[Note: This article originally appeared on Mizan Pop on the 10th of April, 2017. Since its publication, Marvel has terminated Syaf’s contract.]
The recent launch of the new comic series X-Men Gold has generated international controversy over religious and political images included by its artist, Ardian Syaf.
These images stand in striking contrast to the diversity that Marvel Comics has recently come to energetically espouse. The company has released a statement that explains their being unaware of the symbolism in the book as it was originally published, and declared its plans to discipline Syaf and remove the offending imagery from future reprints of the comic.1 We do not believe that this incident should detract from Marvel’s commitment to diversity; rather, it should compel Marvel to aim for more than just diversity, and push more fully to realize an ethic of pluralism instead.2
It is certainly unusual for a new comic book to arouse international controversy so quickly. X-Men Gold #1 was released last week; a few days afterward, some readers detected troubling political and religious subtexts to some subtle imagery inserted by the artist, Ardian Syaf, who is Indonesian. Allegations about the subtle codes Syaf had inserted into the book emerged via social media, and the story was then picked up by a prominent comic news website. Major media outlets in Indonesia and around the world are now reporting the story.3
In one panel, the number “212” appears prominently on a sign, and the number “51” appears in a more subtle location on a background character’s shirt. The number 212 is a shorthand reference to a mass demonstration by hardline religious conservatives in Jakarta last December, a protest against the governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok (this occurred on December 2, 2016 – thus “212”).4 Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, is alleged to have insulted the Qurʾān during a speech and is under investigation for violating a state blasphemy law, which is likely to result in a prison sentence and end his political career. The number 51, on the other hand, appears to be a reference to the verse from the Qur’ān that Ahok cited in his speech, which is found in Q Māʾidah 51 – that is, verse 51 of the fifth chapter in the scripture.
In his speech, Ahok referred to a verse from the Qurʾān that has sometimes been invoked in Indonesian politics as religious sanction for disqualifying Christians from leadership positions: O you who believe! Do not take Jews and Christians as leaders [or allies, or friends – awliyāʾ]; they are leaders only for each other, anyone who takes them as a leader becomes one of them… Ahok stated that people should not be duped by those who cite the verse to support religious bigotry and discrimination. However, his comment has been interpreted – and video of the speech edited – to make it seem as if he was insulting the Qurʾān itself.5
As Jeremy Menchik demonstrated in a feature in the Texts and Translations series here at Mizan last year, the invocation of qurʾānic verses about walāyah or friendship/leadership has a long history in Indonesian politics. In the 1950s, passages from the Qurʾān warning believers against taking unbelievers as awliyāʾ were explicitly interpreted and translated in such a way as to argue that Muslims should not support “un-Islamic” political parties. The basic premise of the use of these verses in political discourse was that nationalist and communist parties should be opposed because they did not support state implementation of Islamic law – the insinuation being that politicians that supported secular ideologies or policies, though nominally Muslim, were tantamount to infidels.6 Even today, as the Ahok controversy makes clear, conservative religious parties still invoke verses like Q 5:51 in political rhetoric, understanding them as directly applicable to modern electoral politics.
The conjunction of the numbers 212 and 51 in the art for this panel in X-Men Gold #1 cannot be coincidence. In another panel, the character Colossus appears with “QS 5:51” emblazoned on his shirt. “QS” likely signifies Qurʾān Sharīf (‘Noble Qurʾān’), though it may be interpreted as Qurʾān sūrah (i.e. “Qurʾān Chapter 5:51”) or given some other meaning. The recurrence of 5:51 after the previous appearance of 212 and 51, however, demonstrates that reference to the Ahok controversy and the verse invoked against him is clearly intended.7 Syaf has as much as confirmed this on social media, though he has subsequently backpedaled a bit.8
That an artist would secretively insert allusions to a political cause in which hardline conservatives are marshaling blasphemy laws to effect the ouster of a politician from a religious and ethnic minority is disturbing enough. Even more troublingly, Syaf not only seems to sympathize with the political interpretation of the verse in support of the 212 anti-Ahok movement, but perhaps also wishes to read it as a religiously sanctioned admonition against embracing diversity in general.
