Right now, the highest-selling comic book in the Middle East features - would you believe? - a bunch of superheroes fighting for a better, more peaceful world no longer riven by religious differences and all that goes with that - including, you'd hope, terrorism. Called "the 99", they sprang from a belief by a Kuwaiti psychologist that Muslim kids - and maybe even Muslim adults - needed new heroes. To the consternation of Islamic hardliners outraged by the whole idea, he could be right.
Airdate: 
Sunday, October 4, 2009 - 20:30
Channel: 
SBS One

Nick Lazaredes looks at the new super heroes of the Islamic world: a newly-created comic book series, 'The 99', in which the main characters are modeled on the 99 attributes of Allah.

The creator of the series, Naif A-Mutawa, says he's trying to teach Islamic extremists to embrace peaceful conflict resolution and turn them from violence.

But hard-line clerics have condemned 'The 99' as sacrilege and have called for the comics to be destroyed.

Transcript

In the comic book world, the job of saving the planet falls to that iconic character the superhero - an invention of American pop culture. But now a new gang of heroes, with roots in the Arab world, is here and their arrival signals the start of a radical new era for comics - fighting evil, Islam style!

NAIF AL-MUTAWA: No-one's ever done this with Islamic content. See, Muslims believe that power is the power of Allah and Allah has 99 attributes.

With 99 heroes from 99 countries, each with an attribute of Allah, this new alliance of cultures has another long-term mission. According to their creator, Kuwaiti psychologist Naif Al-Mutawa, they're also here to wrestle back Islam from the extremists who seek to control it.

NAIF AL-MUTAWA: I mean, the people who're embroiled in this whole war in religion stuff, you can't speak to them, so you make them speak to you - you create your own universe where it's your language they have to adapt to.

Now, in a bid to take the middle ground of the cartoon world, some of America's leading comic editors are helping "the 99" on their way, hoping to attract a new market for comics.

MARIE JAVINS: Our stated goal is to make entertainment that appeals to cultures that are not traditionally catered to. If I have to make a woman not look trashy - well, great, more power to us! I think that's great.

While its heroes are drawn from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds, the values of Islam are woven throughout. 'The 99' is a clear reference to the Koran, and from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia and the United States stereotypes about the world's fastest growing religion are being challenged.

NAIF AL-MUTAWA: I knew that to go after the Superman, Batman, Spiderman space, I couldn't just have love and kindness and mercy. And the nice thing about the 99 attributes of Allah is that there's a yin and yang aspect - there's the powerful, the hegemonist, the destroyer and there's also the kind, the generous, the merciful. And so, what I've done, two of the four characters we've launched with, there's the strong one, Jabbar, and Mumita the Destroyer, who's a woman.

ANJEM CHAUDARY, SHARIAH LAW CLERIC: The territory that he's treading in is very, very dangerous for him personally.

REPORTER: What do you mean by that?

ANJEM CHAUDARY: I mean, clearly the mocking of Islam, the use of cartoons, the use of the names of Allah for cartoon characters is something which hits the very basis of our belief.

While "The 99" are aimed at loosening up Islam's image, in Britain Anjem Choudary is leading a charge to strictly enforce its fundamentalist values by successfully establishing a system of sharia courts throughout the UK.

ANJEM CHAUDARY: This is the territory where the Muslims will never tread because of the complete difference between our culture and the Western culture. We can see that idols, music, drawing, acting is part of the Western culture. This is not part of our culture - although we have calligraphy, we cannot draw human beings, we cannot draw animals, plus we do not fabricate stories and we certainly don't twist history in order to fit a certain agenda which this individual, Naif, is trying to do.

In New York, where 'The 99's production hub has been established, the objections of fundamentalists are being politely brushed aside.

STUART MOORE: We're definitely trying to export some of the form and the fun of comics to this culture without exporting, necessarily, American values in any oppressive way.

Stuart Moore is one of America's most respected comic book writers. He's now using those skills to write narratives for 'The 99', excited about the potential to bring about widespread Muslim acceptance of a traditionally gritty American genre.

STUART MOORE: I like the idea of reaching out to children in countries that either haven't see comics much before or haven't seen enough people from other cultures and just sort of letting them know that other people around the world are like them. Because the whole point of the way 'The 99's powers work is that individually each of them has a gemstone that allows them to lift things or to project light or to be very strong, but when they really gain their strength and when they're most effective is when they join together in groups of three - and that's part of the whole metaphor for cooperation among different cultures.

NAIF AL-MUTAWA: I didn't want to be the Kuwaiti who got Kuwaiti investors, set up a Kuwaiti company - that's just too 'cheesy', as the Americans would say.

While Naif is proud of breaking the grip of Judeo-Christian superheroes in the cartoon world he's mindful, he says, about not over-playing the Islamic hand.

NAIF AL-MUTAWA: But we have a Saudi character, Indonesian, French, British, American, Iranian, Jordanian, Chinese - but the Chinese one has not been used yet - one from Yemen, we have one from Qatar, we have one from Egypt, one from Turkey.

Although it's not an exclusively Islamic cartoon, it does appear to be forging a revolutionary path by rebranding Islam, shunning its often strict fundamentalist image and repackaging the religion as a kind of pop culture.

