Is Black Panther Islamophobic? A Somali Canadian Perspective

Hodan Ahmed Mohamed is a Somali Canadian researcher based in Toronto, Ontario. And that's King T-Challa (Black Panther) rocking a thobe, chosen by the film's costume designer who has been putting actors in thobes since dong the costume design for Spike Lee's Malcolm X.

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First, I need to tell you who I am.

I am a diaspora Somali Canadian based in Toronto, Ontario. 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. As a co-founder of the Canadian Association of Muslim Women in Law (CAMWL) I have organized public education forums and co-authored a paper exploring issues of Islamophobia and anti-Black racism and how they intersect in the lives of Black Muslim Canadians.

Black Panther is beautifully made, cinematically powerful and the actors truly embody the iconic, larger than life superheroes many of us grew up with, but the caviar here is that they reflect so many of us who rarely see ourselves on the big screen. I have watched this movie three times now and every time, I leave the theatre thinking about what could have been if Africa was not colonized and exploited, including how past and current African leadership have consistently failed its people. What I have not considered though was the argument made by some Muslims about it being Islamophobic. Specifically, the opening scene of the movie, where Black American actor Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia and Zimbabwean actress Danai Gurira as General Okoye rescue young Nigerian women kidnapped by men who seem to be members of the notorious Boko Haram. The film clearly states that the scene takes place in the Sambisa Forest, which is believed to be where Boko Haram is hiding many of the girls it has abducted. The inclusion of this scene has lead some to claim that it reinforces the negative stereotype about Muslims as inherently violent. One prominent Canadian Muslim figure stated the following:

“At the risk of sounding insensitive to the longing of the black community for a worthy portrayal, this movie joins many others in normalising a stereotypical depiction of Muslims.” (Faisal Kutty).

I am fully cognizant of the explicit and implicit ways mainstream media and pop culture weaponizes bigoted images about Muslims. I hope it would be needless to say that I wouldn’t pay three times to go see a film if I thought was promoting Islamophobia. As a Somali woman, my community has been at the front lines of Islamophobia in this country since we came here, the majority of us as refugees, in the late 80s and 90s. But, we have also been targets of the systemic anti-Black racism of the settler colonial Canadian state as it manifests in the school system, the child welfare system, the criminal justice system, and the immigration system. I have a Masters from OISE but I didn’t need to go to university to study these systems, I’ve seen the damage they can do first hand.

Yes, I have watched the film Black Panther three times. This shouldn’t surprise people as many Black Canadians who could afford to have watched the film multiple times. We have also worked with allies to raise funds to ensure Black children and youth in our communities could go see the film. Entire classes of schools have booked out theatres for private screenings so their students of all races could watch the film for free. That’s because this isn’t your typical Hollywood superhero movie.

Unlike many Black Canadians I know, I didn’t dress up in traditional Somali attire to go watch the film because I was coming from work, although I did wear Somali accessories each time. I went to Black Panther three times because I needed to. Black Panther is not just some feel good movie aimed to make Black people happy because there is a superhero who looks like us. As the film’s Black American director and writer Ryan Coogler has stated, he is serving medicine in ice cream.

The first time I saw the film, I had a lot to process and just think through, so felt watching it a second time would allow me to enjoy the movie again but also let me think through a lot of the sadness and curiosity that came with watching it the first time. The sadness and curiosity came from thinking about what could have been if the continent of Africa, if my homeland Somalia, had not been colonized. Wakanda is a fictional African nation that not only has become rich from using a metal with extensive powers that came from outer space, Vibranium, it is a nation that, because it was able to use technology from this metal, managed to protect itself from being colonized.

The superhero aspects of the film come from this “magical” metal, which of course reminds us of all of the natural riches of the African continent, such as the uranium from the Democratic Republic of Congo that the US used in the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the coltan used probably in one of the devices you are reading this article on, to oil, of which Nigeria has some of the best quality, to the countless plants that are currently being patented by US and Indian pharmaceutical companies. The continent of Africa in reality is rich, but few of those riches have been used to support the development of the continent and its peoples because of colonialism and imperialism that persists, in various forms, to this day.

Black Panther is an anti-colonial superhero movie, and no, it doesn’t take a degree from OISE to understand that, it’s stated repeatedly in the dialogue in the film itself.

But of course, I have to answer the question first, is the film Islamophobic?

