Avante Garde

By: GAURAV PURI             Dated: June 01, 2014

Meet Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa... The creator of what he called THE 99 is a radical thinker, who in 2012 was voted among The 500 Most Influential Muslims by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre for the fourth consecutive year. THE 99 was an attempt to help children across the world revisit superhero stereotypes from a cosmopolitan Islamic perspective.

Al-Mutawa formed the Teshkeel Media Group in 2004 with the objective of creating “exciting animated television programmes for young families and children throughout the world”. If the objective were to be summed up in one-line proposition it was to “offer new role models of superheroes born of Middle East history and Islamic archetypes that possess values shared by the entire world”. The ‘99’, one each from 99 countries, will ultimately represent those young role models and are split between boys and girls. Each of THE 99 has a gemstone imbued with a special power, which is enhanced when these superheroes work in teams of three. The characters determine which three heroes and sets of powers are best suited to take on the problem at hand. This of course has an underlying strategy — that of developing values of tolerance and diversity, something that has become one of THE 99’s leitmotifs. Dr. Al-Mutawa’s characters seek a universal resonance for “children from China to Chad to Canada without the parochial influence of any nation, religion or individual”. THE 99 was first launched in a traditional comic book series and by 2011, it began partnering with DC Comics’ Justice League of American, inviting comparisons with the likes of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.

How did the idea of THE 99 take shape? And what was that moment of philosophical provocation?

THE 99 was born in a London cab in the summer of 2003. I was making the annual pilgrimage from Edgware Road to Harrods. I had a PhD and three Masters’ degrees and didn’t know what to do with them. My sister then turned to me and asked if I was going to go back to writing for children.

I began to think about how my Islam was being hijacked and portrayed as a religion of violence. As we’ve witnessed throughout history, the only way to combat extremism is through arts and culture. I thought what if I can associate positive things like comic books, and theme parks and animation...

Could I have an impact? Now at the end of that cab ride, I turned to my sister and said, “What do you think of this?” And she liked the idea and, from there, it just captured my mind.

Image or idol worship is regarded as antithetical to Islam. How did you conceive of this superhero: an anthropomorphic interpretation of the 99 attributes of Allah?

The concept of THE 99 is that some of the 99 attributes of Allah is present in humans, albeit in a much lesser degree. Qualities like mercy, generosity, love, compassion, wisdom, kindness etc. are values everyone can identify with, regardless of faith. Each of THE 99 has a superpower based on one of these qualities. On that note, there is no mention of religion in the comics or series.

After revealing the animation series — of THE 99 — at the Ted Conference in 2010, you said, “THE 99 is technology; it’s entertainment; it’s design. But that’s only half the story. As the father of five sons, I worry about who they’re going to be using as role models. I worry because all around me, even within my extended family, I see religion being manipulated...” Today, how far has THE 99 reached in its role of “reframing” the archetype?

We constantly receive feedback from parents, educators and young people all around the world about how they appreciate that children have a new set of role models in THE 99, especially since the series explores diversity and teamwork. In 2010, THE 99 stood cape to shoulder with Batman, Superman and the rest of the Comics’ Justice League of American and fought against evil in a six-issue crossover series, a venture that was lauded by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Bayt Al-Hikma, the ancient library in Baghdad dating back to the 13th century that was sacked by the Mongols, is the base source of the superpowers of THE 99. What is the cultural repository that the writers of the series draw on?

Bayt Al-Hikma was founded by Caliph Harun Rashid in Baghdad in the 8th century AD. It flourished during the reign of his son Ma’mun Rashid. Ma’mun valued knowledge and invited scholars and thinkers from across Asia and Europe, notably India, Greece, and Persia, to share their ideas, research and discoveries on a variety of subjects including medicine, alchemy, mathematics and astronomy. These were recorded in books in Arabic. Thus Bayt Al-Hikma became a center of learning like no other in the world, until it was destroyed by the Mongols.

In THE 99, superheroes work in teams of three. How different is a team of superheroes different from a single superhero, say, a Spiderman or Batman, who are lone rangers? Why did you opt for this?

The underlying theme of THE 99 is teamwork within cultural diversity, which could be best exhibited through teams of three. Initially, each of THE 99 uses their power for their own benefit until they’re approached by Dr. Ramzi Razem, THE 99’s mentor. Some are overwhelmed by their powers and join THE 99 to learn how to control them and use them for the good of humanity. The characters, therefore, help each other through difficulties after joining THE 99 team of superheroes.

The 99 superheroes come from 99 countries. How do the series handle such a complex plot of cross-cultural metaphors? What is the nature of the creative team?

The creative team is from all over the world. We based THE 99 on those values that Islam shares with the rest of humanity so all you really need to know is how to be good human citizens of the globe to be able to write for THE 99.

What significance do these cross-cultural intersections — Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman teaming up with Jabbar, Noora and Jami — hold? How do these superheroes straddle such a diverse cultural landscape?

These storyline were intended to highlight East-West collaboration in spite of those “bad guys” who flourish when East and West are at war. In the storylines the two teams are distrustful of one another and, in fact, Superman punches one of my characters and this ultimately leads to them figuring out that it is the bad guys from both universes causing the distrust and they fight them together cape to shoulder.

Does the fact that the superheroes are inspired by Islam affect the readership/viewership beyond the Islamic world? How have readers, especially children, from other cultures responded to the series?

Not at all. Outside the Islamic world, parents in the US, Australia, Italy, Canada, and Germany amongst other countries have reached out to us via social media, telling us how important it is that there are characters from different ethnicities breaking stereotypes while promoting peace and tolerance, and how much their kids love THE 99. We’ve even received pictures of schoolchildren in the UK masquerading as their favourite characters from THE 99!

(Again) from your speech at TedX: “As a psychologist, I worry for the world... I heard one too many stories of people growing up to idolize 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. I left Bellevue, went to business school and started this.” How effectively can the superheroes combat a bigoted faith-based political leadership across cultures?

I think media does not only reflect reality. It can change it. Just look at the Cosby show which repositioned African American Culture not just to white Americans but to Black Americans as well. Or look to the Chinese who, through media, are aiming to redefine the concept of Shengyu (leftover women… women who do not get married) to that of victorious accomplished women.

THE 99 is a comic series, an animation series, and a theme park. Where is THE 99, the story and the brand, go from here?

The second season of THE 99 animated series just completed production and is due for global launch later this year.




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