In creating a comic book whose superheroes are based on Allahís 99 attributes, Naif al-Mutawa has put a modern face on an ancient religion. But many who practice that religion see The 99 as a threat to Islamís integrity. In this interview with FRONTLINE/World reporter Isaac Solotaroff, al-Mutawa discusses the current state of Islam, his goals in creating The 99 and the responsibility that comes with his success.
Q: Issac Solotaroff: I know that for you, The 99 is in part a response to the image of Islam today. What do you think about the way Muslims and Islam are perceived?
A:Naif al-Mutawa: Islam for a long time has been very embattled, and part of that is a complete disconnect between how we see ourselves versus how others see us. For example, every year the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is now at Christmastime. That historically has not been the case, because the Jewish calendar is lunar, like the Islamic one. But the decision was made at a certain point to add a few days to one of the years, every seven or eight years, to enter the mainstream. There’s also something called Kwanzaa for African Americans around Christmas. That’s how you enter the mainstream.
Now the difference is [that] those ethnic groups I mentioned are minorities, whereas the Muslims are a majority -- the second largest, if not the first largest, group in the world. And so that idea that we need to peg ourselves to other people didn’t exist. And doesn’t exist to this day. What’s happened is [that] it’s let other cultures enter the mainstream, while we kind of isolate ourselves.
Q: You’ve said that you think Allah would be disappointed with what some people are doing in his name. What kind of effect do you think that has had on Islam?
A: I think it’s holding culture back, because culture in the end is the product of geographical isolation. But culture becomes enriched when new ideas come in. There’s a [cultural] base, and that’s why Islamist practice in Saudi is different than Islamist practice in Milan. It’s different than in Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s different. There was a local culture that existed there, and Islam came in. If we can say that Islam deepened culture for the people that existed there, then can that new culture not be deepened even further? Why close the doors?
The problem with what’s going on in this part of the world is not the Koran. It’s not Islam. It’s the reader of the book. It’s not the book, because the book, like anything else in life, can be used for good or for bad. What you put in has a lot to do with what you get out. And if you look at it with closed minds and concrete thoughts and fire and brimstone, you’re going to end up with all kinds of hateful messages. But if you look at it with an open mind and looking to reconcile versus to fight, you can find all kinds of peaceful messages. That is your choice.
Q: What is your background as a writer?
A: Ten years ago, I wrote and illustrated a series of children’s books. And I had done it as an angry reaction to somebody being fired for his religion here in Kuwait. I had just graduated from school in the States, come back full of ideas on how the world should be -- and here is a man advertising the fact that he had fired somebody for their religion. The guy was giving out leaflets to the local community apologizing that, had he known the guy’s religion to begin with, he wouldn’t have hired him. I got very angry. I wrote about it.
My first book became labeled a children’s book, which was unexpected and unanticipated because I hadn’t written it for kids. But I wrote my first book and illustrated it, and a few months later found out from UNESCO that I won an award for it. And that led to a three-book deal. The first two did great; the third one got stopped by censors. I got very angry. I was an angry young artist, and had I changed two or three words they would’ve let it pass. But no. Who are you to say I should change those words? And so I quit writing, as an angry young man would, for five years. I did my graduate schooling, went to work at Bellevue Hospital in New York with survivors of political torture. My doctorate was in treating survivors of war and torture. And it left me with a very vacant feeling, in [the sense] of feeling that this part of the world had no modern day heroes.
Q: How did you get started on The 99?
A: I had just finished business school, and I was in a London cab going from Edgware Road to Harris. It was the summer. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. And my sister turned to me and said, “Naif, do you remember that you told me after school you’d go back to writing?” I said, “[Selma], for me to go back now it’s got to have the potential of Pokemon. Otherwise it just doesn’t make sense.”
And this is where luck or fate first struck my project, because, had I said Superman or Batman or Spider-Man or any man, The 99 would not have been born, because what happened in my mind was the following. I said Pokemon. My next thought was there had been a fatwah issued against Pokemon in this region. My next thought was, my god, who are these people? And who appointed them to be spokespeople for Islam? My next thought was of Allah: how disappointed he must be. My next thought was that Allah had 99 attributes. And that brought me full circle back to Pokemon, which is a concept of 300 attributes. Now at the end of that cab ride, I turned to my sister and I said, “What do you think of this?” And she liked the idea and, from there, it just captured my mind.
Q: What did you set out to do with The 99?
