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Naif Al-Mutawa: Superheroes inspired by Islam

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In October 2010, the Justice League of America will be teaming up with The 99. Icons like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and their colleagues will be teaming up with icons Jabbar, Noora, Jami and their colleagues. It's a story of intercultural intersections, and what better group to have this conversation than those that grew out of fighting fascism in their respective histories and geographies? As fascism took over Europe in the 1930s, an unlikely reaction came out of North America. As Christian iconography got changed, and swastikas were created out of crucifixes, Batman and Superman were created by Jewish young men in the United States and Canada, also going back to the Bible.

Consider this: like the prophets, all the superheroes are missing parents. Superman's parents die on Krypton before the age of one. Bruce Wayne, who becomes Batman, loses his parents at the age of six in Gotham City. Spiderman is raised by his aunt and uncle. And all of them, just like the prophets who get their message from God through Gabriel, get their message from above. Peter Parker is in a library in Manhattan when the spider descends from above and gives him his message through a bite. Bruce Wayne is in his bedroom when a big bat flies over his head, and he sees it as an omen to become Batman. Superman is not only sent to Earth from the heavens, or Krypton, but he's sent in a pod, much like Moses was on the Nile. (Laughter) And you hear the voice of his father, Jor-El, saying to Earth, "I have sent to you my only son."



These are clearly biblical archetypes, and the thinking behind that was to create positive, globally-resonating storylines that could be tied to the same things that other people were pulling mean messages out of because then the person that's using religion for the wrong purpose just becomes a bad man with a bad message. And it's only by linking positive things that the negative can be delinked. This is the kind of thinking that went into creating The 99. The 99 references the 99 attributes of Allah in the Koran, things like generosity and mercy and foresight and wisdom and dozens of others that no two people in the world would disagree about. It doesn't matter what your religion is; even if you're an atheist, you don't raise your kid telling him, you know, "Make sure you lie three times a day." Those are basic human values.

And so the backstory of The 99 takes place in 1258, which history tells us the Mongols invaded Baghdad and destroyed it. All the books from Bait al-Hikma library, the most famous library in its day, were thrown in the Tigris River, and the Tigris changes color with ink. It's a story passed on generation after generation. I rewrote that story, and in my version, the librarians find out that this is going to happen -- and here's a side note: if you want a comic book to do well, make the librarians the hero. It always works well. (Laughter) (Applause) So the librarians find out and they get together a special solution, a chemical solution called King's Water, that when mixed with 99 stones would be able to save all that culture and history in the books. But the Mongols get there first. The books and the solution get thrown in the Tigris River. Some librarians escape, and over the course of days and weeks, they dip the stones into the Tigris and suck up that collective wisdom that we all think is lost to civilization.

Those stones have been smuggled as three prayer beads of 33 stones each through Arabia into Andalusia in Spain, where they're safe for 200 years. But in 1492, two important things happen. The first is the fall of Granada, the last Muslim enclave in Europe. The second is Columbus finally gets funded to go to India, but he gets lost. (Laughter) So 33 of the stones are smuggled onto the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria and are spread in the New World. Thirty-three go on the Silk Road to China, South Asia and Southeast Asia. And 33 are spread between Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

And now it's 2010, and there are 99 heroes from 99 different countries. Now it's very easy to assume that those books, because they were from a library called Bait al-Hikma, were Muslim books, but that's not the case because the caliph that built that library, his name was al-Ma'mun -- he was Harun al-Rashid's son. He had told his advisers, "Get me all the scholars to translate any book they can get their hands onto into Arabic, and I will pay them its weight in gold." After a while, his advisers complained. They said, "Your Highness, the scholars are cheating. They're writing in big handwriting to take more gold." To which he said, "Let them be, because what they're giving us is worth a lot more than what we're paying them." So the idea of an open architecture, an open knowledge, is not new to my neck of the desert.

The concept centers on something called the Noor stones. Noor is Arabic for light. So these 99 stones, a few kind of rules in the game: Number one, you don't choose the stone; the stone chooses you. There's a King Arthur element to the storyline, okay. Number two, all of The 99, when they first get their stone, or their power, abuse it; they use it for self-interest. And there's a very strong message in there that when you start abusing your stone, you get taken advantage of by people who will exploit your powers, okay. Number three, the 99 stones all have within them a mechanism that self-updates.

Now there are two groups that exist within the Muslim world. Everybody believes the Koran is for all time and all place. Some believe that means that the original interpretation from a couple thousand years ago is what's relevant today. I don't belong there. Then there's a group that believes the Koran is a living, breathing document, and I captured that idea within these stones that self-update. Now the main bad guy, Rughal, does not want these stones to update, so he's trying to get them to stop updating. He can't use the stones, but he can stop them. And by stopping them, he has more of a fascist agenda, where he gets some of The 99 to work for him -- they're all wearing cookie-cutter, same color uniforms They're not allowed to individually express who they are and what they are. And he controls them from the top down -- whereas when they work for the other side, eventually, when they find out this is the wrong person, they've been manipulated, they actually, each one has a different, colorful kind of dress.

