Global Heroes

Editor’s note: Today we release a talk from 2009 PopTech speaker Naif Al-Mutawa, the creator of THE 99 – the first comic series to include multicultural superheroes inspired by an Islamic archetype. A clinical psychologist by training, Al-Mutawa is creating new frameworks for confronting stereotypes and extremism through a cast of characters that derive their power from Allah’s 99 attributes.

Storytelling doesn’t have to be digital to catalyze rapid social change. Consider the fastest-selling comic book in the Arab world, called The 99; its cast features 99 superheroes inspired by Islam on a quest to find legendary, mystical Noor Stones needed to save the world. Why 99? All characters are based on the concept of Allah’s 99 attributes, including wisdom and generosity, as taught in the Koran.

Last week, I caught up with the creator of The 99, Naif Al-Mutawa, who says he’s been a fan of America’s Marvel comics and The Hardy Boys mysteries since he attended summer camp in New Hampshire as a child.

Al-Mutawa is now 39, a Columbia University Business School graduate and a clinical psychologist. After attending college in the States, he worked as a therapist at Bellevue Hospital’s survivors for political torture program, and decided Muslims needed positive role models. In 2005, he founded Teshkeel Media Group in Kuwait City, where he was born and raised. In July 2007, Teshkeel began publishing The 99 (as well as select, Arabic versions of Spiderman and other Marvel and DC comics) in the United States and across the Middle East.


Cover art by Tom Derenick of the upcoming release of a six-part comic book series with DC Comics — in which The 99’s superheroes team up with Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman to fight evil around the globe.

[Characters in The 99 include Noora the Light, 18, (a former university student in Sharjah—the third-largest emirate in the UAE—who is now “a light to overcome the darkness”); Mumita the Destroyer, 17 (a street-smart runaway teen from the UAE who is being recruited by both the forces of good and evil to fight), and Dr. Ramzi Razem, 35 (a psychologist, historian, and UNESCO official who lives in Paris as a sort-of Arab version of Indiana Jones, hungry to learn more about the Noor stones and to mobilize the 99 for global peace).

There also is Jabbar the Powerful—a 19-year-old whose online profile says he was once “an average Saudi Arabian teen” until he stepped on a land mine and was transformed by hidden gem shards into a “man-mountain, a giant standing over two meters tall and weighing almost 200 kilograms.” The good guys, led by Dr. Ramzi, seek to keep Jabbar out of the control of those who have an extremist agenda. How powerful is Jabbar? If he sneezes, his profile adds, Jabbar “could level a house.”]

Al-Mutawa says he hopes the comic books will spread a moderate, modern image of Islam to the world and create new role models. “The Islamic world has had suicide bombers as heroes and needed new heroes,” Al-Mutawa says.

So far, so good: since their debut in 2006 in Kuwait, The 99 series is being translated into eight languages and sold in more than 20 countries and the first of five planned 99-based theme parks opened in Kuwait in March of last year. Meanwhile, a three-season, animated TV series is in production and Teshkeel Comics just signed a multimillion dollar deal with the global entertainment TV company, Endemol (Big Brother, Deal or No Deal, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), to produce it.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Last April in Washington, President Obama commended The 99 in a speech he gave at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship that sought to welcome new ties between U.S. and Muslim entrepreneurs. He said your comic books “have captured the imaginations of so many young people with superheroes that embody the teachings and tolerance of Islam.” In 2008, Forbes magazine described The 99 as “one of the top 20 trends sweeping the globe.” Yet today, in 2010, in New York City, do you think — or hope — that one of The 99’s magical Noor stones emitting the powers of tolerance and strength will be found somewhere near the proposed Muslim cultural enter and mosque in lower Manhattan?

AL-MUTAWA: Question One: grab the bull by the horns, yes? [laughter]

Indeed. [laughter] But seriously, in your view, what does the current level of controversy here in New York say about the global climate for civic engagement and tolerance – what you’ve been working toward with The 99?

There’s an old Kuwaiti saying that says if you get bit by a snake, you become afraid of rope. And another thing is that one’s body is set up in such a way, that if anything foreign is introduced into it, good or bad, white blood cells attack. That happens, also, in the mind – not just in the body; if a foreign idea comes in, one immediately might try to defend against it, and I think with regard to the proposed cultural center in Manhattan, it’s a very complicated situation. Let me just say that the Imam behind the place is someone for whom I have a lot of respect; he is someone who is a role model for what Imams should be like. It’s very disturbing for me because he is someone who people should be embracing. His work and his words have been twisted. I have heard Imam Faisal say that the United States should be a symbol for what the Muslim countries aspire to, so it’s troubling for me that even somebody who has an interfaith approach is seeing his words being twisted.

So returning to the rope and snake scenario – obviously, I understand that some people who are upset about this project think its construction would be akin to telling the bad guys that we [the good guys] didn’t win but in fact, the bad guys did win and that’s why there’s all this uproar. It really is a very sensitive and a complicated situation.

And it’s not just about how Islam is being positioned here; you have said recently that you’re also concerned about how Islam is being positioned to itself.

Yes. After 9/11, moving back home to Kuwait, I became more and more alarmed at how Islam was being positioned to itself. How Islam is being seen by the West is a very important thing, but I think as important is how Islam sees itself. What happens is, every time something terrible happens, that understanding of Islam goes toward the extreme, and kids grow up and they’re immediately fixated on the bad things. You have kind of a regression to the mean, and that mean is very, very mean.”

