?Super heroes!? are those strong men in colourful attire, striving to save the world from evil. All of us have grown up with superheroes like Superman, Batman, Ninja Turtles, Spiderman and so on. However, how many of us have heard of the 99 super heroes?
The 99 Superheroes series is a creation of ?Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, founder and CEO of Teshkeel Media Group. The creative team for The 99 is composed of comic book industry veterans such as Stuart Moore, June Brigman, John McCrea, Ron Wagner and Sean Parsons who have all worked with both Marvel and DC Comic.
RECREATING AN IMAGE
In recent years,?Islam has been characterised as a religion that promotes violence especially in the West. Factual and fictional stories on how Muslims act out violently, against people, both within their religion and outside of it are plenty. And of course they are popular. When the roots of violent acts in the past decade can be traced back to terrorists who come from a Muslim background, then it is easy to point fingers at the religion.
But one man sought to use his imagination to change this stereotype and influence an entire generation.
In 2003, Dr. Naif Al Mutawa, a psychologist, a dreamer and a father of 4 sons at that time, had an idea, that would come to gradually shift how Islam is viewed in the world. He began to work on a comic book series with its roots in Islam and Islamic culture and came up with the concept of ‘The 99’.
In his blog, Al-Mutawa says: “If we allow small-minded men to spout fear and hate in the name of our religion, we will enable them to brainwash another generation as they did our own. And soon, the next generation will fall into a pit of dissonance. To sit by silently makes us all complicit. As the father of five sons, I worry about who they’re going to be using as role models.?
Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa is the Clinical Director of The Soor Centre for Psychological Counselling and Assessment in Kuwait. In his work and travel he has witnessed, first hand how cancerous intolerance can be in a society. He met and worked with former prisoners of war in Kuwait and the Survivors of Political Torture unit of Bellevue Hospital in New York.
The psychologist and innovator maintains his beliefs in his deep-rooted ideals. ?I see religion being manipulated. As a psychologist, I worry for the world in general, but worry about the perception of how people see themselves in my part of the world.? He added: ?And I heard too many stories of people growing up to idolise their leadership, only to end up being tortured by their heroes. And torture’s a terrible enough thing as it is, but when it’s done by your hero, that just breaks you in so many ways.?
THE NINETY NINE
The series consists of a team of superheroes, each exemplifying one of the 99 attributes of Allah.
Al-Mutawa had an idealistic ambition. He hoped that The 99 would bring out characteristics of Islam that are not normally associated with the religion in the Western world, such as Islamic virtues of compassion, understanding and tolerance and also that the role models/superheroes would work against the political and religious extremism that has been growing lately.
The characters of The 99 are everyday people from across the globe, from the UAE to Portugal, each of whom come into possession of one of the 99 mystical Noor stones. These individuals come across each other through the series and together work towards achieving unity and justice in the world.
When Dr. Naif spoke about his comic book series at TEDxDubai, in 2009, he emphasised on the fact that the knowledge in the stones did not only come from Islam, but was inspired by knowledge from around the world and drawn from a ?collective civilisation.?
Some of the characters released so far are, Noora the Light, Widad The Loving, Jaleel The Majestic and Sami The Listener. Batina The Hidden is a character that wears the burqa, and one of the 5 that are covered. Many stereotypes exist about women who wear the hijab and burqa and by releasing characters who wear these religious clothing. Al-Mutawa?s comics hope to work against the stereotypes by projecting them as the ordinary everyday people they really are.
He also breaks boundaries of prejudice that tend to exist more strongly amongst Asian countries, such as women being portrayed as healers and men as warriors. In his comics the female characters take on roles as fighters like Mumita from Indonesia.
The popularity or rather, unpopularity of comics in the Arab world proved daunting for Al-Mutawa. Those that did exist were mainly imported from the West. Around $7 million was raised as initial capital from 54 investors across four continents.
The very first of the comic book series was released under Teshkeel Comics during?the Ramadan of 2006. An ?Origins Preview? was published later. It wasn?t long before religious leaders became suspicious of the comics and called for a ban in Saudi Arabia. Many fatwas were also issued that asked people not to read the comics.
In October 2010, a cross over mini series of The 99 with Justice League was published.
The innovator now stands against the ?cultural gatekeepers? and advocates an image of Islam that is truthful and based on open-mindedness.
The comics are confronting another major issue in the regional marketplace. The sales numbers in the Middle East are poor. Al-Mutawa has turned his attention to theme parks and animation in a bid to boost the popularity of his work. In 2009, a theme park named ?The 99 Village? opened in Jahra, Kuwait.
Teshkeel Media Group, producers of the comic series, partnered with United Entertainment and Tourism Company (UETC) to establish ?The 99 Village? ?amusement parks throughout the GCC.
Despite drawing flak in the Middle East, Forbes named The 99 as one of the top 20 trends sweeping the globe. Even US President Barack Obama praised Dr. Naif and his comics for being one of the most innovative entrepreneurial developments in his Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in 2010.
Dr. Naif has attained several awards over his lifetime. At a younger age he won a UNESCO prize for literture in the service of tolerance for writing a children?s tale inspired by his religious and political beliefs. He has also been named as one of?WEF’s? (World Economic Forum) Young Global Leaders for 2011. Dr. Naif was named one of ‘The 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World’ by The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center (in Jordan) in concert with Georgetown?s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
Other awards include, the Eliot-Pearson Award for Excellence in Children’s Media from Tufts University, the?United Nations Alliance of Civilizations ?Marketplace of Ideas? Award,?The Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Award?presented at the 2009 WEF.
DOCUMENTING AN IDEA
October 13th has been set as the date for the release of ?Wham, Bam, Islam!? a documentary about The 99. ?The film is produced by Katharyn Bond M?rquez and directed by Isaac Solotaroff.? It will be covering the story of Al-Mutawa, his creation and his journey to bring ?new heroes to Muslim children while re-introducing Islam to the West.?
The award winning Kuwaiti entrepreneur, Dr Naif Al-Mutawa, spoke highly of his creation in an interview with Emel, a magazine for Muslim community. ?The 99 went from an idea in a taxi to attracting $40m in financing; creating nearly 1,000 jobs; and is going on global TV. It has made a mark on the way people perceive Islam?
Moreover, by changing the general perception of Islam, The 99 would serve as a link to improve the relationship between Islam and the West.
Sources: al-mutawa.com, emel, the99.org, TEDxDubai