And the last point about the 99 Noor stones is this. So The 99 work in teams of three. Why three? A couple of reasons. Number one, we have a thing within Islam that you don't leave a boy and a girl alone together, because the third person is temptation or the devil, right? I think that's there in all cultures, right? But this is not about religion, it's not about proselytizing. There's this very strong social message that needs to get to kind of the deepest crevices of intolerance, and the only way to get there is to kind of play the game. And so this is the way I dealt with it. They work in teams of three: two boys and a girl, two girls and a boy, three boys, three girls, no problem. And the Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, also spoke about the importance of the number three in all cultures, so I figure I'm covered. Well ... I got accused in a few blogs that I was actually sent by the Pope to preach the Trinity and Catholicism in the Middle East, so you -- (Laughter) you believe who you want. I gave you my version of the story.

So here's some of the characters that we have. Mujiba, from Malaysia: her main power is she's able to answer any question. She's the Trivial Pursuit queen, if you want, but when she first gets her power, she starts going on game shows and making money. We have Jabbar from Saudi who starts breaking things when he has the power. Now, Mumita was a fun one to name. Mumita is the destroyer. So the 99 attributes of Allah have the yin and the yang; there's the powerful, the hegemonous, the strong, and there's also the kind, the generous. I'm like, are all the girls going to be kind and merciful and the guys all strong? I'm like, you know what, I've met a few girls who were destroyers in my lifetime, so ... (Laughter) We have Jami from Hungary, who first starts making weapons: He's the technology wiz. Musawwira from Ghana, Hadya from Pakistan, Jaleel from Iran who uses fire. And this is one of my favorites, Al-Batina from Yemen. Al-Batina is the hidden. So Al-Batina is hidden, but she's a superhero. I came home to my wife and I said, "I created a character after you." My wife is a Saudi from Yemeni roots. And she said, "Show me." So I showed this. She said, "That's not me." I said, "Look at the eyes. They're your eyes."


So I promised my investors this would not be another made-in-fifth-world-country production. This was going to be Superman, or it wasn't worth my time or their money. So from day one, the people involved in the project, bottom left is Fabian Nicieza, writer for X-Men and Power Rangers. Next to him is Dan Panosian, one of the character creators for the modern-day X-Men. Top right is Stuart Moore, a writer for Iron Man. Next to him is John McCrea, who was an inker for Spiderman. And we entered Western consciousness with a tagline: "Next Ramadan, the world will have new heroes," back in 2005.

Now I went to Dubai, to an Arab Thought Foundation Conference, and I was waiting by the coffee for the right journalist. Didn't have a product, but had energy. And I found somebody from The New York Times, and I cornered him, and I pitched him. And I think I scared him -- (Laughter) because he basically promised me -- we had no product -- but he said, "We'll give you a paragraph in the arts section if you'll just go away." (Laughter) So I said, "Great." So I called him up a few weeks afterward. I said, "Hi, Hesa." And he said, "Hi." I said, "Happy New Year." He said, "Thank you. We had a baby." I said, "Congratulations." Like I care, right? "So when's the article coming out?" He said, "Naif, Islam and cartoon? That's not timely. You know, maybe next week, next month, next year, but, you know, it'll come out." So a few days after that, what happens? What happens is the world erupts in the Danish cartoon controversy. I became timely. (Laughter) So flurry of phone calls and emails from The New York Times. Next thing you knew, there's a full page covering us positively, January 22nd, 2006, which changed our lives forever, because anybody Googling Islam and cartoon or Islam and comic, guess what they got; they got me.

And The 99 were like superheroes kind of flying out of what was happening around the world. And that led to all kinds of things, from being in curricula in universities and schools to -- one of my favorite pictures I have from South Asia, it was a couple of men with long beards and a lot of girls wearing the hijab -- it looked like a school. The good news is they're all holding copies of The 99, smiling, and they found me to sign the picture. The bad news is they were all photocopies, so we didn't make a dime in revenue. (Laughter) We've been able to license The 99 comic books into eight languages so far -- Chinese, Indonesian, Hindi, Urdu, Turkish. Opened a theme park through a license in Kuwait a year and a half ago called The 99 Village Theme Park -- 300,000 square feet, 20 rides, all with our characters: a couple back-to-school licenses in Spain and Turkey.

But the biggest thing we've done to date, which is just amazing, is that we've done a 26-episode animated series, which is done for global audiences: in fact, we're already going to be in the U.S. and Turkey, we know. It's 3D CGI, which is going to be very high-quality, written in Hollywood by the writers behind Ben 10 and Spiderman and Star Wars: Clone Wars. In this clip I'm about to show you, which has never been seen in the public before, there is a struggle. Two of the characters, Jabbar, the one with the muscles, and Noora, the one that can use light, are actually wearing the cookie-cutter fascist gray uniform because they're being manipulated. They don't know, OK, and they're trying to get another member of The 99 to join them. So there's a struggle within the team. So if we can get the lights ...

["The 99"]

Jabbar: Dana, I can't see where to grab hold. I need more light.

