Editor’s note: As FRONTLINE/World reporter Isaac Solotaroff discovered during his reporting trips to Kuwait, the concept of Allah’s 99 attributes is as recognizable and ubiquitous in the Muslim world as the concept of the Ten Commandments is in the West. But to create 99 superheroes personifying each of Allah’s characteristics, as Naif al-Mutawa did with his comic book, The 99, was to bring pop culture to Islam -- a very foreign concept indeed. In talking with Kuwaitis from all walks of life, Solotaroff found a country grappling with its cultural identity, where something as seemingly benign as a comic book could touch off major religious debate and theological reflection. -- Matthew Vree
In the run-up to the publication of the first issue of The 99 last October, Naif al-Mutawa promoted it with this tagline: “This Ramadan, the Islamic world will have new heroes.”
This was around the time when I began documenting this story with my cameraman and associate producer, Mark French. We would spend time with Naif on his frequent trips to the United States, following him to trade shows and business meetings, listening to him lecture at college campuses, sitting in on writing sessions with the members of his New York-based creative team.
Naif proved to be a study in contradictions -- an Arab who grew up going to a predominantly Jewish summer camp in New Hampshire; a doctor of psychology who had worked at Bellevue Hospital’s Torture Unit, treating former Iraqi soldiers who had once invaded his native Kuwait; a Muslim who had never been particularly religious but was creating a comic book based on teachings from the Koran.
The early success of The 99 brought out both proponents and detractors. The comic book was collecting a loyal base of young fans, outselling its better-known competitors in markets throughout the Middle East and generating positive press. But it had also been banned in Saudia Arabia and attracted rumbles of disapproval from some of the more conservative voices in the region. In May, Mark and I departed for a two-week production trip to Kuwait to investigate.
THE YOUTH CULTURE
Kuwait is a unique country in many ways. Politically, it is one of the last remaining allies of the United States in the Middle East, in large part due to America’s liberation of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm in 1990. It is also one of the wealthiest countries in the world, sitting on 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves and displaying the highest concentration of luxury cars and shopping malls I have ever seen. But below the materialistic surface is an Islamic society that is very conservative, even by the standards of its neighbors. Alcohol, dancing in public and any premarital sexual contact are strictly prohibited, and penalties are widely enforced.
We began our research by surveying Kuwait’s youth culture, which involved spending a lot of time at the mall. The malls were packed with adolescent boys -- many dressed in tight-fitting T-shirts and wearing hints of eyeliner, which reminded me of the American rock band Fall Out Boy, which was often cited as a music favorite. Few among those we spoke to had heard of The 99, though we did find the occasional devoted reader. But when we visited a fourth-grade class at the Al-Bayan private school, every kid knew of The 99 and had read it at least once.
Sitting in on an “Advanced Theory” class at Kuwait University, in which the professor and her class were deconstructing The 99, turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. The class was a stark contrast to the local mall culture: Most of the students were young women, all but one of whom wore the hijab, or head covering. One of the first comments about the comic came from a student wearing a niqab, or full veil. She compared Naif to W.B. Yeats and suggested that he was using Islamic teachings to build a bridge between East and West in the way that Yeats merged traditional Irish verse with modern poetry to open up the world to Irish culture. Some students were less enthusiastic, saying Naif was taking the cherished teachings of Islam and turning them into a commercial venture. Others felt the violence in the comic book only reinforced the stereotypes that the West had about Arabs.
It was a passionate and intelligent exchange. When I told the group how much this reminded me of some of my better classes in college, one of the girls laughed and said that I shouldn’t sound so surprised when I say something like that. “We understand the West,” she said, “because we have been forced to live in a world dominated by it. The people in the West are only just beginning to learn about us.”
The mood was very different when we visited the Sharia -- or Islamic law -- school on the other side of the campus. Not surprisingly, these students were far less inclined to share their opinions about The 99 with us. But one 19-year-old student named Yusef said he believed he spoke for all Muslims when he said that The 99 was wrong and misguided. Yusef felt that The 99 was part of a post-9/11 response in some parts of the Islamic world to make Islam more palatable to 21st-century sensibilities. He said that efforts to give women more religious authority and the new interpretations of the Koran are reforms that are diluting the message of the prophet Mohammed. “This is the greatest threat to Islam today,” he said.
This concern about modernity, unchecked freedom of speech, and too much focus on secular rather than spiritual pursuits or the rights of the individual over collective interests became the dominant theme as we delved more deeply into Kuwait’s religious society. Professor Abdullah Al-Ghanim, a leading commentator on events in Kuwait and the Arab Gulf, put it most succinctly. Any artistic renderings of Allah or the prophet Mohammed, he told us, are haram, or forbidden, in Islam. He also questioned the message of a comic that taught young readers to believe in superheroes rather than Allah.
In our interview, he held a copy of The 99 up to the camera and said he believed this comic book had the potential to corrupt Muslim children’s understanding of Islam; he added, “we are going to stop it.” I asked him why Naif shouldn’t be allowed to share his artistic interpretation of Allah’s 99 names/attributes with Muslim children. “Unlike America,” he said, “there is no separation of church (or mosque) and state in this part of the world. You are entitled to say and do what you want, as long as it does not contradict the words of the prophet Mohammed.”
THE ISSUE OF FATWAHS
By some bizarre twist of fate, during the last few days of our visit, there was a regional fatwah conference at the Sheraton in Kuwait city -- the first one Kuwait had hosted in years. Fatwahs are religious decrees handed down by religious authorities that interpret Islamic law as it pertains to a given action, person or piece of culture -- an Islamic comic book for example. We planned to attend the fatwah conference, and I coordinated with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which was hosting the event. The event’s organizer asked to see copies of The 99. I shared a few copies with him, wondering if I had done the right thing. I’d been walking a fine line for the past two weeks, trying to capture the wide range of opinions that this comic book engendered without drawing too much unwanted attention. In this case, it backfired.
Within hours, and on the eve of the conference, there was talk that The 99 might become the subject of a fatwah. We had been invited to Naif’s mother’s house that afternoon to eat lunch and do a final interview with him. Standing in his parents’ living room, explaining to Naif what had happened and the possible consequences of my actions was one of the most gut-wrenching experiences of my career.
It was a tense final three days. For the most part, I steered clear of the conference, hoping not to upset things more than I had. We monitored the conference through newspaper reports every day, but there was no mention of The 99. On my last evening in Kuwait, I slipped into the conference with my translator to see if I might be able to license the footage that Kuwaiti TV was shooting. We found our way to the hotel’s main ballroom, packed with hundreds of religious men from throughout the Middle East who were paying rapt attention to a panel of sheikhs and religious scholars whom my translator identified as being “very famous.” I shot about five minutes of the event with a small camera before we were asked to leave.
The 99 never did come up for a fatwah during the conference.
On the way back to my rented flat, I began to reflect on how the questions facing The 99 are in many ways similar to the major cultural questions facing this part of the world. What are the limits of freedom of expression and entrepreneurial spirit in a socially conservative 21st-century society? Who gets to make these determinations? Politicians? Religious authorities? The marketplace? How is it possible for a country like Kuwait to have all the trappings of a modern society -- satellite TVs, cell phones, luxury malls -- and still maintain strict control of information and ideas?
Following this story over the past year has provided me with a crash course in understanding some of the conflicting forces in Arab society today. But I am no clearer now than I was when I started about where this is all going.