This is signaled by other incidental details in the comic that one might overlook if not for their connection to the coded references to the Ahok controversy. In the same panel in which 212 and 51 first appear, the character Kitty Pryde stands directly in front of a sign presumably advertising jewelry, with the image configured in such a way that the sign spells “JEW” right next to her head. Kitty Pryde, a superheroine of Jewish origin, is the leader of the X-Men team portrayed in X-Men Gold. In another panel, a depiction of another character, Nightcrawler, swinging a baseball bat is arranged with Pryde in the background in such a way that he appears to be striking her with it. The irony of these subtle (or perhaps not-so-subtle) gestures is overwhelming: the main theme of the story portrayed in the book is the X-Men’s seemingly never-ending battle to overcome prejudice and assert their humanity in the face of the hatred and fear of those they have struggled and sacrificed to serve and protect.
Marvel’s official statement shows that the anti-Jewish and anti-Christian content was inserted without the approval of management. At the same time, it passed through editorial review without incident. That it did so without raising any red flags is not surprising. It is this lack of awareness, not their swift disavowal of the content, for which Marvel remains culpable.
The three authors of this piece represent expertise on Islam, comics, popular culture, and the Qurʾān. One of us is a native of Queens, and another a longtime resident of New York. We read the number “212” as a reference to the iconic area code of the New York City era (where the story in X-Men Gold #1 is actually set). One of us assumed the “QS” on Colossus’ shirt was a reference to something in Queens, NY, not “Qurʾān Sharīf.” Another of our group, while a scholar of Religious Studies, at first assumed the “QS 5:15” was an in-house joke among artists – as occurs frequently and innocently enough in comics. None of us were reading with an eye out for ideologically and politically loaded dog-whistles.
However, what anyone (particularly editorial staff whose livelihood consists of reviewing and scrutinizing content from pencilers, inkers, colorists, and letterers as a comic moves toward production) could have caught was the word “JEW” floating beside the head of X-Men team leader Kitty Pryde. The superheroine was established as a Jewish character when she first appeared in the 1980s, and it remains a vital and explicit part of her overall identity. The art literally labeling her a “Jew” is the red flag that should have prompted the editorial team to look much, much more closely.
Moreover, what the covert inclusion of these hidden codes suggests is that the ethic that Marvel seeks to cultivate amongst its readers is not consistently present in its creators. Diversity is often simply the marking of differences and making sure those differences are represented. This list can be based on gender, sexuality, religion, or race, amongst other factors.
Yet the appeal of the X-Men has never been in their diversity, but in their pluralism. The team does not simply include characters who represent a variety of types; rather, from the time of the publication of the very first X-Men comic in 1963, the book has explicitly addressed the question of how people can learn to live with difference. Sometimes that is easy, while at other times it is hard. What makes it necessary is the belief in a common good. If that ethic of pluralism was shared by the entire creative team, then no artist would have let their personal, exclusionary politics intrude into and interfere with the Marvel narrative of inclusion.
Just as disappointing as Syaf’s unauthorized use of X-Men as a platform for his political and religious views is the stereotyped image of Muslims and the Qurʾān this controversy may encourage. The politicized interpretation of Q 5:51 as opposed to diversity and pluralism – indeed, even commanding believers to oppose these principles – is simply not the only possible reading of this verse. It is not even a contextually accurate reading.
The verse does forbid taking Jews and Christians as allies, but it (and others like it in the Qurʾān) is commonly understood to have been revealed to address the situation of specific Jews and Christians who had broken a treaty with the nascent Muslim community in the time of the Prophet. The verse comes from a particular historical moment and, while the words of the Qurʾān are considered eternal by most Muslims, Muslim interpreters have long emphasized the importance of taking historical context into account in assigning meaning to the Qurʾān. Taking the message of Q 5:51 as flatly and universally exclusionary reduces a complex and nuanced text to a narrow and simplistic reading. The reading of the verse endorsed by Syaf is not a necessary one; nor would all Muslims understand it as an absolute condemnation of democratic and pluralistic principles. Throughout Islamic history, there have been many examples of Muslims who have fraternized and cooperated with Jews and Christians in a variety of settings. It is true that some Muslims have interpreted the verse as forbidding this kind of association, but it is obvious that many Muslims have disregarded it, or assigned it a different significance.
Even without taking historical background into account, the interpretation promoted by Syaf and the religious conservatives with whom he sympathizes is a narrow and impoverished exegesis of the text, as Ms. Marvel creator and author G. Willow Wilson noted in a blog post over the weekend.9 Q 5:51 is surrounded by verses praising Moses and Jesus. Famously, another passage in this sūrah (vs. 32) even quotes the Babylonian Talmud in talking about the sanctity of human life. Ultimately, the passage in which Q 5:51 is found is about affirming the prophethood of Muhammad, and encouraging Muslims not to rely on other religious communities to interpret anything except matters directly pertaining to those communities. In its original setting, it admonished believers to be steadfast and self-confident about their beliefs and their faith in their prophet.
