Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of a highly successful comic series that is published in eight different languages and will soon appear on television screens all over the United States, has been ranked one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Jordan. He has won numerous prestigious awards, including the World Economic Forum’s Social Entrepreneurs Award and The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Marketplace of Ideas Award, and has been praised by US President Barack Obama at a recent two-day workshop for entrepreneurs in the Muslim world.
Al-Mutawa’s comic THE 99 is saving the world from the same stereotypical rhetoric that has portrayed Islam and its followers in its post-9/11 cloak of intolerance and violence. In addition, the series’ own eponymous theme park, THE 99 Village, opened in Jahra, Kuwait last year.
His comic may be called THE 99, but Al-Mutawa is definitely one man who is making a big difference all on his own. Upon his return from the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington, DC, Arab News got a chance to catch up with the creator of superheroes.
First of all, how was the summit?
Naif Al-Mutawa: The summit was a great experience. The opportunity to network with like-minded people, all trying to make a difference in US-Muslim world relations and build bridges and businesses, was very much appreciated.
President Obama called THE 99 “the most innovative response” to his initiative to bridge global understanding and said that your comic books “have captured the imagination of so many young people with superheroes who embody the teachings and tolerance of Islam.” How does THE 99 do this?
Al-Mutawa: THE 99 at its core is based on Islamic archetypes. My storylines are based on those very places that others have pulled out sectarian, hateful messages and in their place have put positive, tolerant and multicultural messages. This further underscores that those who choose religion for hateful messages are hateful people and that their message has nothing to do with Islam. If Islam can inspire superheroes, theme parks and animation series that are fun for kids of all ages and cultures, then surely the problem is not with Islam, but with Muslims using it for negative purposes.
There is no direct mention of Islam, or any religion for that matter, in your comics. Why did you choose to omit direct references?
Al-Mutawa: My hope is to one day have both Muslim and Jewish kids reading THE 99. I also wanted to show that although these positive values are inherent in Islam, they are values we share with humanity. When you focus on religious behaviours, then you focus on differences. But, when you focus on values, more people can relate to that as we all share those.
Would you tell us more about the archetypes you’ve extracted from the Qur’an and how you’ve implemented them as the main storyline?
Al-Mutawa: The characters come from 99 different countries and are based on the 99 attributes of God. But, beyond that, our characters use stones embodied with the knowledge and wisdom of The House of Wisdom in Baghdad (a major intellectual institution from the 9th to 13th Century). It is the stones that give the characters their power.
Our main bad guy is Rughal who is named after Abu Rughal, the man who gave Abraha, a 6th Century Christian viceroy in southern Arabia, directions to destroy the Kaaba (the most sacred site for Muslims) during the Year of the Elephant (approximately 570 AD when the Prophet Muhammad was born). According to the Qur’an, God stopped Abraha with birds that pelted fiery stones at his army.
In THE 99, Rughal is stopped by The 99 and their stones. That is but one example of the stones’ power.
The 26-episode animation series of THE 99 is coming out in the United States very soon. A big network has picked you guys up and the premiere is scheduled. Care to let the cat out of the bag for our readers?
Al-Mutawa: THE 99 animation series will be in around 100 million American homes this October. It will premiere on a channel called THE HUB which is owned by Hasbro, the largest toy company in the world, and the Discovery Network, one of the largest cable channel broadcasters in the world.
Finally, what has THE 99 taught you as an individual?
Al-Mutawa: It’s taught me that anything is possible with hard work and dedication. Seven years ago this was just an idea. Now, the production has created over 1,000 jobs, including 500 in India. THE 99 will reach hundreds of millions of people and it is already changing the way Muslims and non-Muslims see Islam. Just ask Obama!
* Marriam Mossalli is Life & Style Editor for Arab News. She contributes to a number of regional and international publications on various topics concerning the Middle East. For more information on The 99 visit: www.the99.org. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at www.arabnews.com.