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Comic-Book Heroes Help Change Image of Islam

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Naif Al-Mutawa has developed a series of superheroes who’s main mission is to change perceptions and educate, while still being entertaining.

As provocative as Wonder Woman, but in an entirely different way, Batina the Hidden is a character in the hit comic book series “The 99” who is not only a Muslim girl from Yemen, but one whose outfit of choice when fighting evil is a burqa. “Most articles about Islam these days involve terrorism, so that was my challenge: How do I redefine this? The media not only reflects reality but can help change the course of reality,” said Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of “The 99,” during a speech at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity a few months ago.

“The idea was to reposition Islam not only to the West, but to Muslims themselves as well.” “The 99,” features Islam-inspired characters, based on the 99 attributes of Allah, who discover magic stones that unleash powers like superhuman strength, ability to read minds, and to teleport. And, in true super-hero style, they use these powers to fight bad guys. The comic series, which began publication in 2007 by the Teshkeel Media Group in Kuwait, is the first of its kind from the Middle East geared toward an international audience.

The characters may have Muslim names, but they represent diverse backgrounds, such as Hadya the Guide from London, a human GPS navigator, and Bari the Healer from South Africa. This year, the comic series secured distribution in its ninth language, French; a theme park has opened in Kuwait; and deals with DC Comics have been made for “The 99” to feature the likes of Superman, Batman and a fully clothed Wonder Woman.

By early next year, an animated television series based on the comic strip will be broadcast in North America, the Middle East, North Africa, parts of Europe and Asia, and eventually Australia. “When it hits TV, it will showcase one of the highest standards of animation,” Al-Mutawa, a New York-trained clinical psychologist and entrepreneur, said at the Cannes conference.

The idea of cultural crossover is one that Al-Mutawa has grown up with; as a child, his Arab Muslim conservative parents sent him to a culturally Jewish summer camp in New Hampshire by mistake in 1975. He did not realize this until later, yet continued to attend for a decade. His five boys currently spend their summers there. After earning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Long Island University in New York and working with survivors of political torture at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, he went to business school and obtained an M.B.A. from Columbia University.

Eventually, he returned to Kuwait and flirted with a few business ventures before coming up with the idea to start a comic book with Islam-inspired superheroes. Within a few months, he raised $7 million from 54 investors in eight countries. Today, the project has secured more than $40 million in financing and is expanding into an animated series. “His concept is potentially world changing,” said Elliot Polak, founder and creator of Textappeal, a British firm that provides cross-cultural marketing and advertising expertise for global companies.

“Dr. Al-Mutawa is working on rebranding, not of a product or service, but the rebranding of Islam.” His work is turning heads. At the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington in April this year, President Barack Obama singled out Al-Mutawa during a speech promoting interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural initiatives. Still, the road to success has “not all been roses,” Al-Mutawa said at the Cannes conference.

“There have been a million setbacks.” He has had to defend his ideas against a potential ban in Saudi Arabia and a fatwa by scholars in Indonesia. Of the 50 female characters in the series, Batina the Hidden is only one of five characters who wears a head scarf. In a scene from “Wham! Bam! Islam!” by the independent filmmaker Isaac Solotaroff, whose documentary on Al-Mutawa’s triumphs and struggles over the past four years will be shown on PBS in the United States in late 2013, an Indonesian university student wearing a hijab asks why the character Soora wears an immodest tank top and leaves her hair uncovered.

“I believe the purpose of this comic is to be countercultural,” she tells Al-Mutawa. “You know this is wrong, so why do you insist on doing this?” Al-Mutawa responds by telling her about a fire in a school in Riyadh two years ago when girls came running out of a school without wearing head scarves, and the morality police sent them back to the school so the fire fighters would not see them dressed immodestly. The girls burned to death in the school.

“The question here is, is Islam measured by behavior, which anyone can fake by praying or wearing a head scarf, or is it measured by values and faith?” he asks. He then emphasizes that it is dangerous to give a small percentage of people the control to define what is and isn’t Islam. “This is what will take us to hell in a handbasket, and it’s our fault if that happens, nobody else’s,” he says to the university students in the film. In another scene, Al-Mutawa is at Sabili magazine’s offices in Indonesia. Posters that decorate the walls say “Do Not Fear Al Qaeda.” As Al-Mutawa explains how “The 99” is inspired by Islam, one of the religious scholars slaps his hand on the table and says, “You can’t rewrite Islam!” In response, Al-Mutawa explains that the same virtues in Islam are shared with other faiths and that he is not attempting to rewrite any religion.

“Dr. Al-Mutawa was in control and perfectly fluent in each of these settings,” Solotaroff said in an interview this week. “He is someone who has straddled multiple worlds his whole life, so it’s not in his DNA to choose sides and as a result.” At the Cannes conference, Al-Mutawa was careful to highlight that the comic series is not purely Islamic or didactic in nature, but rather a concept inspired by the religion. He pointed to the way that other cultures have developed secular work based on religious archetypes – even Superman and Batman use storytelling elements from the Bible, he said – and yet this has not been achieved in the Muslim world.

“Until that’s done, we won’t be able to give divergent opinions and promote discussion,” he said. “What are people going to say about the Koran – they don’t like the font? The color purple used? This is a very limited scope, and my task is to fuse divergent ideas together.” And so, he uses comic books as a medium to send positive, fresh messages to youth internationally and in the region.

Toward the end of 2010, 37 percent of the Arab population was under 14 years old, which makes for about 110 million Arab preteens, according to data provided by Dubai Media City, which houses animation workshops. Jamal Al Sharif, its managing director, said, “Animation has a bigger purpose than just entertainment. The popularity of ‘The 99’ has proven that the animation industry is poised for a new leap and paved the way for grooming fresh talent and creativity in the region.” All this wasn’t an easy idea to sell a few years ago.

The Solotaroff documentary shows scenes of how Al-Mutawa, pitching the concept to investors, strengthened his case by talking about a sticker book created by an Arab businessman showing bloody scenes of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and of suicide bombers extolling the virtues of martyrdom.

This sticker book, called an “Intifada Album,” was selling to thousands of children in the West Bank. At the end of one scene, Al-Mutawa says: “My message was very clear to investors: Muslim children need new heroes.”


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