The day after the January 7 attacks on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, one member of (Bay Area Art Queers Unleashing Power) texted another one, saying, “Get ready, Pam Geller’s going to come to town.” For those of you who don’t follow right wing anti-Islam activists, Pam Geller is the force behind the blog American Freedom Defense Initiative and also the funding behind on the sides of Muni buses.
Sure enough, on January 9, residents of San Francisco were greeted by ads placing an image of 20th Century Muslim leader Haj Amin al-Husseini next to one of Hitler, equating Islam to Nazism. The ads could be spotted on buses all over town — until a superhero came to defeat them.
On Sunday, BAAQUP member "J" decided to strike back with wheat paste images of superhero Kamala Khan, the first Muslim superhero in the Marvel Universe to have an ongoing title. Kamala Khan — whose background is that of a traditional Pakistani-American family in Jersey — is also 2014’s Ms. Marvel.
While the comic book Kamala Khan’s superpower is the ability to change her shape, J’s Kamala Khan is fighting the evils of anti-Islam bigotry. Instead of Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini, Khan’s image is being pasted next to messages that say “Stamp Out Racism,” “Calling All Bigotry Busters,” and “Free Speech Isn’t A License To Spread Hate.” J — who identifies as a Muslim and prefers the pronoun “they” — even changed the call to action at the bottom of the ad from “Stop the hate. End all aid to Islamic countries,” to “Stop the hate to Islamic countries” by covering up “end all aid” with three red hearts.
I spoke with "K," another member of BAAQUP, about the changes to the ads and the choice to use Kamala Khan. She told me that J’s decision to use a comic was a direct response to the use of comics to portray Muslims and the Prophet Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo, images which have been decried as hateful by some, a symbol of free speech by others, and a mixture of both by many.
“The artist felt like they really wanted to use comics because the Charlie Hebdo attack was framed as being about comics and the proper use of comics,” K explained. “[The artist] wanted to point to some [comics] that they thought were a better use.”
Instead of focusing on negatives, J decided to respond to both the cartoons that led to the tragic attack at Charlie Hebdo and the anti-Islam ads on the Muni with the positive one of a badass, crimefighting, female, Muslim superhero — a move that seems to have resonated with San Franciscans.
“When I look at the pictures I just feel really happy,” K explained. “And I think a lot of people are having that reaction — it’s definitely one of the most popular things we’ve posted.”
Both K and BAAQUP hope the Kamala Khan images inspire direct actions to the bus campaigns by other artists.
“We love to see a multitude of responses to things like this,” K said. “Our goal in putting stuff out there isn’t to be admired, but to be imitated. We really hope that it inspires more people here and in other cities where these campaigns are running. We invite anyone who has their own artistic response to .”
Pamela Geller and her group may choose to run more ads on our bus system — that the ads meet their advertising guidelines, are protected by the right to free speech, and have donated proceeds from the ads in the past to the Human Rights Commission. But from here on out? Geller better know that she has a BAAQUP-backed superhero to reckon with.
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