“You’re scaring me, hovering over me like that,” said the stranger sitting at one end of the bench. I had a foot propped on the other end to stretch my hamstring. He and I had just finished a local fundraising 5K with a “Heroes and Villains” theme.
I had chosen to run as Dust, a face-veil-and-abaya-wearing X-Men character who happens to be Muslim. I told him this and pointed out, “I’m a hero, not a villain.”
“I feel a little better,” he said, acknowledging his familiarity with the reference. Then, a minute later, apparently after replaying Dust’s story line back in his head, he added, “But you’re conflicted?”
My reply: “What mutant isn’t?”
On the surface, my fellow runner and I were dissecting the psychology of a fictional character dreamed up by Marvel Comics. But in reality, like Dust, I was conflicted. As a Muslim woman who doesn’t ordinarily cover my hair, let alone my face, I’ve had members of my religion tell me I’m misguided, or sinning, or heading straight to hell for the way I dress or, alternatively, for believing it’s OK to dress the way I do. It would be better to believe I was obligated to wear a head-covering but not wear it, some say, than to wear it but believe it was not obligatory.
I try not to dwell on veiling in my thinking, writing or teaching about Islam. Dust, of course, brings the veil front and center. She may be a rare positive representation of a Muslim woman in comic books, but her character is affected by Orientalism and sexism. Does she break down stereotypes, or does she reinforce them?
It’s a legitimate question, and had the race been held two weeks earlier, I might have worn a different costume. But in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, conflicting Muslim identities have been much in the news — and much on my mind as well. The fact that the bombing suspects were long-time Massachusetts residents, locally educated and English-speaking, has raised questions about conflicting loyalties.
Those who are visibly Muslim bear the brunt of misdirected anger and unacceptable violence. A woman wearing a head-scarf in the next town over from me was attacked even before it was known that the bombing suspects were Muslim. The notion that veiling and Islam somehow connote evil bothered me, and I wanted to do my small part to disrupt it, even if it meant running 3 miles clad head-to-toe in black.
Though the American justice system operates on the principle of innocent until proven guilty, it seems increasingly irrefutable that the attack was motivated by a hateful interpretation of Islam. And Muslim communities here, which have wholeheartedly condemned the bombing, will undertake heightened self-scrutiny, asking the sorts of questions Americans always ask when someone in our midst commits a seemingly uncharacteristic act of violence: What could we have done differently? How could we have known? How can we prevent something like this from happening again? It doesn’t mean we are at fault, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing everything we can to prevent future violence.
The same applies to the country as a whole. I think there is a useful analogy between the iatrogenic practices of the fictional American government that stigmatizes and persecutes mutants in the X-Men universe and the real American government whose policies and practices in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere have led to many thousands of civilian casualties and contributed to building anti-American sentiment in the region. Furthermore, time and again terrorist attacks undertaken in both the U.S. and abroad point to the Muslim loss of life in those countries as a pretext for violence.
The more stigma and suspicion attaches to Muslims just because they are Muslim, the more the benevolent Professor X’s dreams of co-existence look naïve, and the more Magneto, leader of a rival group of vengeful mutants, seems to be getting it right.
And as for the woman who huffed “Really?!” as I passed her on the sidewalk on my way to the starting line? She can eat my dust.