Countering ISIS with Superheroes

Woven indelibly into the fabric of American culture, superheroes provide entertainment and serve as models for courage as they overcome their internal and external foes to save the girl, city, or world. But while their stories are aptly transcribed in comic books and on the screen, can they be used to defeat the very real and powerful forces of violence in the world today? Thirty six year-old Jordanian comic book artist Suleiman Bakhit certainly thinks so. 

“Everything begins with a story,” he told an audience at Wired 2014. “Narratives and myths give us a sense of purpose, they give us a compelling sense of direction in our lives.”

His story shifted direction with a phone call from his father on the morning of September 11, 2001, while he was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Bakhit’s father instructed him to tell anyone who asked that he was from Mexico and his name was Jose. Shortly afterwards, he was attacked for being an Arab. “I had a decision to make at that time,” he said in his TED Talk at the Oslo Freedom Forum. “I decided to fight that type of racism and extremism.”

And with that decision made, he knew he needed to begin to write an alternative narrative for the younger generation. He started visiting elementary schools around his campus to spread a message of tolerance towards Middle Eastern culture. In one classroom, a six year-old girl raised her hand to ask if there was an Arab version of Barbie. A boy immediately followed the question to ask if there was an Arab Superman and Batman, to which he realized there wasn’t anything of the kind.

The need for this alternative narrative for children was confirmed when he returned to Jordan and began speaking to classroom focus groups within low-income neighborhoods in and around the capital of Amman and in Syrian refugee camps.

It is a weapon of hope, it’s a weapon of inspiration, it’s a weapon of heroes...

"They didn’t really have any [superheroes],” he described in an interview with NPR. "Though they had heard a lot about someone called Osama bin Laden…and talking to those kids, what it showed me, is there’s a huge appetite for positive role models.”

In 2006, he founded a company to produce and print comic books distributed to schools throughout the country, which sold more than a million comic books in one year alone.

“I couldn’t get the idea out of my head,” he said in his TED Talk. “So I started teaching myself how to draw [and] started working with others to develop stories.”

He is now spearheading a movement which creates superheroes to provide an alternative, heroic narrative to the one told by extremist groups such as the Islamic State, who has been successfully appealing on an emotional level to a young and idealistic generation on multiple continents.

“They preach terrorism as a heroic journey,” Bakhit said in a New York Times article. “The biggest threat in the Middle East is terrorism described as heroism.”

As he studied extremist narratives, mythologies and heroes, Bakhit became strongly influenced by American mythologist and author Joseph Campell. Campbell has a theory that the driving force behind every story that resonates within any culture is a heroic journey with a compelling sense of purpose. Bakhit argues that extremist narratives have also included the three phases of Campbell’s heroic journey: departure, initiation, and return. Bin Laden, he said in his TED Talk, emulated this journey as he left his aristocratic upbringing behind to live in the caves of Afghanistan, then emerged as a new leader with a vision to cleanse the shame of the Muslim nation through violence.

Bakhit identified two types of shame which shape the course and outcome of a hero’s journey: healthy shame and toxic shame. Healthy shame, he argues, provides limits and boundaries and serves as the source of human connection, learning, and creativity. Inversely, he describes toxic shame as “the core feeling that I am defective as a human being…and no longer worthy of human connection.” The core narrative of ISIS, he said, is that the West is at war with Islam and seeks to shame it. The way they seek to cleanse that shame is through violence: terrorism disguised as heroism.

Bakhit’s self-described antidote to this violent extremism is through his creation of superheroes such as Element Zero, a Jack Bauer-esque Jordanian special forces- operator, and Section Nine, an all-female Jordanian military unit. His variety of characters seek to create an awareness of shame and inspire children to seek out their own journeys inspired by a healthy shame “based on positive narratives of hope, of resilience, of love, of connection, but even more importantly, based on male and female heroes.”

Holding one of his comic books above his head, Bakhit emphasized it as the best technology we have in our collective fight against terrorism and for cultivating a heroic imagination among youth today. 

“This is a weapon that does not is a weapon of hope, it’s a weapon of inspiration, it’s a weapon of heroes," Bakhit said. "If you don’t believe in heroes you will not find them, not even in yourself.”

If ISIS is Goliath, we are the underdog armed with a slingshot in the form of words and illustrations. We can aim at countering ISIS’ narrow narrative with one of hope, resilience and bravery based on the healthy shame of a connected individual.

- Sara Burback served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the glorious nation of Kazakhstan, where, in addition to teaching English, she developed a keen interest in democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech (or lack thereof) in the former Soviet Union. She expanded upon this at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies, where she earned her MA in International Human Rights. She now works at the Institute of International Education in Washington, DC.    Photo via Oslo Freedom Forum.