Kamala: a smart, teenage, Pakistani girl with aspirations of changing the world. Sound familiar? You would be forgiven for thinking of Malala Yousafzai, now famous for advocating women's rights to education. But while it was the attempted assassination at the hands of the Taliban that brought Malala to worldwide attention, her role as a symbol has been inspirational in the most unlikely of places.
Last week, Marvel announced the launch of the new title Ms Marvel, which focuses on superhero Kamala Khan. A teenage Muslim girl growing up in Jersey City, Kamala's mission is to attempt to put right the wrongs of the world.
Kamala joins a small but growing number of Muslim comic book superheroes. Shortly after 9/11, Marvel introduced the burqa clad Sooraya Qadir, who has the ability to transform into sand. Known for their ever expanding cinematic universe, Marvel is no stranger to taking risks. This latest move proves their continuing desire to remain leaders of the comic book industry – somewhat surprising given their purchase by uber-conglomerate Disney back in 2009.
Continuing this trend, Marvel's primary competitor, DC Comics, introduced Nightrunner – a French Algerian iteration of Batman, and Simon Baz – the newest member of the Green Lantern Corps, and an Arab American.
Since their inception, comics have been analogous to reality in some way or another. Beginning with Captain America and the second world war, through the X-Men and the Civil Rights Movement and continuing right up to the present day. Comics have always been a unique medium through which social and political issues have been addressed.
Perhaps the best example of "art imitating life" is in the case of the X-Men. Comic book critic Craig Shutt postulates that two of the world's most popular comic book characters are, in fact, based on two of the 20th century's most influential activists. He asserts that Martin Luther King provided the inspiration for Professor Charles Xavier – the pacifist who advocates methods of non-violence. Whilst Malcolm X is the basis for his long time friend and arch rival Magneto – who will achieve equality for mutantkind "by any means necessary".
As many Muslims are making a positive impact within the real world, it's a positive step that comic books should have heroes of the Muslim faith. People who are a symbol of truth and justice, whose religious belief is almost incidental.
Having worked with young people for over a decade, the need for relatable role models – be they fictional like Kamala, or based in reality like Malala – is growing, particularly for young Muslim women. This is even more crucial living in a post 9/11 world, where young Muslims sometimes struggle to find their identity in a time when they are being pulled at from every direction. One can only imagine the positive impact these role models could have in the years to come.
But while comic books lead the way, should we not expect other creative industries to follow suit? It remains difficult to find positive Muslim role models emerging in the form of film characters, despite the long history of influential Western Muslims. While the movie industry has contributed to gay, civil rights and anti-Semitic struggles, countering Islamophobia is an area where there's still much work to be done.
In true comic book fashion, every hero needs a villain. The occidental west has always looked upon itself as the hero, a champion of liberty. For generations its enemy was communism and the easter bloc. This battle of East vs. West is arguably best portrayed in Rocky IV, with Italian American Rocky Balboa overcoming the ferocious Russian Ivan Drago. In recent years however that figure of the enemy has shifted from communism to Islam.
What began in the 90's with movies such as Executive Decision andThe Siege has ballooned with television series such as 24 and Homeland. But as the comic book industry has illustrated, even the most conservative of Muslims can be portrayed in a positive light. Perhaps it is time that other creative industries take a page from the comic book industry and assume responsibility for their role in influencing the subconscious of our society and our perception of others.
Muaaz Khan is a consultant, with a focus on engagement with young people from minority backgrounds.