Superheroes help us believe that good will triumph over evil, even if it doesn’t always work that way in real life. There’s a moral dimension to their tales, one that’s rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Prepare yourself to be introduced to a new set of superheroes — ready to save cities, battle villains and carry people to safety in the midst of chaos — but with powers like mercy, foresight and wisdom that are extolled in the Quran.
THE 99 comic books have been wildly popular in the Middle East, China, India, Indonesia and Turkey. Now, an animated version makes its U.S. debut.
A new TV station called The Hub, a joint venture of Discovery and Hasbro, announced today that it will include THE 99 in its lineup when it launches in October. So stay tuned!
In the meantime, meet Dr. Naif al-Mutawa, the creator of THE 99.
Rawan Jabaji: What was the impetus behind THE 99?
Dr. Naif al-Mutawa: I’m a New York State licensed psychologist. I trained at Bellevue Hospital with survivors of the political torture program for several years. And I heard one too many stories about people who grew up idolizing their leadership only to end up being tortured by them. I took a break months before 9/11; I just needed some time off. Took a couple years off to go to business school and during that time was thinking about a lot of things. One of which was 9/11 and what that would mean, how Islam was being positioned, which, between the horrendous acts and the media coverage of it, really shook the foundations of Islam.
When things kind of go that crazy in the west you say, “Sounds like a job for Superman.” There was no Superman. So that was it, I went about to build that Superman to face off against this stuff.
Jabaji: Why do Muslim children need a superhero?
al-Mutawa: THE 99 was built for Muslims as much as it was built for all children.
Superheroes are based on Judeo-Christian archetypes. Like the prophets, they all get their messages from above from a messenger. The prophets get it from God through the angel Gabriel. Peter Parker is taking a photograph in Manhattan when the spider comes down from above to give him his message through a bite. It’s a metaphor for an angel coming down. Batman gets it when a bat flies over his head, again from above. Superman gets sent from a different planet, from the heavens. But his father says to Earth, “I have sent to you my only son.” That’s the Bible, right? But the story lines aren’t religious. They take those things that all cultures consider positive and they spin with new story lines that make it applicable to humanity. It’s done in a very mainstream, popular medium, which is infectious.
Islam on the other hand — the only thing making the headlines are bombs and explosions. The fear is that Muslims start to identify with that. And the only way to shake that and confuse the system is to go back to the same sources where other people have pulled out negative messages — i.e. the Quran — and in their place put positive multicultural messages, also coming from the Quran.
One of things I like to talk about is “The Catcher in the Rye” being a book that both John Hinckley, when he tried to kill Reagan, and Mark David Chapman, when he killed John Lennon, both refer to as the reason for killing. But I read the book and never killed anybody. Whose fault is that? The book or the reader?
Jabaji: Do comics and superheroes change from country to country or faith to faith, or is it universal?
al-Mutawa: The American superheroes wear red, white and blue. Spiderman’s red, white and blue. Captain America’s red, white and blue. So THE 99 are from 99 different countries. There’s a hero that represents each country, and each is equal in terms of strength but different in terms of their attributes. It’s the circumstance that dictates the ability to solve a particular problem, not who are, where you’re from, what your dad does, how much money you have or what passport you carry. It’s more the context. This problem requires these skills. So it democratizes, if you will, the idea of a superhero. It’s about teams, not about individuals. It’s a group culture, not an individual culture. You know Superman and Batman are very much based on western archetypes. It’s the Achilles heel-type of hero. He’s got all powers but kryptonite brings him down. Very western.
Jabaji: What are the skills that your superheroes have?
al-Mutawa: The superheroes are based on the 99 attributes of Allah in the Quran. Things like generosity and mercy, foresight. The idea is that there are 99 different ways to solve problems. Jabbar uses his muscles and Mumita is a fighter, but Widad uses love and Jami uses his technology skills. In one issue of THE 99, Jabber wants to use his muscles but Widad interferes and solves it with love. And the idea is, using your muscles, yeah you could have used it in that situation but that’s only 1/99th or 1 percent of the way you can solve problems.