What's happening?

Dana: There's too much darkness.

Rughal: There must be something we can do.

Man: I won't send any more commandos in until I know it's safe.

Dr. Razem: It's time to go, Miklos.

Miklos: Must download file contents. I can't forget auntie.

Jabbar: Dana, I can't do this without you.

Dana: But I can't help.

Jabbar: You can, even if you don't believe in yourself right now. I believe in you. You are Noora the Light.

Dana: No. I don't deserve it. I don't deserve anything.

Jabbar: Then what about the rest of us? Don't we deserve to be saved? Don't I? Now, tell me which way to go.

Dana: That way.

Alarm: Threat imminent.

Jabbar: Aaaahhh!

Miklos: Stay away from me.

Jabbar: We're here to help you.

Dr. Razem: Don't listen to them.

Dana: Miklos, that man is not your friend.

Miklos: No. He gave me access, and you want to reboot the [unclear]. No more [unclear].

["The 99"]

Thank you.


So "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. 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. Now, I'm a clinical psychologist. I'm licensed in New York State. I trained at Bellevue Hospital Survivors of Political Torture Program, and 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.

Now, one of the things that I refer to when I -- about the importance of this message -- is that I gave a lecture at the medical school at Kuwait University, where I lecture on the biological basis of behavior, and I gave the students two articles, one from The New York Times and one from New York magazine. And I took away the name of the writer, the name of the [unclear] -- everything was gone except the facts. And the first one was about a group called The Party of God, who wanted to ban Valentine's Day. Red was made illegal. Any boys and girls caught flirting would get married off immediately, okay. The second one was about a woman complaining because three minivans with six bearded men pulled up and started interrogating her on the spot for talking to a man who wasn't related to her.

And I asked the students in Kuwait where they thought these incidents took place. The first one, they said Saudi Arabia. There was no debate. The second one, they were actually split between Saudi and Afghanistan. What blew their mind was the first one took place in India, it was the party of a Hindu God. The second one took place in upstate New York. It was an Orthodox Jewish community. But what breaks my heart and what's alarming is that in those two interviews, the people around, who were interviewed as well, refer to that behavior as Talibanization. In other words, good Hindus and good Jews don't act this way. This is Islam's influence on Hinduism and Judaism. But what do the students in Kuwait say? They said it's us -- and this is dangerous. It's dangerous when a group self-identifies itself as extreme.

This is one of my sons, Rayan, who's a Scooby Doo addict. You can tell by the glasses there. He actually called me a meddling kid the other day. (Laughter) But I borrow a lesson that I learned from him. Last summer when we were in our home in New York, he was out in the yard playing in his playhouse. And I was in my office working, and he came in, "Baba, I want you to come with me. I want my toy." "Yes, Rayan, just go away." He left his Scooby Doo in his house. I said, "Go away. I'm working. I'm busy." And what Rayan did then is he sat there, he tapped his foot on the floor, at three and a half, and he looked at me and he said, "Baba, I want you to come with me to my office in my house. I have work to do." (Laughter) (Applause) Rayan reframed the situation and brought himself down to my level.


And with The 99, that is what we aim to do. You know, I think that there's a big parallel between bending the crucifix out of shape and creating swastikas. And when I see pictures like this, of parents or uncles who think it's cute to have a little child holding a Koran and having a suicide bomber belt around them to protest something, the hope is by linking enough positive things to the Koran, that one day we can move this child from being proud in the way they're proud there, to that. And I think -- I think The 99 can and will achieve its mission.

As an undergrad at Tufts University, we were giving away free falafel one day and, you know, it was Middle East Day or something. And people came up and picked up the culturally resonant image of the falafel, ate it and, you know, talked and left. And no two people could disagree about what the word free was and what the word falafel was, behind us, "free falafel." You know. (Laughter) Or so we thought, until a woman came rushing across the campus and dropped her bag on the floor, pointed up to the sign and said, "Who's falafel?" (Laughter) True story. (Laughter) She was actually coming out of an Amnesty International meeting.


Just today, D.C. Comics announced the cover of our upcoming crossover. On that cover you see Batman, Superman and a fully-clothed Wonder Woman with our Saudi member of The 99, our Emirati member and our Libyan member. On April 26, 2010, President Barack Obama said that of all the initiatives since his now famous Cairo speech -- in which he reached out to the Muslim world -- the most innovative was that The 99 reach back out to the Justice League of America. We live in a world in which the most culturally innocuous symbols, like the falafel, can be misunderstood because of baggage, and where religion can be twisted and purposefully made where it's not supposed to be by others. In a world like that, they'll always be a job for Superman and The 99.

Thank you very much.


Video Details

Duration: 18 minutes and 1 second
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 528
Posted by: tedtalks on Jul 19, 2010

In "THE 99," Naif Al-Mutawa's new generation of comic book heroes fight more than crime -- they smash stereotypes and battle extremism. Named after the 99 attributes of Allah, his characters reinforce positive messages of Islam and cross cultures to create a new moral framework for confronting evil, even teaming up with the Justice League of America.

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