Sunday, October 24, 2010

Islamic Superheroes?

This seems to have been on for awhile, but I'm only just hearing of this U.S.-based entrepreneur Dr. Naif al-Matuwa who is making a book of Muslim Superheroes called The 99. From the Guardian:
[That] conviction is that nobody from the outside is going to save Islam from its more extremist elements – it's going to have to save itself. And The 99, featuring 99 characters based on the 99 attributes of Allah, is, he hopes, that means: a way of focusing on the positive aspects of the religion, of inculcating peaceful, life-giving virtues in children and of presenting a peaceful, tolerant, multicultural version of Islam to the rest of the world.

It's a conviction that has seen him so far raise in excess of $30m in three rounds of funding from private investors, fight off a ban in Saudi Arabia (he's subsequently been re-banned but he's fighting it again), and persuaded Endemol, the company behind Big Brother, to produce a multimillion-dollar, 26-part animated series, which in the new year will be shown on Hub, the US network previously known as Discovery Kids that goes into 60 million American homes.

Interesting, huh?

I've always seen action heroes as a creation of myth that appeals to young boys, especially - a way of thinking of their new "superpowers" that come with their newfound maturity, maybe, or an amazement with physical ability that men are taught from an early age to prize. It's weird, then, seeing religion, especially a monotheistic religion, using such modern myths like action comics to launder it's image.

It's not like the marketing of Jesus didn't/doesn't have a comic book-like quality to it, though. The one thing that has always separated the religion from Judaism and Islam has been the Coca-Cola nature of its marketing. By accident of history, Christianity has been able to align itself with Western modernity, and has therefore excused itself of its more turbulent history and disturbing interpretations on now-touchy subjects that's no less violent, oppressive to women, discriminatory to sexual minorities and accepting of such things that we do not accept today (slavery, for example) than its monotheistic counterparts.

Unlike Coca-Cola, though, I'm not sure that growth in number of "consumers" of a religion should be the goal. There should be nothing wrong with religions maintaining a certain severity, even aloofness to mainstream culture. Judaism, for example, even goes as far as being unfriendly to the idea of new recruits, and Islam does not disguise its time-intensiveness, what with encouraging Hajj, encouraging headscarves for women, praying five times a day with ablutions each time. Were I more sternly religious, I'd worry about the omissions that inevitably happen when one puts one's religion in the make-up chair, airbrushes it for its close-up and puts it on a stand for mass consumption.

More generally, I think it's depressing that there are so many efforts these days to absolve the ignorant of the burden of their ignorance. This is where I have to remind myself that the ignorant among us are often the ones who have power. This is also where I get all the more exhausted. Yes, there is truth to the ranting against misinformation of the larger public about all minorities, religious and otherwise, but it scares me to think what it says about people who are so ready to believe such inanities about other people they, in most cases, have no experience with or idea about. And isn't that what we all we are, people?

Then, suddenly, someone thinks that putting an action hero with a Muslim name on a comic book would make Islam more relatable. Good luck with that.

(Photo: The Washington Post)


  1. The 99 has been around for a while now and I appreciate the idea behind it. I think it's more than just "absolving the ignorant of the burden of their ignorance". It's about bringing a new kind of superheroes to kids and fans of comic book. I don't know if you read the article that mentioned how kids in parts of the Middle East are getting cards of suicide bombers and these are the people they look up to as heroes. The 99 was created to give these kids another kind of Muslim heroes to look up to.

    I'm a comic book lover. I've read comic books since forever and now I'm an adult I constantly rail against the depictions of women and "minorities" in comic books. I'm grateful that there is a comic book with multicultural Muslim heroes because it's a change and breath of fresh air. I'd be just as thrilled if there was a comic with African superheroes! This is what the 99 means to me ^^

    I got the feeling that you believe the 99 was created for the Western audience, though I'm not too sure about this. Either way as far as I know the 99 was created for Muslim kids.