Jabaji: You’re a clinical psychologist. How has the way media portrays Muslims impacted Muslim children?
al-Mutawa: I gave a lecture a couple years ago at the medical school here in Kuwait on the biological basis of behavior. I gave the students two articles, one from The New York Times and one from New York Magazine. And I took away the city it was in, the reporter, all that, so it was basically just the incident. In the first incident, it’s about a group called The Party of God that wants to ban Valentine’s Day; no roses, no color red. Any boys and girls caught flirting will get married off immediately at the nearest religious institution. The second article from New York Magazine is about a woman complaining because six bearded men jumped out of minivans to harass her and interrogate her because she talked to a man that wasn’t related to her. And I asked the students where these incidents took place. The first one they all said Saudi Arabia. The second one they all said Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. What blew their minds is that the first one took place in India; it was a party of some Hindu God. The second one took place in upstate New York. It was an Orthodox Jewish community. What’s heartbreaking is that in those interviews the people in the community, in the first incident, called this behavior Talibanization. In other words, good Hindus don’t act this way. This is Islam’s influence on Hinduism. In New York Magazine, the woman that was harassed called these guys “stupid Talibans” though they’re Orthodox Jews. What do the Arab-Muslim students in Kuwait say? They said, “It’s us.” This is scary. When we begin to self-identify as the extreme. That’s scary.
Jabaji: Historically, comic superheroes have been created for political purposes. Captain America and Wonder Woman were often depicted fighting the Axis Powers during World War II. You’ve said that your comic won’t be dealing with politics — how come?
al-Mutawa: When you start getting into politics you start getting into definitions — you know, when you start getting into things like the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the Arab-Iran thing, you start tapping into a quagmire of predefined political ideals. I’m basically side-stepping all that and talking about the underlying issues. One thing I know to a moral certainty is that all these major problems plaguing the world today, if we did what I did with the students in the medical school and took away the names of the actors and the cities and the countries and just presented the problem, no two people would disagree. When you start saying things like Israel and Palestine and Iran and Afghanistan … those have meaning based on the last 100 years of indoctrination. It’s so easy to forget that for 1,000 years the only place to be Jewish and safe is in the Arab world. Nowhere else in the world! I chose to create an alternative universe where we’re talking about real issues no two people would argue about.
Jabaji: You got a shout out from President Obama at the recent Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship? How did that feel?
al-Mutawa: When he said my name, I was like, “OK, that was my name.” It was surreal. He said, “Where is he?” I started sinking into my seat. Apparently I was supposed to stand up and I didn’t know. I put my hand up like a little boy in class. He continued talking, it was amazing. He talked about the crossover with DC Comics and that was an amazing plug. And he said, “I hear they’re making progress, Batman, Superman and THE 99.” I put my thumbs up.
It was a very proud moment in my life. I was very humbled. I teared up, I blushed. The only other moment I can think of that wasn’t exactly the same was when I had my first son; I kind of laughed and cried at the same time. It’s new. And it’s great and it’s confusing. That’s kind of what it felt like. This is not happening, but it is happening. The president’s talking about THE 99. One of the proudest moments of my life.
Jabaji: Who’s your favorite superhero?
al-Mutawa: I never thought about that. I remember growing up, and I still remember the smell of the Batman comics in Arabic that I had.
Jabaji: Who’s your favorite author?
al-Mutawa: Pat Conroy. I love Pat Conroy. I like him so much I actually bought his cookbook because he wrote it. I don’t intend to cook anything.
Jabaji: Who inspires you?
al-Mutawa: The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. And I’m inspired by The Beatles. If you can be inspired by both.
Jabaji: What’s your favorite show?
al-Mutawa: I love the writing in “Sex and the City.” And I love the suspense in “24.”
Jabaji: Where do you get your news?
al-Mutawa: Online. New York Times. CNN. BBC.
Jabaji: In one sentence, what do you do?
al-Mutawa: I challenge stereotypes.