We Can Be Heroes

Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of the Muslim superhero comic book series The 99, talks about his efforts to combat Islamic stereotypes.

Widad the Loving. Bari the Healer. Mumita the Destroyer. These superheroes—and 96 others based on Islamic culture and religion—work together to fight evil and stereotypes in the thrilling new comic book series The 99.

Naif Al-Mutawa, a clinical psychologist who splits his time between New York and Kuwait City, created the characters with a team of artists and writers. Their goal is to showcase traditional, tolerant, and enlightened Muslim values in the guise of good old-fashioned superheroes, ordinary mortals who criss-cross the globe on special missions. Each one has a different superpower, based on the 99 attributes of Allah.

Soon, the 99 heroes will be saving the world alongside all-American heroes Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman in a joint comic with the Justice League (an exclusive sneak peak excerpt has been published in the print issue of design mind). The 99 series has already been translated into eight languages. In fact, it’s the cornerstone of an expanding franchise (moving toward video games and theme parks) that will bring these characters into the mainstream; an animated cartoon series has been announced for fall 2010 on US cable channel The Hub. And US President Barack Obama recently commended The 99 for capturing the imagination of young people through their message of tolerance. Al-Mutawa recently spoke with design mind about his work from his home in Kuwait City.

You created The 99 to challenge Muslim stereotypes for both non-Muslims and Muslims alike because you became disillusioned with Islamic rhetoric. Can you elaborate on this?
I wanted to change stereotypes from the inside. After 9/11—and after any bad thing that has happened since then that involves Islam—an entire generation of young Muslims is growing up believing that Islam is this bad thing. They are put in a situation to defend the indefensible. My thinking was, How can I expand the boundaries of what Islam is, talk about stuff that all human beings share together, and not allow people to sabotage and hijack Islam.

Why use the medium of comics to dispel stereotypes?
Drawings—cave etchings on a wall—are the very first form of communication that we know of as human beings. It’s a medium that we all share. At the end of the day, The 99 is about the values shared by all humanity, and what better way to share it than in a language that all humanity understands? Also, I chose the medium of the comic because it’s an established medium. It allows me to use Islamic archetypes, which some people might not know about, in a medium that will be familiar to them.

How have your comics been received in the Muslim world?
I had a lot of resistance early on, but I was anticipating that. So when I was raising my second round of financing, I went through an Islamic investment bank. When I got that kind of approval from religious authorities, I was left alone by people who kept questioning whether what I was doing was kosher.

But on the fringes of the Islamic and Western communities, I’m operating on a fault line. These people are going to war with each other. It’s the atheists against the religious. And among the religious, it’s this group against that group. These debates underscore the importance of the work we’re doing with The 99. People hold up their book and say, “My book is better than yours,” but no one has read every book. If they had, they’d see that what is shared is a lot more than what isn’t.

Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist and author, once said, “With new eras come new myths.” Most American superheroes from Superman to the X-Men were created by Jewish Americans. Is The 99 a way to create a new mythology for young Muslim readers?
I’m trying to create a new mythology for everyone, not just Muslim readers. But I’m basing it on Muslim archetypes. A lot of the stories that come out of The 99 are, to the untrained eye, just good stories. Those who know Islam will recognize that a lot of them are from the Koran. If the Bible is known as the greatest story ever told, the Koran is the greatest story most told. I mean, there are a lot more Muslims in the world. Obviously, there are a lot of stories that work.

There has been a great deal of debate in the United States lately about building a mosque near ground zero in New York, which seems to have spurred other general fears and protests against Muslims. What’s your opinion about these most recent developments?
We have a saying in Kuwait, “If you’re bitten by a snake, you become afraid of rope.” When something out of the ordinary happens—say, airplanes purposefully crash into the Twin Towers—that was outside of the realm of anybody’s experience…it becomes all that many people expect. The reactions [to the proposed mosque in lower Manhattan] are understandable. The upset for me is that people take advantage of that. I call them rope charmers, not snake charmers. These are ropes.

Imam Feisal, who is behind that mosque, was a physicist before he became an imam, and if there’s one thing that any religion needs it’s someone who understands the theory of relativity. His words have been purposefully twisted out of shape. News flash: Islam isn’t going anywhere. But what can go somewhere are these very radical, extreme interpretations of Islam.

In the comic book series, the number 99 refers to mystical gemstones that were housed in and then lost from the ancient Library of Knowledge in Baghdad. Now they’re scattered around the world, and when someone discovers one, they take on its powers and knowledge. So, we could have 99 superheroes around the globe. Did you intend to represent such a potentially large and diverse group from the outset? Why?
Well, I wanted to show that there are 99 different ways of being a human being and being a Muslim. I wanted there to be someone in the series for anyone to be able to identify with. Also, having a diverse group of characters means there would be lots of intercultural interplay. The heroes have to negotiate different places and customs. The message to the kids is that what differentiates one person from the other is not where they’re from, but what they bring to the table. It’s not nationality, but the actual powers you have.

Do you think progress is being made globally when it comes to dispelling radical Muslim stereotypes? If so, who or what do you attribute this to?
I don’t know how to answer that. What I can tell you is this: In terms of the attention that we’ve been receiving, I like to think we’ve made a dent in how people see Islam. We’ve been able to penetrate pop culture in an effort to mainstream those values that we share with the rest of humanity. On a global scale, I don’t know. I hope so. I think if we took away the big political words, and just presented situations without those buzzwords, no two human beings would disagree about situations.

So, you’ve joined forces with the Justice League. What do you think about that?
We’re standing cape to shoulder with the Justice League. On one level it means we have created something that can hang out with Superman. And how cool is that?.

Naif Al-Mutawa is the creator of the Islamic-themed comic book series The 99. He spoke at TEDGlobal. www.the99.org

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