As someone who writes, researches, and educates on the subject of Islamophobia, I would like to think I would know Islamophobia when I see it. And I don’t see it here. What I do see is a narrative that is not only Black-centred but primarily African-centred, meaning that it might not be as accessible to those who frankly don’t engage much with the discussions and dilemmas Black communities, particularly Black African communities, grapple with on a daily basis. You don’t have to be an expert in African studies to understand these discusions.

Kutty further states: “The problem is that this scene [the opening scene set in Nigeria] plays into the prevalent negative narrative of Muslims as bad, because there is no obviously good Muslim (unless you are an expert on African cultures and can read into the movie).” Really, only experts in African cultures could interpret this scene differently? Couldn’t you also just be a Nigerian? An African? This statement says more about the author’s own misguided assumption than that of the viewers he is concerned about. In order to not just jump to the most negative conclusion possible about Muslims based on this scene, you could just be anyone who knows anything about Nigeria, the most populous nation in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the challenges it faces.

Challenges like Boko Haram.

In 2015, Boko Haram killed more people than Daesh (ISIS). Did you know that?

I have read those accusing the film of Islamophobia saying that it would have been better to not have included anything about Boko Haram in the opening scene so that there would be no portrayal of Muslims at all. That’s because they are not seeing the film centred on a African perspective, which no, you do not have to be an expert in African Studies to know about, you just have to follow discussions by Nigerians, Africans, and even Black Americans on how little attention has been given to Boko Haram in mainstream media, and how little assistance has been offered in terms of being able to fight Boko Haram or at least support the humanitarian needs of the millions of people the group has displaced. Considering that Nigeria is the most populous nation in Sub-Saharan Africa, portraying a major ongoing conflict that has no end in sight in that nation seems pretty relevant to me for a film about a fictional African nation. One conflict on the contintent is not interchangable for another, although many people who pay little attention to the region may think so.

Why has the lack of support for Nigerians impacted by Boko Haram concerned Black peoples on the continent and in the diaspora so much? Because, the lack of concern about the chaos caused by Boko Haram- chaos that continues to this day, as just this week, while everyone was writing about how Islamophobic Black Panther was, the group attacked a predominantly Muslim town and now over 100 Muslim girls are missing, their parents desperate to find them-is part of the global Black Lives Matter struggle. From the lack of concern about the babies of African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, to even Muslim communities seemingly unaware of the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the Central African Republic until the Pope paid a visit to them, to the ongoing struggle to get non-African Muslims to donate to humanitarian causes in Africa, which anyone who works with Islamic charities will admit-Black Lives don’t really seem to matter globally.

So no, the scene was necessary in terms of the overall theme of the movie, the need for Wakanda to stop living in isolation from the problems of the rest of the world and do something to help…because no one else is going to. This is a scene of Africans intervening to protect other Africans. And this issue will run throughout the whole film, as it explores how unfortunately Black peoples have turned on each other, often due to the chaos caused by colonialism and American imperial attempts at destabilization, often in the interest of extracting natural resources. No, you don’t need a degree from OISE to understand that or be some expert on African studies, it is spelled out quite clearly by Agent Ross, the CIA agent played by Martin Freeman, who has hid what he knows about Black Panther from his government.

Frankly, if the filmmakers really wanted to be Islamophobic, they could have had Black Panther intervene to free Black Africans from Libyan slave traders or to stop Muslim terrorists attacking a mall or university in Kenya who demanded that Christians identify themselves so they could kill them. Sadly, there are plenty of situations on the continent right now that could easily lend themselves to the fostering of Islamophobic sentiment if depicted on film. But Boko Haram isn’t one of them as their main targets are other Muslims, they haven’t discriminated between abducting Christians or Muslims, they seem determined to wreak havoc on everyone.

A pivotal moment in the opening scene, that I am still puzzled that those accusing the film of Islamophobia haven’t commented on, is when Nakia (Lupita N’yong’o) stops Black Panther from killing a militant who is firing on him. Black Panther would be fully in his rights to defend himself, but Nakia stops him. She informs him that the young man was abducted too. It is a striking moment and the first where I knew I was watching a very different superhero movie. With a few lines of dialogue, Nakia makes the argument in defense of child soldiers. I would have expected writers who were vocal about our need to bring Omar Khadr back home to recognize this.

Also, did anyone else love how Nakia fights wearing full jilbab?

After this scene, we travel to Wakanda and hear a song by Senegalese Fulani artist Baaba Maal. I could just imagine how excited many Senegalese Muslims in Quebec watching the film must have been when they heard this!

