Jabbar the Powerful is a Saudi Arabian teen with superhuman strength. Jami the Assembler is a Hungarian prodigy who can instantly create gadgets and weapons. Sami the Listener, from Sudan, has super-hearing.
Those are just a few of the colorful members of The 99, an international team of young superheroes who battle bad guys in comic books, not unlike the X-Men. But while the X-Men have attracted some criticism for the violence in their cartoons, nobody ever accused them of trying to indoctrinate American children in Islamic values.
The 99 are the brainchildren of Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti clinical psychologist. As chronicled in “Wham! Bam! Islam!”, a documentary airing tonight on PBS, the Columbia Business School graduate set out to create positive role models for Muslim children like his own five sons, who range in age from 2 to 15.
“What I wanted to do was reposition Islam to Muslims — secularize some of the content,” Al-Mutawa told TODAY.com.
That proved to be a tall order. Unlike Western superheroes, who fight evil in skintight spandex, Al-Mutawa’s characters — particularly the female ones — had to be modestly attired to suit Middle Eastern sensibilities. Even so, cultural gatekeepers initially blocked distribution of The 99 in Saudi Arabia. There was even talk of a fatwa against Al-Mutawa.
Yet against long odds, The 99 found footholds in the Middle East, India, and Indonesia. And even the United States: Last year, DC Comics partnered with Al-Mutawa’s Kuwait-based Teshkeel Comics to publish a six-issue miniseries teaming The 99 with DC’s Justice League, which includes such icons as Superman and Batman. There were also reports that The Hub, a fledgling children’s cable channel co-owned by Discovery Communications and Hasbro, would air the animated version of “The 99” produced by Endemol, the Dutch entertainment giant behind such popular reality-TV franchises as “Big Brother.”
Al-Mutawa’s efforts even caught the eye of the White House. At the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in April 2010, President Obama singled out Al-Mutawa for creating “superheroes who embody the teachings and tolerance of Islam” and noted that “Superman and Batman reached out to their Muslim counterparts.”Story: DC do-over: Superman and friends start over from scratch
Truth, justice... and indoctrination?
But not everyone shared Obama’s enthusiasm. In an article titled “Meet the Muslim Superheroes who are Ready to Indoctrinate American Kids,” Family Security Matters — a group sponsored by the Center for Security Policy, a Washington, D.C., think tank — called The 99 “the latest exercise in Muslim propaganda” and criticized “Obama’s totally inappropriate promotion.” And in the New York Post, columnist Andrea Peyser warned: “These Islamic butt-kickers are ready to bring truth, justice and indoctrination to impressionable Western minds.”
“They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but they haven’t seen the cover; they’re judging it by the demons in their minds,” Al-Mutawa told TODAY.com. “My characters are being judged by the color of my skin.”Story: Gay characters take center stage in comic books
In her column, the New York Post’s Peyser drew particular attention to a character called Batina the Hidden. Pamela Geller, cofounder of a group called Stop Islamization of America, also spotlighted the character in her blog, Atlas Shrugs. In “The 99, New Origins,” a special issue of the comic that reveals the origins of many of the characters, Batina is described as a 17-year-old Yemeni with stealth powers. She is the only member of the team who wears a burqa (whose hood she removes, revealing her face to her teammates); several others wear the hijab, a head scarf worn by many Muslim women, but other female teammates are bare-headed.
The comic makes no explicit reference to Islam, Allah, or the Quran; rather, The 99’s powers are explained as rooted in mystic gems created in ancient Baghdad. “There is no mention of prayer in the comics,” Al-Mutawa noted.
Though Al-Mutawa is a Muslim, “I don’t want my own religion shoved down people’s throats,” he added. He explained that having trained in psychology at New York’s Bellevue Hospital in a unit for survivors of political torture, “I’m very sensitive about the issue.”
But others may be sensitive in a different way. Although “The 99” is listed among planned series in a May 2010 release on Discovery’s corporate website and Al-Mutawa told TODAY.com that “they've been meticulously involved in the production,” Mark Kern, a spokesman for The Hub, told TODAY.com: “The 99 is one of many series we’re considering for The Hub’s future schedule, but at this point no scheduling decisions have been made.”Slideshow: When real people star in comic books (on this page)
“All that I know is that we’re waiting for a year,” Al-Mutawa said. “The most surprising thing for me is not the pushback we’ve been receiving in the U.S., but how it’s being appeased by corporate America. Even though we’ve been covered in thousands of articles, it only took three of four people saying things that were really unfair.
“We have a thing in Arabic that when you get bitten by a snake, you become afraid of rope,” he added. “The only way to tame extremism is through art and culture.”
Al-Mutawa attributed much of the outcry against his heroes to political opponents of President Obama who mobilized when the president singled him out in April 2010. Still, he said, “Whatever the outcome, President Obama talking about The 99 in that conference will forever be one of the proudest days of my life.”
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints