Video> The 99
Issue 61 October 2009
The launch of The 99, superheroes based on an Islamic archetype, was not without some controversy. Yet Forbes Magazine is calling it one of the top 20 trends sweeping the world. Sarah Joseph speaks to the founder, Dr Naif Al-Mutawa.
I first heard about The 99 on a TV show on a trip to the Middle East, but it was at a conference in Qatar that the scale and impact of these new breed of superheroes really hit home. Dr Naif Al-Mutawa, founder of The 99, was giving a presentation detailing the spin-offs from his comic book creation including theme parks, merchandising contracts with Nestle and a multi-million pound joint venture with entertainment production giants Endemol to make a TV series. I listened intently to his presentation and questions raced around my head; questions fuelled by my background as a convert from Christianity and my study of Theology at university. Does The 99 not anthropomorphise God? Won’t the frailties of the superheroes lead to the impression that God has frailties too? By humanising the characteristics of God, are we not in danger of creating an Islamic Mount Olympus? Parallel to these questions was a sense of fair play. I loathe the parochial mentality that runs terrified from all innovation without giving it a chance. It is hard to build something, yet so easy to pull it down. I wanted to talk to Dr Naif and find out from him exactly what these superheroes were all about. So, I called him at his office in Kuwait.
Dr Naif Al-Mutawa is no academic lightweight. He has an impressive and eclectic collection of qualifications. Born in Kuwait, all his degrees are from the USA, including a Masters and a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Long Island University, a Masters in Business Administration from Columbia University and a Masters in Organisational Psychology, also from Columbia. Even his undergraduate degree was a triple major in Clinical Psychology, English Literature and History from Tufts University.
As the only licensed Clinical Psychologist in Kuwait, Dr Naif still continues to practice in that arena. Being a native speaker of Arabic, he has become a specialist in working with former prisoners of war, particularly victims of torture. But all of this is fate, he says. “I didn’t choose my life; it chose me.”
His professional experiences working with torture victims led him to question the nature of heroes. “In the ‘survivors of torture’ programme, there were people from all over the world that had been tortured for many reasons. I heard too many stories of people who had grown up to idolise a leader, only to end up being tortured by that leader. It got me thinking: it’s terrible and horrible to be tortured, but to be ill-treated by somebody you grew up believing was a hero – that’s just totally devastating. I decided the Arab world needed better role models.”
At the same time he realised there were enough stereotypical bad-guys in the world, “In the West the bad guys look like me; in the Arab world the bad guys are the Jews and the Americans. I purposefully created an alternative universe.” It was an alternative universe, which came together during a journey that might one day be as famous as JK Rowling’s train ride from Manchester to London. In a taxi ride from London’s Edgware Road to Harrods, The 99 was born.
The 99 are ordinary teenagers and adults from different countries and backgrounds who each come into possession of one of 99 mystical Noor Stones and find themselves empowered. The superheroes are based on an Islamic model, “I’ve gone to the Qur’an and come up with Qur’anic archetypes.” However, Dr Naif is adamant that The 99 is for everyone not just Muslims, “I’ve done them in a way so that you can pick them up no matter what religion you have or don’t have.” Therefore, whilst The 99 are based on the 99 attributes of God within the Islamic tradition, for Dr Naif, “These attributes are in every religion and they’re based on human values.”
Whilst the attributes are human, the context of the 99 names is essentially divine within the Islamic tradition. Given that any attempt to create an image of the divine is fundamentally at odds with the Islamic tradition, I ask Dr Naif if the creation of The 99 could be perceived as humanising God. “Allah’s names have the article ‘Al’, which makes them absolute. Our characters are ‘jabbar’ meaning powerful, not ‘Al-Jabbar’ meaning The Powerful. The values that The 99 are based on, like generosity and wisdom, are not things that are owned by Islam. These were already words before they were attributed to Allah, and they are parts of other religions and were part of non-religions, before there were religions.” But, I suggest, the very fact that the characters are called The 99 puts the names into a sacred context. “I knew full well when I started this thing that if I call it ‘The 98’ or ‘The 100’, no one was going to care. Allah has all 99 attributes, whereas each of my character has only one, and they have to work together in teams of three.” This teamwork aims to promote values such as cooperation and unity.
The 99 have frailties, their individual powers causing them problems, and I ask Dr Naif if he thinks this could give the impression God has frailties. He is robust in his response. “Their frailties actually underline how they are not like Allah. Sometimes they get sidelined, even though they have a particular power. That power only works in context, so there’s a message for sure: that it’s okay if you’re not perfect.” But God is perfect, which underlines Dr Naif’s constant message that he is not setting out to personify God. Despite early criticisms and even the banning of The 99 in Saudi Arabia at the start, Dr Naif has convinced people of what he is trying to do. Discussions with the Islamic Investment Bank and its seven-member Shari’a Board led not only to the approval of the concept, but also to the Bank investing in the project. And whilst letters of support from international scholars gave him heart, he recognises he cannot please everyone. “Not everyone might like what I’m doing, but that’s okay. In my mind, I know there’s nothing we’re doing that is against Islam or that is humanising God. Of all the things that I would choose to do with my life, that would be the stupidest to do – that’s just a disaster waiting to happen.”
This drawing on a religious archetype as a primary foundation is nothing new, as Dr Naif says, “Hollywood has been mining biblical archetypes for 100 years.” Superman and Batman are based on the Judaeo-Christian traditions. “In those superhero stories all of them, like the prophets, have a message delivered from above by a messenger. The prophets get it from God through Gabriel, but Peter Parker is sitting in the library, when the spider comes in from above to give him his bite. Superman is not only sent from a different planet or from the heavens to Earth, but he is sent in a pod very much like Moses on the Nile and then you hear the voice of his father, Jor-El, speaking to Earth, saying, ‘I have sent to you my only son’.”
Whereas Superman was created to defend the ‘never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way’, Dr Naif is at pains to make The 99 universal. In a published letter to his sons he wrote, “I told the writers of the animation that only practice in that only when Jewish kids think that The 99 characters are Jewish, and Christian kids think they’re Christian, and Muslim kids think they’re Muslim, and Hindu kids think they’re Hindu, that I will consider my vision as having been fully executed.”
However, to realise this is quite an uphill struggle. The characters are constantly referred to as “Islamic superheroes” by the western media. When The Guardian newspaper wrote that The 99 were shown praying or reading the Qur’an, Dr Naif had a correction printed. The Daily Telegraph went further, “Now they are being brought to British television by Endemol, the production company behind Big Brother, with a mission to instil Islamic values in children across all faiths.” When I quote the Telegraph to Dr Naif he laughs, “Don’t you just love the media!
There are a thousand articles written and not once have I said that my characters are Islamic superheroes, but that’s what everyone else says. Clearly, that reporter was looking to scratch an itch. What he’s saying is correct though, because in my mind the Islamic values don’t differ from other people’s fundamental values. At their core, they are human values. But I wouldn’t have said it in the way the Telegraph does because what the reporter is saying is that I’ve become the equivalent of some evangelist who is trying to spread religion.” There is no doubt that Dr Naif is definitely not trying to sell religion, but trying to create confidence on the one hand and make his superheroes, who are from different countries, build bridges of understanding on the other. “Instead of us being seen as ‘the other’, how can we be seen as part of everyone else? The way to do that is to focus on core values, that’s the way to mainstream. My challenge has been to think about how I use my knowledge and education as a psychologist to mainstream Islam in a way we don’t get lumped together with people who do the crazy things they do.” The horrors of September 11th shaped Dr Naif, as he wrote in an essay, “After 9/11, I made a decision that I needed to find a way to take back Islam from its hostage takers, but I did not know how. The answer was staring me in the face. It was as simple, and as difficult as the multiplication of 9 by 11: 99.”
The 99 have been born in a time of great global upheaval. In the same way, Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both Jewish artists, in the pre-Holocaust anti-Semitism of the 1930s. Dr Naif acknowledges the link, “I think part of it was frustration and part of it wanted to do something about it. Everybody has their role to play in the fight against inhumanity. This is what they were able to contribute. Perhaps they were searching for a hero.”
That taxi ride to Harrods in June 2003 was a life-changing experience for Dr Naif. Much of it he puts down to fate. “The story has been writing itself. Sometimes, when I’m most stressed, I just think, ‘sit back, something will happen!’” He also believes that he has no choice but to continue with the relentless workload. “When I was in my 20s and studying, I believed that I had chosen to do what I was doing, and now as I approach 40, I find that I can’t stop. It’s not that I choose to, it’s that I can’t choose not to, and that kind of puts things in perspective for me.”
It does seem that the venture has a life of its own. Beyond the theme parks, the merchandising with Nestle and the TV contract with Endemol, a new venture has just been announced: The 99 are to partner with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the other superheroes from DC Comics. It is a long-standing tradition for comic characters to meet others in the fictional world, and although there is no set storyline as to how these diverse superheroes will engage, there is hope that the union will be a superhero conquering of the Clash of Civilisation thesis. “I’m very humbled by DC for allowing this to happen and I’m very excited about the potential it has.
I promised my investors six years ago that this wouldn’t be another ‘made in the fifth-world production’. It has to be like Spiderman or it isn’t going to be worth my time or their money. You know you’ve achieved that when Superman and Batman are going to be hanging out with your characters in the same comic book.” The 99, born of an Islamic archetype, will soon be going ‘KAPOW!’ with the all-American superheroes. Now, who could have written that script just a few short years ago?
The 99 characters, images and logo are © 2009
Teshkeel Media Group. All rights reserved.
The video footage is courtesy of Endemol UK
Video Edited by Robi Chowdhury
Video Narrated by Anoushka Suchowa