Naif Al-Mutawa, a psychologist from Kuwait, was riding in a London taxi not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when he had an idea. To counter the terrorists’ message, he wanted to create a children’s television series about superheroes who embody the values, culture and history of Islam and the Middle East.
Ten years later, Mutawa’s dream has become “THE 99,” a series with all the whiz-bang Hollywood thrills and music that American kids expect, but with a twist: 99 superheroes, including some Americans, doing good based on the values of Islam.
“My conviction, my mission, is based on the belief that the only way to beat extremism is through arts and culture,” Mutawa said.
But after two years of trying, Mutawa has been unable to get his program broadcast in the United States, despite having signed a contract for U.S. distribution with a reputable U.S. company. He and others see that as an illustration of this country’s deep ambivalence — and sometimes suspicion or outright hostility — to Islam.
“ ‘THE 99’ never talks about religion,” Mutawa said in an interview in a District restaurant. “We never discuss God, we never address the mechanics of any religious law. Our superheroes are archetypes — blueprints — of values we all aspire to.”
In the decade since Sept. 11, polls show that many Americans are still suspicious of Islam. According to a 2010 Gallup survey, 43 percent of Americans feel at least “a little” prejudice towards Muslims, compared with 18 percent who say the same about Christians and 15 percent about Jews. Nearly one-third of Americans say their opinion of Islam is “not favorable at all.”
“In American society, there is a need at a human level to understand more, to demystify Islam and take it out of the cross-political name-calling,” said Vali Nasr, a Middle East specialist at Tufts University in Boston. “It also means the Muslim community here and abroad must become comfortable with marrying tradition with a modern world.”
Many Muslims, in the United States and overseas, are grappling with their views on how their faith should be represented in art and images. And resistance to Mutawa’s works has not been limited to the United States.
His television series is based on a comic-book series that he created in which heroes discover magic stones that give them superhuman powers. The heroes represent Islam’s 99 attributes of Allah, and they use their abilities to battle evil.
Mutawa said his attempt to create a comic based on Islam was controversial in the Middle East, because of a political and religious environment that views pop-culture treatments of faith with deep suspicion.
“I knew there’d be resistance in my region and slowly built the confidence as people saw and understood what I created,” he said. “I guess it helped prepare me for the resistance I’d find in the States.”
Mutawa has come under fire from conservative bloggers. Pamela Geller, an outspoken critic of Islam, has argued that “THE 99” is “garbage” and “proselytizing.” (Descriptions and video clips of “THE 99” can be seen on its Web site.)
“It would be one thing if Islam and jihad were covered and taught in an intellectually honest fashion in schools, TV and media,” Geller wrote in her blog, Atlas Shrugs. “But no. All criticism of and candor about Islamic misogyny, oppression of non-Muslims, the bloody violent history, etc., is banned.”
Others have lauded Mutawa, including President Obama, who praised his “innovative” work, saying it had “captured the imagination of so many young people,” at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington this year. Characters from “THE 99” have appeared with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman in several special-edition comic books produced by DC Comics, a U.S. company, in collaboration with Mutawa.
“If America stands for anything, it is universality, community, working together, diversity,” said James K. Glassman, a columnist and former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration. “ . . . The values articulated in ‘THE 99’ are exactly the kind that should be supported on the merits, are in all of our interests. Why would we ever not want to support the kind of ‘good guys’ captured by ‘THE 99’?”
Two years after signing a U.S. television distribution agreement with the Hub, a partnership between Hasbro toys and Discovery, “THE 99” has yet to air in the United States. Mark Kern, a spokesman for the Hub, declined to address whether such criticism has delayed broadcast of the show, saying only, “At this point no scheduling decisions have been made.”
Isaac Solotaroff, director of “Wham! Bam! Islam!,” a PBS documentary about Mutawa’s efforts (which airs this week in the Washington area), said he attended a planning meeting with the Hub in March and said he has no doubt that blog pressure has delayed U.S. distribution.
“The Hub clearly expressed that, as a relatively new network, they simply could not afford any risks,” he said. “This was not something they had initially anticipated when they bought the rights to ‘THE 99’ but was, in fact, an unfortunate reality of the current political climate in America.”
Lewis Bernstein, a top official at Sesame Workshop, which created “Sesame Street,” said he sees parallels with the PBS educational program’s early days. In its first year, he said, “Sesame Street” was banned in Mississippi because it depicted one of the first African American couples on children’s programming. A year later, the ban was removed.
“ ‘Sesame Street’ came at a very difficult period, and the issues were charged and complicated,” he said. “In the end, the question really is the programming strong enough, good enough to break through any resistance?”
“THE 99” debuted in the United States this month at the New York Film Festival, and Mutawa said he was hopeful for wider distribution. One critic at the festival said the show was “a perfect mingling of entertainment and edification.”
“There is always someone who will play to fears for political gain, focus on that which divides us rather than which unites us as people,” Mutawa said. “But that is not the majority of people in the U.S. or the Middle East.
Schroeder is a freelance writer.