  2. I'm going to have to disagree with you. While I agree there is a lot to question when it comes to comic books and religion, this did not seem like a marketing ploy to convert the masses. Rather it seemed, more than anything, a way to present Middle Eastern/Arab/Islamic/Etc populations in a way that shows positive aspects (as opposed to the typical comic book portrayal as the evil, dark people). It didn’t seem to be just directed at an American audience, but primarily at an already Muslim audience.

    Along with this, I realize that Christianity has a coca-cola image, but you should be careful to only point out Christianity’s “flaws” while stating Judaism and Islam are exempt from this. I can think of a number of marketing ploys by Jewish groups that promote being Jewish in a way that is “hip” (Eg. Rap songs, t-shirts, branding, children’s television, etc). No, they’re not open to converts, but at the same time they are definitely all about promoting their religion/culture. Look at how much American Jewish Organizations spend on Lobbying in DC. They’re 1.7% of the American population, though amazingly enough they are probably one of the best understood/taught/etc groups in America (And I’m not saying it’s perfect and they don’t experience discrimination, but I am saying there is more understanding towards this group than probably any other group). Every religion throughout the centuries has had its own way of promoting itself (Through religious objects, pilgrimage sites, stories, literature, war, blood, violence, torture, and general craziness). Islam I can’t speak as well to, but there can be no question of at the very least utilizing new mediums and technologies to promote Islam. Examples include: The printing of the Qur’an in Egypt in the 1800’s (Caused a big hullaballoo) or Cassette tapes used to promote sermons of leaders in exile (such as Khomeini), television networks, Marketing, Islamic Fashion companies and shows, etc.

    Also, while religion can pretend to be aloof from mainstream culture, it never actually achieves that. Whether it directly engages with the elements of mainstream culture or actively chooses not participate, it’s interacting with and responding to the cultural elements around it. Also, other than the few religious scholars, almost no one ever has the full story on a religion. It doesn’t work that way. There are a multitude of interpretations to almost any Qur’anic verse or Hadith. Even some of the most studied religious scholars would likely say they had 10 lifetimes worth of studying before they truly understood Islam, and even then it would be with omissions. So to worry about the omissions is rather pointless. Any medium of communication, be it writing, speaking, sermons, etc is going to have omissions.

    To respond to your last paragraph, I have to disagree again. I’m always rather amazed that it’s those ignorant people that probably 70% of the time, at least are willing to listen to what I have to say. Yeah, they ask some rather ignorant questions, but that’s exactly what it is, ignorance. Personally what I find much scarier are the people that have had the opportunities to combat ignorance, are cosmopolitan and educated, and still harbor stereotypes and judgments towards entire groups.

    Finally, I get the feeling that neither of us has read this comic series, so while we can make our opinions based on the article in the guardian, it still won’t do us much good. So I offer to you the advice and literary criticism my father always used to offer me: “If you want to know what to think of something then read it, damn it, read it.”

  3. @Fluts - I NEVER said that Islam and Judaism is exempt in having issues - I'm bemused by all religions :-) My greater point was that Christianity has been the most marketed of religions, while the others kept their aloofness. And I question this mainstreaming of Islam, as I do the mainstreaming of all religions. The whole thing about J-Street lobbyists in DC and politics is a bit besides the point.

    I know religions don't achieve full aloofness, and can't, to mainstream culture, but I am saying they should try to rise above it, and not, say, have a cartoon with Jesus in it, or a comic book with Islamic characters. I think it's all quite silly, and religions shouldn't be silly. Recording a sermon isn't the same as creating a rap song or Jesus the superhero cartoon type stuff that I think of as nonsense. I'm just being old-fashioned, I admit, but this is my blog and a vehicle for personal views.

    As for the last paragraph, I think you misunderstand me. Who do you think I'm talking about when I say "the ignorant"? Not knowing need not equate to ignorance. I'm more annoyed by the "Muslim=Terrorist" group than the "um... so what's a Quran again?" crew. I prefer the latter, because they know they don't know. People that don't know, and yet nod along to what some idiot on Fox says because it gives them their superiority fix are the ignorant ones, and the ones that, I feel, one can't really appeal to. And, as it were, they're the ones who're kicking up the now-pervasive narrative of Islam being "captured by extremists".

