Comic Artist Re-Draws Islam With Secular Superheroes in “The 99”

Naif Al-Mutawa's comic has been banned by censors in Muslim countries and demagogued by Islamophobes in the United States. spoke with the psychologist-turned-artist about the ideas behind his series.

By Channing Kennedy Oct 14, 2011

Naif Al-Mutawa’s superpower seems to be being the friendliest guy you’ll ever meet. That’s got to come in handy for a guy in his line of work. Al-Mutawa, a mild-mannered Kuwaiti psychologist and dad of five sons, has personally tasked himself with constructing a kids’ entertainment franchise that can compete in a global market–with the plainly stated mission of secularizing Islamic art and culture in order to save it.

He’s been in some awkward meetings, in other words. And through them all, he’s kept a single goal: to use mass-audience art to present an alternate frame for Islam, a culture he loves, in order to reclaim it from the extremists who’ve hijacked it in the public imagination. No easy task, given that some Muslim-nation censors frown upon drawings of living beings, much less a roster of comic-book superheroes named after the 99 attributes of Allah.

"The 99," the Islam-inspired comic series that Al-Mutawa launched eight years ago, has won a devoted worldwide audience, as well as a DC Comics crossover, a TV show and even a theme park in Kuwait (complete with big-headed mascots). "The 99" also got a shoutout from President Obama–which, naturally, woke up the usual professional Islamophobes, who managed to scare off the TV show’s slated U.S. broadcasters. It was an ironic attack for Al-Mutawa, after years of allegations that his art isn’t Muslim enough.

I spoke with Al-Mutawa before a San Francisco preview screening of "Wham! Bam! Islam!," the new Independent Lens documentary that follows the victories and defeats in "The 99" over the last few years. It premiered on PBS last night and is available on iTunes, and is excellent.

So you’ve said that Superman is a Christian allegory, and "The 99" falls within that same framework.

Exactly. And there’s no Christianity being preached through Superman; it’s just an allegory. The premise is that I’ve secularized content and archetypes from the Qur’an the same way Hollywood has secularized Biblical archetypes, and so the storyline is universal and applicable to everybody, yet based on a different book.

You’ve also described Pokémon as an Eastern allegory, that it contains Eastern values.

Well, Pokémon spurred the idea for "The 99," because of the fatwa that was issued against it–it’s not allowed in some Muslim countries. That’s what was happening in my mind; my sister was pushing me to go back to writing for kids, and I said it doesn’t make sense for me to go back now, because it would have to be something that has the potential of Pokémon. My next thought was the fatwa; my next thought was, oh my God, what’s happened to Islam, and who’s making these random decisions for my children?

My next thought was Allah, and how disappointed he must be. My next thought was that Allah had 99 attributes… and it brought me full circle back to Pokémon, which has over a thousand attributes. [laughs]

And each new season there’s another hundred.

There you go. And that’s how it hit.

What were you doing before comics? You’ve worked extensively with former POWs, right?

Not extensively. I worked with POWs in Kuwait, and then I worked with survivors of political torture at Bellevue. My patients came out of Iraqi prisons, Syrian prisons, people who have been tortured for their religion and politics. The one story I kept hearing consistently was of growing up to idolize your leader as a hero, only to be tortured by that hero. And torture’s a terrible enough thing as it is, but when your hero starts torturing you, that just breaks you on so many levels.

Do those stories show up now?

The stories? No. But the psychology shows up. If you watch the series you’ll see the theories of conflict resolution, the theories of leadership styles, the theories of teamwork and team-building, it’s all there. But I can’t tell you I sit down there and think, "Gee, let me get the theory in." You write what you know.

Comics right now are in an exciting place, in some ways, and in a very dumb place in some other ways. We have stuff like the new Spiderman, who’s black and Latino, which I think is being written very well. And on the other hand, we have stuff like Frank Miller’s "Holy Terror." "The 99" seems, in some ways, like it’s not just a critique of how Islam is represented; it’s also a critique of how comic books exist and the stories that they tell.

Well, with "The 99," I chose to not respond to others; I chose to create my own universe. The lesson learned from the "Cosby Show," for me, was the Cosby family just happened to be black. Race was not discussed. And it changed the perception of both white Americans to African Americans, and African Americans to themselves. And so I wanted to do that with Islam.

