For the last decade, the religion of Islam has been subject to distortion and attack by Muslims and non-Muslims who have misunderstood or are unaware of its core values. Unfortunately many, including the most well-intentioned of persons, have responded to these onslaughts in ways that have either fanned the flames of hatred or have otherwise failed to resurrect the religion’s true message. There have, however, been a few exceptional people who have met these hostile challenges with creative and unexpected responses that not only enlighten the mind, but also feed the soul. Among the most innovative of these projects has been the 99, a comic book series created by Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti clinical psychologist and entrepreneur. In contrast to the images of violent extremism that have come to dominate Islam’s public profile, the 99 presents positive Islamic archetypes based on values such as tolerance, understanding, and diversity of belief.
The series is composed of 99 superheroes, who are each based on one of the 99 attributes of God described in the Qur’an. Despite its unabashedly Islamic roots, the 99 is, however, far from a religious project. The characters do not engage in any Islamic practices, nor is there any reference to religion or God in the series. These distinct qualities are at the heart of the 99’s unique approach to resurrecting Islam. By combining Western pop culture and universal values, the 99 represents a unique approach to retaking Islam from the extremists and anti-Islam proponents who have distorted its message.
The 99: A Global Narrative Inspired by Perennial Values Rooted in Islam
In large part, the 99’s brilliance lies in its ability to send positive messages about Islam that resonate with Muslim as well as non-Muslim audiences. The 99 is able to succeed in this seemingly impossible task in several ways.
First, the 99 is geared to positively impacting perceptions young Muslims hold of their religion. Through his work as a clinical psychologist, Al-Mutawa found that Muslim youth were more inclined to associate acts of violence and extremism with Islam than with other religions. The 99 responds to this trend by presenting positive role models inspired by Islamic principles that counteract the negative associations these young people hold about their faith.
At the same time, by advocating multiculturalism and challenging stereotypes, the 99 also speaks to issues relevant to Islamic and non-Islamic cultures alike. The series’ superheroes hail from 99 different countries, reflecting the diversity both inside and outside of Islam. Among these multicultural superheroes are female characters who challenge common assumptions about femininity and gender roles in both Islamic and non-Islamic cultures. Mumita the Destroyer, a teenager from Portugal, is the ultimate unexpected heroine. Known for her speed, agility, and strength, Mumita is a champion fighter who regularly defeats her male counterparts in hand-to-hand combat. The 99 also includes Darr the Inflicter, a young man paralyzed from the legs down whose superhero status challenges traditional notions of power and strength held in many cultures.
Most importantly, however, by speaking to perennial human values like generosity and charity, Al-Mutawa’s superheroes are role models for people of all cultural and religious backgrounds. This universal appeal is reflected in the very historical event that grounds the series, namely, the destruction of Baghdad’s Dar al Hikma library in 1258. The most famous library of its time, Dar al Hikma contained manuscripts from a variety of faith perspectives, including Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, as well as Islamic traditions. Inspired by Dar al Hikma’s history of multiculturalism , each of the 99’s superheroes carries one of 99 Noor Stones, magical objects containing knowledge from the library’s famously diverse book collection.
Wham! Bam! Islam! – Bringing the 99 to the United States
With its cosmopolitan and universalist message, the 99 seems poised to succeed in a variety of markets around the globe. In fact, as recounted in Wham! Bam! Islam!, the documentary about the 99’s creation and development, a number of countries, including, China, India, and Turkey, have welcomed the 99’s animated series into their television markets. The United States, however, appears to be closing its doors to Al-Mutawa’s message of tolerance, peace, and understanding. After the HUB children’s television network announced plans to broadcast the animated series in the United States, a number of anti-Islam advocates unleashed the standard round of misinformation, hyperbole, and fear mongering that has become a far too common part of American discourse on Islam.
It is hardly surprising that anti-Islam advocates would attack the 99. It is perhaps equally unsurprising that the HUB corporation would succumb to negative publicity that could potentially affect its bottom line. What is unacceptable, however, is for the story to end there. Over the last several years, mainstream America has been largely unresponsive, as the likes of Pamela Gellar and Robert Spencer have undermined this country’s commitment to pluralism and religious tolerance. From the controversy surrounding New York’s Park 51 mosque to the fear-mongering over the supposed influence of Shari’a law in the United States, a handful of right-wing extremists are attempting, too often successfully, to set the terms of engagement between the American public and Islam.
As these efforts become increasingly successful, the United States stands to lose a great deal. While much of the world enjoys ready access to new and innovative approaches to Islam, America will largely be excluded from these conversations. Missing out on these opportunities for cross-cultural diplomacy will create knowledge gaps that will only serve to increase America’s waning global influence. With the expected shift of economic power away from the United States and towards Asia, a parochial America, stripped of its global reputation for openness and diversity, will lose yet another one of its historical footholds on the international stage.
For Muslims and non-Muslims alike, the 99 recalls Islam’s roots in peace, understanding, and knowledge. It also teaches us how easy it can be to lose one’s way. The 99 superheroes, all of whom use their powers initially for self-serving reasons, demonstrate the degree to which we all can forget our higher purpose. At the same time, as each superhero comes to understand the need to serve the greater good, the 99 reminds us that the opportunity always exists to change course and direct our efforts in more productive ways.
The 99 has reached out to the United States with a message rooted in values we all share. It is incumbent upon America to reverse its current course, and ensure that this message is not met with vitriol and hatred, but rather is given the open hearing and thoughtful response that it deserves.
To learn more about the 99 and its development, visit iTunes and download the documentary Wham! Bam! Islam!