Culture

Netflix Superhero Cartoon Features First Muslim Character, Typecasting Her in the Islamist Mold

(YouTube screenshot "Glitch Techs" trailer)

Following the 2016 Democratic National Convention, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump prompted outrage for suggesting that the wife of a Muslim critic was not “allowed” to speak because of her religion. He was referring to Gold Star mother Ghazala Khan, who stood silently behind her husband on the convention stage as he suggested that Trump lacked a basic understanding of America’s fundamental constitutional freedoms.

Confident that Trump would lose the election, some Muslim leaders were encouraged by the exchange. “Hopefully storytellers and screenwriters will be able to write humanizing stories about the Muslim experience in America,” said Sue Obeidi, director for the Hollywood Bureau of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a Muslim nonprofit based in Los Angeles.

Four years later, MPAC is not only falling short of its goal, but it is promoting children’s programming that reinforces Trump’s description of Muslim women as timid and submissive, perpetually confined to the background in any social setting. Yet, given MPAC’s Islamist roots – orthodox religious beliefs which openly conflict with its apparent progressive goals – it is not surprising that the Muslim nonprofit would promote such antiquated gender roles.

Glitch Techs is a new Netflix program that debuted in February and features a team of ethnically diverse teenage superheroes. However, with the blessing of MPAC, this supposedly groundbreaking cartoon succeeds in typecasting its Muslim heroine as a passive and obedient supporting character, completely lacking in any nuance and created solely to check a multicultural box for its progressive creators.

A nine-episode animated series produced by Nickelodeon, Glitch Techs depicts a group of teenagers who work as tech-support employees for a computer game company while secretly acting as a super-powered team. They fight and capture digital monsters that have come to life in the real world, the result of “glitches” in their programs. What could be objectionable about such a seemingly benign premise?

The show’s creators chose to inject their ideology into the cartoon, creating a team based on a post-modern intersectionality theory in which all members are “people of color” or oppressed minorities. This includes Zahra, a Muslim teenage girl who wears a hijab.

Glitch Techs has received the consultation and support of one of America’s most longstanding and effective Islamist PR operations. Concerned with improving the public image of Muslims, MPAC ironically possesses controversial roots. The nonprofit’s late founder Maher Hathout called himself a “close disciple” of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the pan-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and an admirer of Nazism. Hathout even said that al-Banna was the person who “most influenced” him and that it could be centuries before another man like al-Banna emerges.

By all appearances, MPAC is the only Islamist group with a dedicated employee focused on influencing Hollywood production studios. Rather than criticizing films and TV shows that it regards as portraying Muslims poorly, MPAC has built relationships with studios, producers, actors, and filmmakers to influence their content.

In this manner, the nonprofit’s Hollywood Bureau consulted with Glitch Techs’ creators, advising them on how to “accurately display” a Muslim girl, “even down to little behaviors.” For her participation, MPAC’s Obeidi even received official credit as “miscellaneous crew” on the cartoon.

Moreover, Obeidi has praised Glitch Techs, promoting it on Twitter and listing it first in a Variety article she co-authored on “8 Inclusive Shows for the Whole Family to Watch.” Obeidi and her colleague insisted that the show “breaks boundaries and stereotypes in gaming with diverse heroes of color…”

How does a modern show focused on technology and video games depict Islam, which is often criticized for being patriarchal and outdated?

Worst of all, though, is how Zahra is utilized as nothing more than a plot device to enrich the experience of other characters. Almost every Glitch Techs episode focuses on just two characters: Miko “KO” Kubota, who is half-white and half-Asian, and Hector “High Five” Nieves, a Hispanic character whose cultural and ethnic background is boiled down to a job in his parents’ taco truck.

Each episode is framed as a lesson from which Miko and Hector learn to grow as glitch-fighting superheroes. In one episode, Zahra is only included so that Hector can learn a lesson about leadership. On a mission to defeat one of the glitch monsters, Hector makes the mistake of ignoring the more experienced Zahra’s tactical advice.

The sum purpose of this “first-ever” Muslim cartoon character is merely to teach others – not to lead or to experience any meaningful personal development of her own.

On May 9, MPAC presented a webinar discussing the intent behind Glitch Techs, and its reasons for endorsing it. Obeidi hosted a discussion between Glitch Techs co-creator Dan Milano and Zehra Fazal, the voice actor who portrays Zahra.

Fazal expressed her frustration that she is so often cast as an immigrant Muslim who is wearing a hijab. She said that this does not recognize the “spectrum” of different appearances and ethnicities within Islam.

A worthy complaint, but in the same interview she praised the cartoon world where she voiced a generic, one-dimensional Muslim hijabi: “I’ll say for animation, I think children’s media is way ahead of the game in terms of positively representing Muslim characters, and I think that’s ultimately more valuable. ‘Get ‘em while they’re young,’ I say.”

In the webinar’s most revealing moment, Milano explicitly divulged the political motives behind the show: “The election has absolutely played a part,” he admitted. “I mean, we were going to work every day like crying in the elevator.”

MPAC’s ideological blend of political progressivism and religious orthodoxy constitutes a worldview that treats the hijab as a symbol of personal piety and anti-Westernism. While Muslim women around the world are removing their religious headwear and becoming increasingly assertive, American Islamists are teaching Muslim girls that the veil is the highest form of self-expression.

Young Muslim girls certainly deserve children’s programming with which they can relate. However, they are worthy of so much more than the multi-ethnic faces that MPAC and its progressive allies have endorsed. Glitch Techs represents a lost opportunity to educate and enlighten its adolescent viewers about the Islamic faith and its endless forms of expression, practices which extend far beyond the contentious veil.

David M. Swindle is the Southern California associate of the Counter-Islamist Grid and a fellow for Islamist Watch. He also works as the Director of Research for The Israel Group. Follow him on Twitter @DaveSwindle.