NAIF AL-MUTAWA: When you focus on religious behaviour, then you start segmenting and you become a market of one. But when you talk about religious values and when you think about the 99 attributes of Allah and the Koran - things like generosity, wisdom and mercy - these are human values. And we've been able to do with no budget what the Ministries of Information of all the Islamic world have spent billions of dollars doing.

Not each comic book is deep into archetype - that's the overarching archetype. Now, every time I get a script where a scene takes place in a bar, I change it to a cafe.

Although some have dismissed the cartoon's surging popularity as a commercial stunt, academics aren't so sure. Intrigued by its capacity to effect deep impact on a generation of young Muslims, experts, like this group of Fulbright scholars in New York, have sought out Al-Mutawa to quiz him about the cartoon's characters and story-lines.

REPORTER (Translater): What kind of impact obviously, there's cross-cultural problem-solving going on here. What are your goals there?

NAIF AL-MUTAWA: Just because, for example, the strong one's from Saudi today, but that might be the Indian one in two years. So that stone will pass.

America spawned the world's first comic heroes, and it was here that Naif was drawn into their imaginary world - having been sent here for summer holidays. But his obsession about giving Islam a 21st-century cross-cultural makeover was sparked at home, in the Gulf, when Islamic censors in Kuwait banned one of his favourite books - the George Orwell classic 'Animal Farm'.

NAIF AL-MUTAWA: The book was banned in the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, in my neck of the desert, it was banned because there was pig on the cover. There wasn't even any thought given to looking at the actual content. Now 30 years later, my son was made to take out a pen in school and take out the word 'pig' from his reader, as if pigs don't exist!

Naif says it's the strict system of censorship that exists in Kuwait and other Islamic societies that remains a key motivator for his Islamic comic quest.

NAIF AL MUTAWA: It worries me that people who have that type of mentality are censoring the content, and so the only way to really make a difference is to offer content that stays true to what I see children should be growing up with but done in a way that can't be dismissed as coming from the outside.

What makes the Islamic cartoon project especially unusual is it's almost entirely un-Islamic creative team - most of them veterans of an American comic art form which thrived on graphic depictions of gratuitous sex and violence.

MARIE JAVINS, EDITOR "œTHE 99": We have to have action and it is a very fine line between violence and action and we cross it all the time and my job is to catch it when that happens.

With almost two decades with the cartoon industry giant Marvel Comics, Marie Javins knows the genre backwards.

MARIE JAVINS: This is the kind of underwear you wear in a colouring book.

But as 'The 99's chief editor, she's facing a brand new set of challenges.

MARIE JAVINS: It's complicated because what you're really looking for is action, not violence. It is a visual medium - things have to happen. You have to have a credible threat to the team and if you don't have a credible threat, you have no story.

Abandoning the traditional violence common to Western comics, Marie has turned to actual world events - often natural disasters - as a way of injecting some drama and action into the plot.

MARIE JAVINS: We have them help rebuild dams in Afghanistan, clean out land mines in Cambodia. I don't know what I'm going to do when I run out of international emergencies but I assume there will always be more. Inked and with letters, which I'm currently correcting - you can sort of see where I'm drawing all over it.

As she studies each impending issue with a fine-tooth comb, Marie has to look through the glasses of a conservative Islamic censor in order to ensure that there'll be no trouble ahead.

MARIE JAVINS: This is a copy of a page where I thought that our main character was too curvy. What you can see is where I've put an orange thing on her back, which is just too hot for our comics, which are aimed at children in places like Saudi Arabia. So we've got - that's not good enough, we changed it a little bit and this is the final product right here.

The attempt to export the comic book genre into the Islamic world appears to be working with censors in countries like Saudi Arabia granting their approval. Not only is it proving to be a commercial success it's already generating scores of related ventures, like this theme park in Kuwait based on 'The 99's characters and an animated series by the TV giant that produces 'Big Brother' - Endemol. For Naif it's an important and historic step that he hopes will have a lasting impact. But trouble is brewing fast and Islam's fundamentalists are now seizing upon 'The 99' as evidence that its strict sharia code must be urgently and universally accepted before young Muslims are brainwashed.

ANJEM CHAUDARY, SHARIA LAW CLERIC: We need to really work hard to implement the sharia because, ultimately, it's only by having an Islamic state and having Islamic judges that individuals like this would never be able to propagate what they are doing within society.

As fundamentalists press ahead with their hardline world, Naif is content to continue building his imaginary one, and although it presents certain risks to his own safety he believes that it's far more important than an archaic interpretation of what he still regards as God's word.

NAIF AL-MUTAWA: In the end, this has my name on it. I've been the one who's been out there walking the fine line getting it to where it's at, and it can very easily be taken and with good intentions can be taken in directions that would compromise me or my family. I think the only judge of any of us should be God.

Reporter/Camera

NICK LAZAREDES

Editor

NICK O'BRIEN

Producer

JANE WORTHINGTON

Original Music composed by

VICKI HANSEN

Additional footage Isaac Solotaroff - Wham! Bam! Islam!