The 99: Islamic superheroes going global
Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa created The 99 as a way to highlight univeral values and re-define Islamic culture.The powers of the 99 are based on the Qu’ran’s 99 Virtues of Allah, which include strength, courage and wisdom.
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Ten years ago a Kuwaiti graduate from an American business school took a cab ride through London. By the end of the journey he had formed an idea which would spread across the world.
It was the wake of 9/11, and Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa decided to create Islamic superheroes. Islamic religion and culture had become a global talking point and instead of complaining about the representation of his culture, Al-Mutawa decided to re-define it.
“Everytime something terrible happens in the name of my culture, my culture becomes diluted. I wanted to grab the bull by the horns and change it,” Al-Mutawa explained in an interview with CNN.
And so the CEO of Teshkeel Media Group created ‘The 99′ — a comic book series inspired by principles within his faith.
The series follows 99 superheroes whose powers are based on the Qu’ran’s 99 Virtues of Allah: strength, courage and wisdom among them.
“It doesn’t matter what culture you’re from, it can still resonate. What The 99 does is saying ‘Hey, our values, they’re the same as yours; they’re the same as the rest of the world. Let’s just focus on the positives of this.”
To be able to launch his project, Dr. Naif Al-Matawa had to call in the help of investors, eventually raising enough money. The series debuted in 2006 and its success spread quickly over the world, even turning into an animated series now showing in 70 countries.
The big break however came in 2010 when the Justice League with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, teamed up with ‘The 99’. DC Comics had agreed to a six-issue crossover.
“Those story lines start off with distrust between the two groups of superheroes and they find out in Book 2 that actually it’s the bad guys from both universes causing the distrust an then they fight together cape to shoulder and move it over to trust”
The union of the two comic book universes, fighting together cape to shoulder, won the praise from U.S. president Barack Obama. At the 2010 Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, Obama mentioned the work of Dr. Naif Al-Matawa.
“His comic books have captured the imagination of so many young people, with superheroes who embody the teachings and tolerance of Islam. In his comic books, Superman and Batman reached out to their Muslim counterparts. And I hear they are making progress, too.”
But the journey of ‘The 99’ hasn’t been marked only by praise. The animated version was originally banned in Saudi Arabia and both Europe and the U.S. have been slow to embrace the Islamic superheroes.
Trying to spark a higher interest among Americans, Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa invited a group of students from Boston to Kuwait in the spring of 2013. They discussed the differences and similarities between the universes of DC and Marvel and the universe of ‘The 99’.
A student in attendance pointed out the costume of one of the female superheroes in ‘The 99’.
“One of the differences I noticed was, I guess there was an issue in the Islamic world that all the women were not wearing Burkhas, but in the United States, people were upset that one of the women was wearing a Burkha.”
Being proactive in the way the Islamic culture is represented to the outside world is what’s important to Dr. Naif Al-Matawa and he hopes he can have a positive influence on how the future generations of the Western culture will perceive it.
“For me to have been able to make kind of a dent, even if it’s a small dent on how Islam is perceived to my children, I believe, which was my intent to begin with, I have achieved that and hopefully I’ve been able to have that influence on their children as well.”
Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of The 99, talks about the reaction to his comic book – about superheroes from the Islamic and Middle Eastern world – including its censorship in the United States.