A:In today’s world, you know, we’re inundated with comics or cartoons on TV and satellite. It’s not like 30 years ago, when there wasn’t much of that around. So I would hope that, for some kids, it’s giving their parents a reason to allow [them to see] this material versus something else, because I know a lot of people who don’t let their kids read Spider-Man and Batman. And I know a lot of people who don’t let their kids watch TV. But this is something that’s fun but safe, you know, because in The 99, there won’t be stories about dating. There’s not going to be any alcohol. There’s not going to be any sex. But we’re not going to preach about the non-use of these things. We’re just going keep away. It’s also culturally acceptable. You know, you don’t have to worry about the bad guy ending up with an Arab name or Muslim identity.
I feel [a certain] responsibility. I have my own boys. When I was growing up, I was a voracious reader. Just read anything in sight, mostly in English, because nothing in Arabic really captivated me. And I grew up; even though I went through the education system here [in Kuwait], I grew up believing that I couldn’t read Arabic, that I wouldn’t like it, that I wouldn’t enjoy it, that I wouldn’t understand it. So when I was 26 years old, I came home -- and I still remember this day -- I came home with [an English-language] copy of an Arab writer’s book called Cities of Salt. My mother, who was a philosophy teacher in Arabic, saw the book and she said, "You’re an Arab boy. That’s an Arab writer. How dare you let a Western [translator] between the two of you? You’re reading that book in Arabic!" I said, "No, but…." She’s like, “No ‘buts.’ I put up with this with you growing up. But no ‘buts.’ ”
And I listened. And I picked it up in Arabic and I started reading it. And I was like, "Wow, this is enjoyable." What I couldn’t understand because I didn’t know the word, I understood the context. And then I graduated and started reading even more. I started thinking about my child, and I thought [that] the problem was not that I didn’t enjoy reading. The problem was [that] what was available for me to read was not captivating. It spoke down to me. It didn’t speak to me, and that was the problem. I mean, I’m talking about a time where -- certain places when I was growing up banned the book Animal Farm. Not because it spoke about totalitarianism, whereas it had in certain countries, but because there was a pig on the cover. So it’s just -- it’s a different breed of censorship. And what’s left is stuff that people just don’t want to pick up or stuff in English, because the guys who are doing the censoring probably don’t speak English.
Q: How did your initial success in getting people to believe in your idea affect you?
A: I did feel a tremendous responsibility on my shoulders. And I felt a tremendous responsibility to the world that I am from. There were nights when I couldn’t sleep. Then I raised the money, and all of a sudden I felt like a charlatan. Here I was. I sold [air] to investors. I sold this big idea. And they bought it. So now what? There’s a lot of self-doubt in this kind of environment, specifically here in this part of the world. Aside from the intellectual stagnation, there isn’t really much promotion of entrepreneurship. It just doesn’t exist.
Q: How did you then go about turning your idea into a business?
A: A friend of mine who had just shot a documentary about comic books said, “I just met the top guys at Marvel and DC [Comics]. Would you like to meet them?” I said, “Sure.” I met them; they convinced me this was a comic project, and that led to people being hired who used to run Marvel. Sven Larsen, who is the former head of marketing at Marvel, is now my chief operational officer. He’s wonderful to work with, but, on top of that, he was able to bring to the table various artists who I wouldn’t have known how to get or how to negotiate with or what to do, but he knew them. He knew how it worked. He knew how to put it together. And one of the people he brought to us, Fabian [Nicieza], has written for X-Men and a lot of other places. But X-Men is important to mention because X-Men is a multicharacter property, just like The 99 -- different heroes with different powers, just like The 99. So he got what it meant to create something that deep.
Initially, Fabian and I sat down and came up with the different plots, the synopses. The actual writing of the dialogue, he does. That needs a particular kind of talent, which I do not possess. And that’s one of the things I learned growing up in this project: to be able to let go. That it’s OK that I can’t do everything. There are people who can.… In the end, [that’s] the message of The 99. They’re different people who have different powers, you know? And so what if you don’t have them?
Q: Even though you donít mention Islam, is each character meant to be Muslim?
A: We don't say, because there is nothing fundamentally different between Islam and any other belief on Earth or any other way of being human. So we don't say. For me, in the end, the 99 attributes of Allah are attributes that not only all Muslims value, but humanity values. Things like generosity, strength, wisdom, foresight, mercy. You canít name one civilization -- Muslin or non-Muslim -- that has a theology or is agnostic, that doesnít espouse those as basic human values. So my point of what I was trying to do was try to bring us together, versus pull us apart.