Much will be made of this comic book, particularly by websites and organizations hungry for anti-Islamic material. And, in truth, an artist made a very foolish choice here. But overall, this is an opportunity for Marvel, a company laudably pushing for diversity and inclusivity, to step up their game. Infusing their editorial teams with greater religious literacy and global awareness would help them to move from making mere token gestures of diversity to embracing an ethos of true pluralism. It would also better prepare them for future challenges to these admirable multicultural aims.
A. DAVID LEWIS is a Faculty Associate at MCPHS University, specializing in the online instruction of world religions, popular culture and religion, and comic books and healthcare. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming Mizan Series volume Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation. MICHAEL PREGILL is Interlocutor in the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University and coordinator of the Mizan digital scholarship initiative. HUSSEIN RASHID is founder of islamicate, L3C, a consultancy focusing on religious literacy and cultural competency, and a contributor to Muslim Superheroes.
- Jamie Lovett, “Marvel Releases Statement on Controversial X-Men Gold Art,” Comicbook.com, April 8, 2017.
- In recent years, Marvel has made significant strides towards greater inclusion, both in terms of the demographics of creative staff, especially writers and editors, and of the diversity of characters receiving positive and nuanced portrayals. Nevertheless, recent controversies have led many to question the authenticity of Marvel’s commitment to inclusion; most notably, at a recent retailer’s summit senior staff of the publisher openly expressed concern about the negative impact of diversity on sales. See JA Micheline, “Marvel Superheroes Aren’t Just for White Men – True Diversity Could Boost Sales,” The Guardian, April 4, 2017. The publisher’s commitment to diversity was also called into question by exposure of Ike Perlmutter, Marvel’s chief executive, as a major Trump supporter and donor: see Daniel J. Solomon, “Meet Ike Perlmutter, Trump’s Comic Book Hero – and Marvel’s CEO,”Forward, January 12, 2017.
- The first discussions of Syaf’s coded insertions in the X-Men Gold issue seem to have appeared on Reddit, in a thread of the user group (“subreddit”) /r/Indonesia initiated on April 8. A writeup appeared on the comic site Bleeding Cool later that day: Rich Johnston, “Marvel Artist Ardian Syaf Hid Anti-Christian and Jewish Messages in This Week’s X-Men Comic,” BleedingCool.com, April 8, 2017. The Jakarta Post picked up the story the next day, though Syaf was mistakenly credited as the main creator behind the book: Ni Nyoman Wira, “Indonesian ‘X-Men Gold’ Comic Writer Inserts Anti-Ahok References in Comic Book, Ignites Controversy,” Jakarta Post, April 9, 2017.
- Kathy Quiano and James Griffiths, “Indonesia: 200,000 Protest Christian Governor of Jakarta,” CNN, December 2, 2016. The massive demonstration was organized by the hardline conservative organization FPI (Front Pembela Islam or “Islam Defenders Front”), which has been accused of vigilantism and promoting religious intolerance.
- “Ahok Denies He Insulted the Quran,” Jakarta Post, October 7, 2016.
- Jeremy Menchik, “‘Do Not Take Unbelievers as Your Leaders’: The Politics of Translation in Indonesia,”Mizan Project, March 31, 2016.
- Johnston originally reported in his Bleeding Cool piece that QS was code for qaddas allahu sirrahu (“God sanctify his secret”), a benediction sometimes pronounced when one refers to a holy person. Presumably this was retrieved from one of the original social media posts about the Syaf case. The Bleeding Cool story has now been corrected to decode “QS” as Qurʾān sūrah, without any acknowledgement of the correction.
- Rich Johnston, “Ardian Syaf Tries to Explain What Happened Yesterday,” BleedingCool.com, April 9, 2017. After initially acknowledging the significance of the codes to an Indonesian fan who spotted them, Syaf later demurred, stating that fans should not believe everything they read in the media – but also noting that the issue was going to be a collector’s item and they should pick up a copy as soon as possible.
- G. Willow Wilson, “Here is What Quran 5:51 Actually Says,” GWillowWilson.com, April 9, 2017.