Moon Knight’s Layla: finally an Arab superhero | arts and culture

“Are you an Egyptian superhero? asks a young Egyptian girl in Cairo in Disney’s latest Marvel offering, Moon Knight. “I am” replies Layla El-Faouly, imposing in her imposing white and gold winged costume. With those two words, Layla, Disney and Marvel are making history as we finally see an Arab superhero on screen. And she’s a woman.

Right off the bat, the new Disney+ series is steeped in ancient Egyptian mythology and modern culture. Even one of the most famous musicians in the Arab world, Abdel Halim Hafez, sees his music appear in the opening scenes of the first episode. The credits are also full of Arab talent: Moon Knight is directed by Mohamed Diab, edited by Ahmed Hafez, and its music is composed by Hesham Nazih. There are also a number of Arab actors playing lead characters, such as Egyptian Palestinian May Calamaway as Layla and British Egyptian Khalid Abdalla as Salim.

Calamawy recently said, “I can’t represent all Arab women or all Egyptian women…I just hope that all Arab women can watch this and feel like superheroes, and have this space to this large scale.

This space has not always been present. Growing up as an Iraqi in the West, I don’t remember having a positive screen portrayal. I took it for granted that the characters from the Middle East would, in some way, be connected to “terrorism”. As a child, these negative perceptions can be confusing and damaging when trying to understand your role in society. They may convince you that as an Arab you have a responsibility to demonstrate your innocence in routine social interactions, such as going through airport security.

And this negative impact is not limited to the self-image of Arabs or Muslims either.

It is well documented that the media plays an important role in shaping the opinions of a society. The constant association made between Arabs, Muslims and “terrorism” in the media in the years following 9/11 has undoubtedly helped to shape current popular attitudes towards these groups in the West. Two decades later, 53% of Americans still hold an unfavorable view of Islam.

It is undeniable that after 9/11, Islamophobia took a meteoric rise in the West. But damaging Arabic presentations on screen long preceded that. For his book, Reel Bad Arabs, Jack Shaheen analyzed over 1,000 films featuring Arab characters made between 1986 and 2000. He found that only 12 portrayals were positive, 53 neutral, and 935 negative. In these films, Arab characters were systematically reduced to stereotypes – “terrorists”, misogynists or oil sheikhs. They helped move the plot forward, but were rarely portrayed as real people with complex feelings, thoughts, and motivations.

After 9/11, production companies simply doubled down on this Islamophobia. Fox’s Twenty-Four repeatedly had Middle Eastern characters with “terrorism” related story arcs, much like Showtime’s Homeland and others.

After 2003, the Iraq War became a commonly explored subject in American films and television series. But Iraqi characters rarely played a major role in these shows and were almost never portrayed in a positive way. In fact, the only Iraqi character I remember from that time is Sayid Jarrah on ABC’s hit series Lost – played for some reason by a British Indian actor with a nonsensical accent. He was, of course, not just a guy who happened to be from Iraq – he was a former torturer of dictator Saddam Hussein.

Such dehumanization of Arabs made it easier for the American public to support Washington’s brutal wars in the Middle East. In a 2015 poll, 30% of 530 Republican primary voters said they would support bombing Agrabah, the fictional town of Disney’s Aladdin. This film had opened with the words “I come from a country… where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face… it’s barbaric but hey it’s your home”. Looking at the original Aladdin from 1992, you notice that the majority of the characters on the streets are portrayed as barbaric snake charmers and armed with swords and speak in obscure accents.

So when former US President George W Bush announced his decision to invade Iraq in 2003, it was not so surprising that 72% of Americans said they supported his decision.

The effects of this decades-long dehumanization were also highlighted in the context of the war in Ukraine earlier this year, with several journalists announcing their shock at witnessing a war in a “relatively civilized, relatively European”, a very different place from “Iraq or Afghanistan”.

Negative Arab and Muslim stereotypes conveyed by the media also reinforce support for discriminatory laws and policies – Donald Trump notably won his presidency pledging to introduce “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. These harmful portrayals also fuel hate crimes around the world, such as the mass shootings at Masjid al-Noor and the Linwood Islamic Center in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019.

The negative portrayal of Arab and Muslim culture by Western media has also led many young Western Arabs and Muslims to drift away from their home culture. This has already led to the emergence of a new genre of TV shows and films in which young “Western-minded” Muslims attempt to escape the grip of their culture. In such movies and TV shows, like Netflix’s Elite or Apple TV’s Hala, there’s usually a very dramatic headscarf removal scene. Or, as Ramy Yusuf once putcharacters that say “Hey mom and dad, I want to be white!”

That’s why shameless Arab characters in Western productions, like Layla in Moon Knight, are a welcome change. And there’s reason to believe that we’ll soon start to see a lot more positive Arab and Muslim characters in Western movies and TV shows. Last November, Disney announced a new initiative to change the way Muslims are portrayed in its movies. Also last year, Netflix announced that Abubakr Ali would be the first Arab-Muslim actor to lead a series in a comic book adaptation. And, over the summer, Disney gave its global audience a taste of American Eid written and directed by the formidable Aqsa Altaf. Hearing my niece say, “She’s like me,” after watching the protagonist struggle to navigate a Muslim vacation in the West, was a truly heartwarming moment.

In the real world, Arab superheroes exist. Remember, just a few years ago it was Arabs and Kurds – including many superheroines who look like Layla – who gave their lives to protect their region and the rest of the world from the violence of the ‘ISIL (ISIS). So it’s time to see more positive Arab and Muslim role models like Layla on TV.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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