January 22, 2011
Batman vs. The Prophet
One of my favorite books as a child was a collection of the tales of Uncle Remus, which anti-slavery activist Joel Chandler Harris gathered from slaves across the South. And we all know the most famous story in that collection: Bre'r Rabbit and the Tar Baby. It's one of the few where Bre'r Rabbit doesn't come out on top. In most of the stories, he outwits and humiliates the aggressive Bre'r Fox, who aspires to eat him. In this one, however, Bre'r Fox sets a trap for the cocky rabbit in the form of a carefully crafted, human-looking ball of tar complete with coat, hat and pipe. When the Tar Baby won't give Bre'r Rabbit a friendly greeting, Bre'r Rabbit punches him. Unable to free himself, he punches again, then kicks, and finally head-butts this dissenter from Southern good manners, until at last he's entirely encased in sticky tar. This tale has ever since served as a metaphor for no-win conflicts you want to avoid, which if engaged will prove interminable--like our occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and our useless "alliance" with Pakistan.
Well tonight I feel like I'm staring at my very own Tar Baby in the form of an Islamic comic book. Or, to be more precise, of the Muslim sidekick, Nightrunner, who will soon join Batman in DC Comics. Why is this a battle I'd rather not pick? Because it's too easy to come off sounding both sinister and silly. That was certainly how Omar Karmi of The National portrayed critics of the new Muslim character:
It would be hard to find a more boilerplate superhero. Nightrunner, the latest hero to join the ranks of DC Comic's stable of characters, was brought up on the mean streets of Paris and is an outstanding practitioner of the daredevil urban gymnastics called parkour.
He managed to stay out of trouble because of a keen sense of justice instilled in him by his devout mother, and was recruited to join Batman Inc, a gobal crimefighting network established by the original Batman, Bruce Wayne.
So why is this fairly typical fictional superhero causing a furore in the real world? He is a Muslim, of Algerian descent to be precise, and that has some people in the US, notably right-wing bloggers, in a tizzy.
While an argument over the religion and ethnicity of a comic book character might seem like something of a tempest in a teapot, observers say it is part of a broader pattern of growing anti-Islamic sentiment in the US.
As we see, even addressing such a topic can make you sound petty and paranoid, like the Rev. Jerry Falwell accusing a Teletubby of sodomy. It's tempting not even to address the question, lest you seem ridiculous. But let's turn it around for a minute.
Whenever a pop culture institution makes a concession to the cultural Left, it is invariably and shamelessly trumpeted in the media as a sign of "progress" toward "inclusiveness" and "tolerance." The creation of The 99, a team of Muslim superheroes embodying attributes of the 99 names of Allah, by Dutch comic publisher Endemol, was lauded by no less than the Times of London for "counter[ing] the effects of jihadist agitprop on Muslim minds." (If a comic book series could indeed cancel out the Qur'anic injunctions to oppress unbelievers, I would be lauding it myself--indeed, I'd happily be passing out copies in Arab neighborhoods.)
So it's acceptable to take seriously comic books, or plush animals on children's TV, as long as they are fostering multiculturalist goals. At such moments, there is no question that pop culture is important. But let someone on the other side agree, "Yes, pop culture matters--which is why I deplore this development," and he comes off as a kook. It's a tactic, and a fairly effective one.
I'm not one to lose much sleep over comic books, but I do find Nightrunner disquieting-- as I found the Christian imagery in the Spiderman movies uplifting. Most of the time, in American popular culture, religion is ignored, or used as backstory (for instance, when Mafia dons meet at the Feast of San Gennaro). When mass culture treats my religion as something important, real, and worthy of respect, I take it as an affirmation that I have a place in the mainstream. And that is why producers of comic books like Nightrunner are including Muslim characters, to foster the mainstreaming of Islam.
I wouldn't object so much if the playing field were level. It's common for films and TV skits to make fun of (white) Evangelical preachers, of Catholic priests, and of Jewish rabbis--because these groups have mostly learned how to take a joke, without firebombing newspaper offices or hunting down cartoonists as if they were war criminals.
It's obvious that people don't feel equally free to mock Islam, and it's obvious why: the fear of mayhem. The reason Muslims react with savage violence to portrayals of Muhammad is simply because it works--it puts the world on notice that as a community they are a fearful and implacable force, whose demands must be accommodated. Given that is indeed the case, and that this attitude has deep roots in the very doctrines of Islam, it's not a religion anyone should wish to see mainstreamed, any more than we'd want the Aryan Nations or Scientology accepted into the pantheon of "respectable" faiths.
What's worse is that Nightrunner betrays the spirit of Batman. Bruce Wayne is a millionaire whose parents were murdered by bandits, who devotes his wealth to fighting crime and injustice--while keeping his identity utterly secret, averse as he is to public adulation. Could there be a figure more opposite to Muhammad? Indeed, if comic book writers are so desperate to include a Muslim character in Batman, let me make a suggestion:
Cast Muhammad himself as one of Batman's supervillain opponents. He could be called The Prophet. A native of Gotham City (e.g. Mecca), he started out running for mayor--convinced that his private vision would bring justice and peace to the city. When he failed, and was run out of town on a rail, he brought his followers with him to a neighboring town that had fallen into chaos (e.g., Medina), with the promise that he could restore tranquility. Instead, he seizes absolute power. His "visions" begin to change, their content gradually serving to feed his ambition and lust for pleasure. Soon, the very people who brought him in to keep the peace are forced to obey him slavishly or flee the city. And now he's looking hungrily at Gotham City, sending his henchmen to conduct audacious raids against its commerce, and raising a private army intended to conquer his old home town and make it his super-secret base for conquering the world....
Now that's a comic book I'd really like to see. I hope some brave, anonymous soul sees fit to create it.
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