And the way I do that is that even though they’re from 99 different countries and they’re boys and girls, we don’t discuss that as much. What we discuss is what power you have, and is it applicable to solve the problem at hand. That’s what defines if you’re the leader of the team or not in [a given] situation, so it’s contextual. Doesn’t matter the color of your skin or what god you do or don’t believe in.

With the comic books, the style–I just wanted to use a medium that was understood, which is comic books, but I wanted to tell my own story through it. I wanted to drive the conversation, not respond to somebody else’s.

Another contentious issue for comics: Would you say that "The 99" is feminist?

I would say, to some it probably is, but to others it isn’t.

Let me rephrase that. How important is it to you how women are represented in "The 99"?

It’s important to me that everybody find a voice in "The 99." For example, I don’t believe that the burqa is part of my religion. I just don’t. I mean, I’ve seen the writings; I believe it’s part of Arab culture that kind of got co-opted into religion, and some people believe that it’s important to them. I believe that forcing someone to wear the burqa is despicable. But I believe that if somebody wants to choose to do it, that’s their right. I’m a psychologist, and I’ve worked with clients who wear the burqa and who have been forced into it, and I’ve worked with clients who have chosen to wear the burqa themselves. And so, out of respect for people who choose to wear the burka, I have one character out of 99–one percent–that wears a burqa. Some of the girls show their hair; some don’t.

The one character that fights in the 99 is a girl, Mumita. She’s the best fighter on the team. That was important for me, because the 99 have yin and yang: there’s the powerful, the hegemonous, the strong, and there’s also the kind, the merciful. I didn’t want the girls all being kind and merciful. I wanted to mix and match that.

This is a very multiracial team of characters. How important is that to you?

It’s very important, because it further underscores the idea that it’s based on the value that we share as human beings. That’s the important thing. When you’re talking about superheroes inspired by Islam, Islam is global, there are Muslims everywhere–even though we never talk about the religion of the characters. One of my mentors who’s Irish Catholic said to me, "I thought they were all Irish Catholic!"

So if Islam is invisible within "The 99," is that the success? Is invisible the right term there?

No, it’s subtle…. Islam as a religion is not in there. See, I believe the only way to beat extremism is through arts and culture. That’s what happened with the reformation renaissance in Europe, and that’s what has to happen in the Muslim world. And it’s the difference between religion being the art and art being inspired by the religion. Hollywood has art inspired by religion; it’s secular, yes, but it’s inspired by the religion, and it works because there’s a hook there, people know the stories.

In my part of the world, the only people using that content have been the bad guys. They’ve weaponized the religion. The way to take that back is not through fighting them with guns and bombs. The way to take that back is to secularize the content, and to create positive stuff. If I can link comic books and theme parks and stuff like that to the same place they’ve linked their negative and hurtful and violent messages, then they just become bad people with a bad message. You just de-link them that way.

So you’re banned in one part of the world for being too secular, and you’ve been getting blocked here for being too Islamic, right?

Oh, yeah–what happened last April, when President Obama talked about "The 99," is that we got attacked during congressional elections. You know: Obama is Muslim and this proves that he’s trying to brainwash your kids, and we can’t let the Muslims brainwash our children like the Mexicans did with Dora the Explorer. And that scared our broadcasters, and they’ve been delaying the [launch] date.

And meanwhile, the irony is that I got banned in Saudi Arabia first! And the TV series is going to show in Saudi Arabia before America now. We’ve sold it to a network in Asia. We’ve sold it in 50 countries so far. It just premiered at the New York Film Festival and got amazing reviews. And so, we have something, and it’s good. But it has to be seen. It’s become the equivalent of Obama’s birth certificate.

It’s tough. I mean, it’s been eight years of ups and downs. But if anything, it further underscores the importance of the project for me. There’s a great thing in the documentary–there are these kids who sent me, from an address in South Asia, a photo of themselves smiling and holding up copies of "The 99." The good news is that they’re all smiling; the bad news is that they’re all holding photocopies.

But yeah, when people who heretofore are more extremist in their thinking, in their teaching, when they pick up "The 99" and see pacifism linked to Qu’ran, to that same underlying place, I think that can make a big difference.