Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa giving a lecture about The 99 on campus. (Photo by Natasha Cohen-Carroll '13)
Haverford Conversation: Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa
Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa revolutionized the world of comics with The 99, a series based on an Islamic archetypes for a global audience. The 99 features superheroes from around the world such as Jabbar the Powerful from Saudi Arabia, and Jami the Assembler from Hungary, and Batina the Hidden from Yemen. All the characters derive power from Noor stones that were distributed around the world and harnessed by these individuals to demonstrate the vices, virtues, and responsibilities that come with superpowers. The powers mimic the 99 attributes of Allah in Islam: the names attributed to God in the Qur'an, such as the powerful, the assembler or the hidden, are manifest in these young individuals, which allows for great potential to fight against injustice.
Although this new cast of superheroes has inspired thousands of young children around the world (especially in the Arab world), The 99 has come under attack from religious traditionalist and secular extremist both in the East and the West. There are those in the west who believe that The 99 is an attempt to radicalize and brainwash their children, while Islamic jurist worry about the use of idolatry (which is strongly forbidden) and the appropriation of Allah’s characteristics to humans. The comic book series walks a fine line in a contentious environment, but fundamentally, The 99 attempts to combat the negative images of the Arab world and to reframe Islam through popular culture on a global scale.
Al-Mutawa was born and raised in Kuwait, but was sent to a camp in United States where he listened to the Beatles and read Archie comics. He attended Tufts University and triple majored in psychology, English and history. He received a Masters in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University Teacher’s College and an MBA from Columbia University before earning his Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Al-Mutawa has extensive clinical experience working with former Kuwaiti prisoners of war and the survivors of political torture unit in New York’s Bellevue Hospital. He is a UNESCO laureate for children’s literature for his book, To Bounce or Not to Bounce, which focuses on the importance of tolerance in society. No less than President Obama has praised Al-Mutawa for creatively and successfully bridging the gap between the east and west with The 99 comics.
Henry Elliman '14 talked to Al-Mutawa, who came to campus on Feb. 15 to give a talk in conjunction with Visiting Associate Professor of Art History Carol Solomon's course “Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran and Turkey,” about the inspirations for his comic book creation and how it can help fight extremism.
Henry Elliman: Why did you stop practicing psychology and come up with a comic book idea?
Naif Al-Mutawa: 9/11 happens, and I start to think very seriously about what I will be doing. At this point I have two boys, my third one is on the way, and I become more and more concerned about who their role models will be and the representation of Islam in the media. How do you compete with that? Because anytime something terrible happens in the name of my religion my leaders get up and say that is not Islam. That is not enough. And the only way to deal with it is to average it out.
HE: When did you realize that comics and cartoons could be the vehicle for your message?
NAM: At the time, I’m 32 years old. I had quit writing five years before. I had three masters degrees and a doctorate, and just did not know what I was going to be doing with my life. And my sister turned to me and said, “Naif, remember you told me after school you would go back to writing.” I said, “I never intended to write to kids. I’m going to go after all these degrees to write for kids? No... For me to go back to writing it has got to have the potential of Pokemon, otherwise it doesn't make sense.” So I started free associating like any New York-trained psychologist would. I said, “Pokemon.” My next thought is that they have a [rule] against Pokemon; it isn't allowed in some Muslim countries. My next thought is, “My God, what happened to Islam and who is making these random decisions for my children?” My next thought was Allah, or God, and how disappointed He must be. My next thought was, “Allah had 99 attributes and ironically...it brought me back to Pokemon. That was the 'a ha' moment.”
HE: What was your pitch to your investors?
NAM: If you look at the superheroes that exist in the world today—this is back in 2003—they mostly defend North America. And they are all based on biblical archetypes... The bible is known as the “greatest story ever told.” People know the stories. Newer stories are built on the old architecture, so they are familiar but also exciting and compelling because they are new. My pitch to my investors was, the only people using the Qur’an in popular culture is the bad guys. Let me go in, take some stories and messages, secularize them and create new stories, and use this methodology and apply it to the Qur’an to create superheroes. I was able to raise 7 million dollars within a few months from 44 investors from around the world.
HE: How do you fight extremism with The 99?
NAM: The idea is to crowd it out. Deliver more messages that kids can identify with. I firmly believe that the only way to beat extremism is through arts and culture. That’s what happened in Europe with the Reformation and the Renaissance, and that’s is what has to happen in the Muslim world. No guns, no bombs, no war is going to work. This is the only way that will.
HE: How do you see The 99 interacting within the current climate in the Arab world?
NAM: Tunisia falls, next thing you know, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya. The impossible becomes possible. But that’s in the real world. Can the same thing happen in the fictional world? That’s the question for me.