The 99 is being read in Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, countries outside the Arab Middle East where Islamic culture and history are widespread. Your company, Teshkeel, has opened a theme park in Jahra, Kuwait, based on the action figures. Since speaking to Poptech last fall, The 99 also has launched in China and Turkey. Meanwhile, DC Comics — the creators of Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman — are teaming up with The 99 to fight global evil in a special six-book series that debuts October 27. And yet, The 99 are still banned in Saudi Arabia, isn’t that right?

Banned and unbanned and re-banned again. We’re allowed in English now but not in Arabic.

What is the fear there?

I don’t think it’s fear. What happened there is that is our distributor in Saudi Arabia was overzealous and thought he’d be able to sell a lot of these copies and in his excitement portrayed that these comics were about God and the 99 names of God and, well, to censors there, this was as if we had walked in front of a bull wearing red. The job of Saudi censors is to keep out anything that has to do with religion and so I think he assumed we were something different than what we are. I think he thought we were subversive – kind of like the whole thing here, with “I am the Walrus” played backwards – so I kind of feel sorry for the guy who banned it. The censor had a family to feed and a paycheck and a thankless job to uphold. That’s the kind of atmosphere that exists there.

It’s been said, of course, that with the Internet and the continued evolution of social networks, we are all so much more connected now than we’ve ever been — and yet in some ways, we’ve never been more distant.

The way I swing intellectually, I have always written in English, not in Arabic; there was nothing that captivated me enough to read in Arabic and enable me to write in Arabic in a way that would differentiate me, and so I prefer to write in English. Back in Kuwait, before The 99, my friends would make fun of me, asking me, Who are you writing for, the ex-pats, the people who read English newspapers? It was sad to hear but true. At the time, I was writing in English in Kuwaiti newspapers. So the evolution of the Internet really made me. It helped me to get my voice out there, globally, to people who weren’t simply ex-pats and who wanted to hear what I had to say – no matter where they were geographically. I’m not a New York Times writer so I didn’t have the access but the Internet gave me that. The social media aspect to it for us happened when The New York Times covered us in the midst of the Danish cartoon controversy [in which a Danish newspaper and other European publications displayed 12 cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 and early 2006, triggering violent protests around the world; see video of PopTech talk].

What happened is that people started Googling to see what was happening in the world [with regard to cartoons and censorship] and then found me, too — and then all of a sudden, a huge amount of blogs and articles were written about me and The 99 and the message of tolerance — to the point that it continues four years later. I wish I could take credit for this, that I planned it that way, but I didn’t. I did what I had to do to and then fate or luck did the rest.

What have you found to be the most surprising reaction to The 99 in countries that have recently translated it into their languages?

One thing I shared in my [July 2010] TED talk was a photograph of a few kids holding up a few comic books of The 99 but they were all photocopies, and it was in some part of Pakistan. It said that we, as a country – we, as an ideal — are not there yet but just kind of getting there. The most fun reaction was President Obama’s reaction.

You tell people that just before conceiving of The 99, you had stopped writing childrens’ books; you said it had become very frustrating, given the censorship and other restraints at that time. Do you think now that you will go back to writing books? What’s next for you?

I’m now involved in writing my own story. There’s a film version of it coming out, to debut in the film festivals in the coming new year. It’s called Wham! Bam! Islam! and it’s the story of my life. PBS will be airing it. The film focuses on my building of this brand. Separately, I’ve been asked to write my story, so I’m also thinking about that now, too. PBS will air this film nationally within the next 12 months, and that’s obviously good for us at The 99, because it helps to get our message out. But it’s also a story of my challenges. The filmmaker, [Frontline reporter] Isaac Solotaroff, followed me as I marketed The 99 throughout the Middle East and interviewed people who supported me but also the people who would rather that my mother had not have given birth to me – to put it lightly. During many of the setbacks that I faced, Solotaroff was there with a camera, as I was negotiating with hardliners hardliners about the legitimacy of The 99 in Indonesia. For the past few years, he’s followed me around Indonesia, the Middle East, Europe, the U.S. – including at mosques here and at mosques there. This is the story of some of the backlash I faced as well as some of the embrace. It’s all very first-hand.

So The 99 is becoming ever-more globally exposed. As you look back at your work on The 99, what has been the most significant measureable result? Certainly there has been engagement among children, but what kinds of changes are you noticing as a result of all of this, which were not occurring when you first conceived this project?

We have been, since my PopTech talk last fall, in China and Turkey. We’ve been incorporated in school curriculums and in at least two university courses for the fall semester – classes on The 99 – and at least six others that will use it as part of the class curriculum. In Zurich, the international school is adding The 99 to its social studies classes, so there’s more and more penetration. The thing we’ve been able to do is penetrate thought and make a dent intellectually into what Islam means, and I’m very proud of being able to impact this in my small way because I believe in averages; I believe that there is no proper average unless there’s proper representation. And going back to social media, you know, I talk about something called Islam 2.0. For me, it’s this: there are over a billion Muslims, and so there should be over a billion opinions. And it’s only when you have one billion opinions and you have an average of those that the extremes (in a society) can really be extreme. That’s fine – there are extremes in all kinds of places and societies. But if most people in a society don’t talk and there is no 2.0, there is a problem.

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