It is fine for Muslims to agree to disagree about whether Black Panther should have included a positive image of a Muslim character who is obviously Muslim by Western standards. There are huge arguments taking place among Black communities about the film, whether it is anti-colonial or instead just neo-colonial, the lack of a positive representation of an African American, why so many of us identify with Killmonger though not his methods, and they are so exciting to read and engage in. This is a film designed to make you think, so of course there will be disagreements.

But I have a problem with dismissing a film that clearly has opened up discussions about colonialism, the real reasons behind American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, how so often dictators use the language of “revolution” to claim and maintain their own power, and the need for colonized peoples to realize that if you use the tools of colonizers and imperialists to “liberate” your people, you will just cause chaos because, as Black feminist Audre Lorde states “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” This is something we are constantly trying to do as Muslims, learning from our own history and intellectual traditions to solve our current problems instead of feeling that we need to always look to Western traditions.

These discussions are just as relevant for Muslims who are not Black as they are for Black Muslims.

If we are going to engage with concerns about the film stirring up Islamophobia, Muslim writers must also incorporate a discussion about these other aspects of the film. Why are critiques of the film ignoring how the film addresses American imperialism, often orchestrated by the CIA (again clearly stated in the film) and how it has ravaged nations and continues to do so constantly creating humanitarian crises, leading to refugees that the states responsible for creating the crises then don’t want to support.

The film even seems aimed at opening up discussions about Black Americans in the US military and how they have become tools of this imperialism, a discussion that has been happening in Black communities for over a century since the US invasion of the Philippines, and was even raised by Martin Luther King Jr during the Vietnam War.

I am also concerned with how these articles written seem to automatically pit Black communities against Muslims. As if somehow Black people are enjoying this film at Muslims’ expense. And if you are going to argue that Black Panther is Islamophobic, even if “unintentionally”, it is not a stretch for me to argue that the lack of thought that has gone into these opinion pieces exploring concerns about Islamophobia in the film stir up anti-Blackness within Muslim communities and also feed into a long standing divisiveness between Black Muslims and non-Muslim Black peoples which some of us are working hard to try to breakdown because there are so many issues we need to be collaborating on right now. Even if these authors do this “unintentionally”, the impact is very real, I’m watching it play out on my social media right now.

These discussions should probably also include how Islamophobia in Black communities, anti-Black racism in Muslim communities, and fostering divisiveness between Black Muslims and non-Muslim Black peoples in the diaspora and on the continent just might be playing into those imperialist interests…so maybe we should think twice before so easily playing along.

I just want the Black Muslim children I work with to go see this film and not feel like enjoying it is somehow a betrayal of the Ummah (Global Muslim community).

If Muslims are very concerned that the viewers of this movie are walking away with a negative view of Islam, shouldn’t we then be trying to engage in more dialogue with non-Muslim Black communities? Of course, if we do so, there will be no way to avoid their questions about issues of anti-Black racism within local Muslim communities and in Muslim majority countries. Issues they are aware of either because they have been the target of this racism or they have supported Black Muslims who have been the target. Because, although relations between Black Muslims and non-Muslim Black peoples are complicated and conflict prone, in reality, we are deeply interconnected not only in the diaspora but in many countries on the continent where Muslims and non-Muslims have been co-existing for hundreds and in some regions over a thousand years. In many ways, there is much we could learn from how African countries navigate religious pluralism.

What the ‘Islamophobia controversy,’ around Black Panther reveals is a larger issue within Muslim communities, one where the discussion about Islamophobia is considered a static and linear dialogue that transcends history and lived experiences, unifying 1.5 billion people under one political thought process. I have argued against this popular paradigm, which excludes Black communities history with Islam, their suffering under both the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, but also slave trades driven by predominantly Muslim markets that transported Africans across the Middle East and South Asia, where there remain African diasporas in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and India that are often marginalized and subject to systemic anti-Black racism, the rise of sectarian Muslim traditions and political movements that have destabilized African countries, to present day anti-Black racism within Muslim diaspora communities. Even when it seems Black Muslims are going along with the status quo, many of us recognize that being aware of who we are does not make us “bad” Muslims who are disloyal to the Ummah but instead we are striving to be principled people who know that we are to stand up for justice, even if it is against our brothers, sisters, and ourselves as the beloved Prophet Mohamed (saw) called us to do.



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