The 99 is based on the val­ues that Mus­lims share with hu­man­ity – the 99 at­tributes of Al­lah in the Qur’an

Emirates Man - - FEA­TURE COPA AMER­ICA -

There must have been a point, per­haps around the 2009mark, when Naif Al Mutawa thought he was on to a win­ner. His Is­lamic su­per­hero comic cre­ation, The 99, was be­ing sold world­wide, his face was on the cover of Forbes and his stor was nd­ing col­umn inches in Time,

Newsweek and more. Then came the fatwa. The Is­lamic char­ac­ters made their de­but in 2006, with comic books printed in both Ara­bic and English sold across the re­gion, earn­ing Al Mutawa praise from both Dubai’s rul­ing fam­ily and Barack Obama. An an­i­mated TV show fol­lowed, last­ing two sea­sons, shown in the GCC and in­ter­na­tion­ally; a theme park opened in Kuwait; and there was even a suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship with DC Comics where The 99 teamed up with Bat­man, Su­per­man and the rest of the us­tice eague to ght crime. And this was where the prob­lems be­gan.

“I’m ac­tu­ally be­ing sued in Kuwait at the mo­ment,” he re­veals. “A case has been brought against me for in­sult­ing re­li­gion. This isn’t some­thing that has come from the gov­ern­ment – in fact, the gov­ern­ment has spo­ken very highly of my work in the past and has just asked me to be part of an in­vest­ment com­mit­tee that will sup­port lo­cal start-ups. But they have to take the case se­ri­ously, so I’m talk­ing with them about that too. Th­ese are the two ex­tremes of my world.”

There are other ex­am­ples of where his work has split opin­ion. ix years af­ter the comic rst ap­peared in audi and one month af­ter the TV se­ries had of­fi­cially nished, a fatwa (Is­lamic rul­ing) was is­sued by Saudi Ara­bia, call­ing The 99 “evil” – which Al Mutawa re­sponded to in an open let­ter in the The Na­tional news­pa­per, point­ing out that the comic book had orig­i­nally been sup­ported by the coun­try and the TV show screened there for two years. Then on the flip­side, back in an­uary, he was hon­oured at the Is­lamic Econ­omy Awards in Dubai for his ser­vices to me­dia. It is a dif cult sit­u­a­tion, and one that be­came un­set­tling for his in­vestors. “They were con­cerned, and right­fully so,” Al Mutawa ad­mits.

And so to hid­ing. No new ma­te­rial fea­tur­ing The 99 has been pro­duced since 2013. Rather than comic books and an­i­ma­tion, Al Mutawa has ac­tu­ally spent the time con­cen­trat­ing on psy­chol­ogy prac­tice in Kuwait. But he felt even that might suf­fer when a threat to­wards him on so­cial me­dia last sum­mer made in­ter­na­tional news. “I had a death threat from the Is­lamic State,” he says. “It was a stress­ful for ob­vi­ous rea­sons, but I was wor­ried for my busi­ness too – who wants to see a psy­chol­o­gist who is re­ceiv­ing death threats if you have is­sues your­self?”

So why might so many take is­sue with him? Al Mutawa in­sists that his in­ten­tions have only ever been no­ble, to show Is­lam in a pos­i­tive light. “The 99 is based on the val­ues that Mus­lims share with hu­man­ity – the 99 at­tributes of Al­lah in the Qur’an,” he ex­plains. “So things like gen­eros­ity, strength, hon­esty and mercy, just ba­sic hu­man val­ues. In my story, each of these val­ues has been cap­tured in­side a gem­stone at some point in the past, scat­tered across the world, with young peo­ple de­vel­op­ing pow­ers that re­late to the one they have found.”

While the premise may have links to re­li­gion, Al Mutawa in­sists that the ad­ven­tures and views of the char­ac­ters never did, and in­stead the mes­sage was about team­work and the ac­cep­tance of those from other back­grounds. “Jab­bar from Saudi Ara­bia has the gem­stone for strength, so he is the one with the mus­cles,” he says. “You might as­sume he is a Mus­lim be­cause of where he is from, so it’s a safe as­sump­tion, but we never men­tioned it. It’s no more re­li­gious than some of the Marvel and DC char­ac­ters al­ready out there. For ex­am­ple, when I rst had the idea, I was

in­tro­duced to [leg­endary comic book artist] Neal Adams. He asked me if I knew what ‘Shazam’ stands for – it’s the magic word that Cap­tain Marvel shouts to use his pow­ers. I said no, and he ex­plained it was an acro­nym, with each let­ter be­ing the name of a Greek god – Solomon, Her­cules, and so on. I thought it was in­ter­est­ing and won­dered if I could ap­ply that think­ing to the Qur’an.”

Even Avengers: Age of Ul­tron fea­tures a char­ac­ter with re­li­gious con­nec­tions in Thor, the god of thun­der from Norse mythol­ogy. But in bring­ing his char­ac­ters to the US to launch the TV se­ries and team up with the Jus­tice League, and then to be praised pub­licly by Obama, well, that, Al Mutawa be­lieves, may have been the turn­ing point. “I felt like I was sud­denly in the mid­dle,” he says. “Amer­i­cans were say­ing I was try­ing to rad­i­calise their chil­dren, while back home I was be­ing called a heretic and pro-Amer­i­can. What do you do?”

At least the ar­rival of Is­lamic su­per­heroes to the States may have in­spired Marvel and DC to launch their own Mus­lim char­ac­ters in re­cent years, such as Ms Marvel and a new Green Lan­tern (see the box be­low), which for Al Mutawa is a pos­i­tive sign. “We need more good guys out there than bad, and a lot of the time the West thinks we’re the bad guys,” he adds. “We man­aged to put pos­i­tive Saudi and Ira­nian char­ac­ters on TV in Amer­ica, which had never been done be­fore.”

To use an­other comic book anal­ogy, Dr Al Mutawa is very sim­i­lar to Spi­der-Man – try­ing to be a hero but for­ever mis­un­der­stood, par­tic­u­larly by the me­dia. Re­cently it was an­nounced that Spi­der-Man is to ap­pear in the next Avengers movie. Per­haps like him, Al Mutawa is due some­thing of a break.

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