Batman's Muslim sidekick puts US right-wingers in a tizzy

Internet attacks on DC Comics' fictional French Algerian superhero blamed on 'rightwing hate machine' unwilling to see Muslims portrayed in a positive light.

Nightrunner, a new character in DC Comics Batman series. 
Courtesy DC Comics
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WASHINGTON // It would be hard to find a more boilerplate superhero. Nightrunner, the latest hero to join the ranks of DC Comic's stable of characters, was brought up on the mean streets of Paris and is an outstanding practitioner of the daredevil urban gymnastics called parkour.

He managed to stay out of trouble because of a keen sense of justice instilled in him by his devout mother, and was recruited to join Batman Inc, a gobal crimefighting network established by the original Batman, Bruce Wayne,

So why is this fairly typical fictional superhero causing a furore in the real world? He is a Muslim, of Algerian descent to be precise, and that has some people in the US, notably right-wing bloggers, in a tizzy.

While an argument over the religion and ethnicity of a comic book character might seem like something of a tempest in a teapot, observers say it is part of a broader pattern of growing anti-Islamic sentiment in the US.

"How about that," wrote Avi Green, on the Astute Bloggers website, which features advertisements for right-wing US causes including anti-gun control lobbies and limited government advocacy groups, as well as "I stand with Israel" logos.

"Bruce Wayne goes to France where he hires not a genuine French boy or girl with a real sense of justice, but rather, an 'oppressed' minority."

Continuing the kind of rhetoric that presumably ill fits with Barack Obama's call on Wednesday at a memorial for those slain in the Tucson shooting for more civility in American discourse, Mr Green then went on to wonder whether this Batman would bring justice "by setting disabled women on fire", a reference to an incident in a riot in 2005 in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of Paris.

"Nightrunner the Muslim sidekick," mocked The Angry White Dude blog, a site that also features advertisements for gun training courses, "will have strange new powers to bury women to their waists and bash their heads in with large rocks."

While the nature of the blogosphere often allows for supersized opinions written in the unaccountable environs of an anonymous bedroom, and an online comic book controversy may not seem a major issue, such comments have stirred outrage.

Ibrahim Cooper of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said: "This is part of a phenomenon in which any time something to do with Islam or Muslims is viewed in a positive light or even just a way that seems to portray Muslims as part of normal society, it is attacked by these rightwing bloggers and hate-mongers on the internet."

Mr Hooper described the comments on Nightrunner as part of a "rightwing hate machine" and said anti-Islamic sentiments in the US have had real consequences.

In December, the council protested against proposed legislation in Indiana that seeks to ensure that state courts not recognise Sharia law. This followed the overwhelming approval by the Oklahoma state legislature in November of a similar amendment to its constitution.

In neither state did anyone ask for Sharia law to be considered in the courts. In Oklahoma, Muslims constitute less than one per cent of the population. In Indiana, they make up about 3.5 per cent.

While the Indiana legislation never made it to a vote and a federal judge overturned the Oklahoma legislation, the perception that Muslims want to impose Sharia law in the US is real and growing.

In a multi-part investigation into US Homeland Security efforts to combat terrorism, the Washington Post in December reported that overwhelmed and untrained local law-enforcement agencies had begun to hire outside consultants to advise them on the threats.

In several cases, the paper found, these "experts" were advising police and state troopers that "most" Muslims in the US are working to impose Sharia law.

In such a climate, the controversy over a Muslim superhero is not just confined to a lunatic fringe, said Andy Khouri, associate editor at Comics Alliance, a comic book blog owned by AOL.

"It is lunacy," Mr Khouri said. "Unfortunately, it's not necessarily on the fringe. Most Americans have no cause to discuss Sharia law because it doesn't exist in the US. So they get most of their information from a few sources and these are usually the more bigoted ones. They think of it as thieves having their hands cut off."

Mr Khouri attributed the controversy over DC Comics's Muslim Batman - the company could not be reached for comment - to a "racist reaction".

"It's just absurd to some of these people that a Muslim character would be presented in a positive light because of the really ugly nature of the perception of Muslims in this country and the media."

Warner Todd Huston, a right-wing blogger who on his website, Publius Forum, had wondered why "Batman couldn't find any actual Frenchman to be the 'French saviour'" rejected the charge of racism.

"If there was an Algerian Batman and he was a Muslim that would make sense to me," said Mr Huston, dismissing Nightrunner as "political correctness run amuck". Mr Huston, who accepted that some of the comments about Nightrunner had gone "too far" nevertheless suggested that "if you want to have a saviour of a country you'd want to pick one of their actual born sons, whoever that may be."

Such criticism rings hollow to Mr Hooper. "That just goes to the bedrock belief [among the US rightwing] that no Muslim can ever be a real citizen of a nation, that Muslims are only in place to take over whatever society they are in," he said.