim girls in Nigeria. Therein lies the outrage about the notion that Black Panther, and by extension Hollywood, continues to perpetuate the myth of Muslim savagery.

Michael B Jordan and Chadwick Boseman star in Marvel Studios' Black Panther, 2018 (Marvel Studios)
As a woman from the Muslim faith and who hails from the South Asian diaspora - and who is heavily involved in work to expose Islamophobia - it hasn't gone unnoticed by me that most of this criticism of the film and this scene comes from outside the Black Muslim community and, more pertinently, has not come from African Muslims.

Most of the criticism has in fact come from South Asian critics and viewers. Why is this point relevant? For a whole host of reasons.

Conscious and powerful

Firstly, Black Panther in its current incarnation was in fact the brainchild of screenwriter Joe Robert Cole and writer-director Ryan Coogler, both African-American men who have spoken publicly and extensively about what they regard as the backdrop of the black experience in the world today.

Robert Cole said: "...I think if you ask many black people, they'll say that things haven't changed nearly as much as folks may think. There may be a broader awareness of some of the conditions, but I don't really think that there's been some dramatic shift. For all of us working on the project, we just kept our heads down and tried to pour our hearts into the work."

This is reiterated in much of how these two men have spoken about their work and how much this has impacted on the creative decisions they made for the film: conscious and powerful decisions about the portrayal of black people - not as weak, not disempowered, nor discriminated against.

It is incredulous to believe that the writers who consciously made every intricate decision with meticulous attention to its symbolism for their audience would suddenly throw caution to the Islamophobic wind 

The writers have a very keen awareness of the intricacies that every single scene in the film represents, from the colours of the clothes worn by female leads, down to the significance of the removal of a wig before a fight scene.

It is, therefore, improbable to believe that these writers, who consciously made every intricate decision with meticulous attention to its symbolism for their audience, would suddenly throw caution to the Islamophobic wind and choose to embed in their whole narrative a solitary scene which undoes all this, attacking the vulnerabilities of another group of people who are also facing the scourge of subversive racism: namely Muslims.

How likely is it that the writers would purposefully twist the knife and suspend their ability to see bigotry in all its forms, while the audience suspends the notion that this whole film about visibility and power would continue to play into prejudice?

Islamophobia and misogyny

Furthermore, as a woman who chooses to wear hijab, I, and many like me, are in fact very well aware of how Islamophobia and misogyny sometimes by extension work together, given the fact that the vast majority of Islamophobic hate crime is levelled at women.

As women of colour, we are fully aware that perceptions of us as vulnerable victims are dyed in the wool stereotypes we struggle to shake off. What seems to be forgotten is that this should also be the exact same stereotype levelled at the lead character who saved these girls in the film.

If bigotry wished to portray young African women as voiceless and vulnerable, by that very rationale they should not have been saved by one. And yet a young African woman in the form of Nakia, both strong and empathic, saves her African sisters.

Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa in Black Panther (Marvel Studios/2018)
Does that sound like the narrative of Islamophobia or misogyny to any of us who have experienced it? No. Could it be, therefore, that there is more to this scene about the struggle and assertion of women as a collective within the African experience?

This by extension raises another discussion regarding the portrayal of these men as the supposed Boko Haram who have veered into the land of Wakanda in the film and are in fact thwarted by fellow Africans.

If this is a close-to-life portrayal, then it should go without saying that people across Africa have denounced the Boko Haram as terrorists and kidnappers. The same group only a few days ago once again kidnapped more young girls and subjected them to what can only be described as a fate worse than death.

Shared goals

Would it not have been the logical response for African Muslims to have become enraged at negative representations of their men? Yet no. For there is no affinity with these perpetrators as their brothers in faith. And why any other group of Muslims would pick up on this as particularly discriminatory has become a point of bafflement. 

It is hard to surmise why South Asian Muslims, who struggle to tackle pervasive attitudes of anti-blackness that is pervasive within their community, would take issue with a film about black power. Was there equal lamentation at other Islamophobic hit films, and by so many?

Is Black Panther Islamophobic?
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The answer is no. Therefore, we must once again ask the question as to why some Muslims outside of Africa have taken issue with this scene to the extent that they have. Films and all forms of artistic expression which seek to bring about a social and/or racial consciousness are but one of the many necessary tools of a persecuted people.

It is a must that we take these moments to look at this film within the full context of its visibility in turning on its head the narrative of dominant ethnocentric representations of power. It serves us well to stand together in doing this if we wish to imagine a discourse which builds rather than looks for diversions at this critical political juncture.

There is a shared goal in the discussion around this film, which is facing the very real task of standing up to Islamophobia, bigotry and racism. And we would all do well to take stock of that.

- Sultanah Parvin is a public speaker, anti-racist activist and educator. She has worked extensively within the Muslim community in London over the past 20 years, speaking on issues of race, misogyny and political engagement. She is currently involved in an online platform for Muslim women across the globe that seeks to find safe and viable spaces where Muslim women can discuss and lead conversations and critique on social and political issues.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) between Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) (R) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) (L) (Marvel Studios 2018)

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