    Lastly, I think I made this clear on my post, but I have a problem with the intention driving the creation of the comic book. I'm sure the comic book will be well done. I'm more worried that someone found it necessary to do in the first place.

  4. @ eccentric - Cool name!

    It seems my last comment to you was eaten up by the Google machine, so here goes again.

    It's a right shame -- if evidence of marketing brilliance, to be honest -- that the terrorist groups use comic books and such things to spread propaganda to support their activities. Is that what The 99 is meant to counteract, though, by seeking a 26-part animated series on its Islamic superheroes?

    It'll be nice if this reaches Pakistani/Afghan kids and shows them another way of seeing moderate Islam. Whatever works, I say. I'm more annoyed by the desire to "save" Islam from "extremist elements". Who put Islam into extremist hands? Majority of Muslims aren't extremists, and this has always been the case. There are more Muslims in Indonesia alone than you'll ever find in the mountains of Afghanistan and perhaps in the entirety of those Middle Eastern countries that prove to be a thorn in the Western world's side. This is not to say, of course, that Pakistan and Afghanistan, et al, don't have real issues with fundamentalists, but framing it that way makes more sense than to claim falsely than an entire religion of some billion or so adherents is overrun with fundamentalism. It's the falling into of the "save Islam" narrative that I find most irritating.

    I'm sure you'd agree that comic books are mostly oriented towards the white male, hence what you've noticed, but so is most forms of media (Not unlike the porn industry, no? :-D). That's changing little by the little in all aspects of media, I'd say, but I'm far from a comic book fanatic so you'd know better than me.

    I think that having African superheroes is very different an issue from this situation, mostly because I don't think both Islam and Africa are chasing the same ghosts here. Africa is battling the "land of forests, wild animals, and diseases and war" meme, while Islam is facing the "dictatorial, anti-modernity, and anti-women" meme, and the only similarity between both Africa and Islam is the fact that most people who are African or Islamic are not white. And it matters mostly what the makers of African action hero comic books say they want to achieve.

    As a general matter, it's worth adding that, considering all that non-whites and non-males have had to go through in terms of representation -- from Dahomean women warriors and Venus Hottentot to the cruel inhumanity the Aborigines underwent under the white Australians and Tuskegee -- I admit to always being wary when someone decides they'll try to speak for a particular group. I'm always, always more concerned with intention and the narrative that drives efforts like these than with the eventual product. I'm sure The 99 will be a nice, well-done comic book, but the fact that someone thought this necessary to do is worrying.

  5. @Saratu

    Thanks! I understand where you're coming from now that you've elaborated.

    Is that what The 99 is meant to counteract, though, by seeking a 26-part animated series on its Islamic superheroes?

    Yes I believe so. I see where you're coming from and as a Muslim I'm constantly frustrated by this need to show a face of moderate Islam and to save Islam from the hands of extremists. You see, kids growing up in this current climate may (and most likely will) face confusion as to what exactly Islam is and what the religion means to them. I don't know if I'm being coherent at all, but I see the importance of the 99 in showing Muslim kids that Muslims can be superheros as well. I don't care much for the politics and the larger scene to be really honest.

    I'd say most Western comics are geared towards white male audiences (things are changing though) but by reading comics from other parts of the world translated into English destroys this view. From reading Japanese comics I was pleased to discover that there are comic geared to specific audience and though Japanese comics are not without their problems, it's great to read a rom-com in comic format. The 99 is not a Western comic as far as I know, the man who came up with the idea is Middle Eastern isn't he? I don't see the 99 as being geared towards the white male audience.

    While I agree that both Islam and Africa are not chasing the same ghosts. Both still generally have negative images. That's why I drew the comparison. I'd say Africa sometimes gets the dictatorial and anti-women meme once in a while.

    I'm equally wary when someone stands up to speak for a particular group especially when the person is not part of said group. I understand that you're wary but people who just get the end product and fall in love with the characters and the plot will tell a different story.