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Teshkeel Comics
The 99, superheroes whose creator says are intended to be positive role models for Muslim youth, have been criticized by some as Islamic propaganda. One female character wears a burqa.
updated 10/13/2011 11:13:10 AM ET 2011-10-13T15:13:10

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.

Presidential shout-out
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.”

DC Comics
Muslim superheroes The 99 teamed up with such icons as Superman and Batman in a 2010 series.

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

Courtesy of Isaac Soloraroff
“The 99” creator Naif Al-Mutawa speaks to a class of sixth-graders in Jakarta.

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

Photos: From comic pages to big screen, what makes the cut?

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  1. 5 comics that should (and 5 that shouldn’t) be movies

    As superhero movies continue to pack moviegoers in the aisles and their stars court fans at Comic-Con in San Diego, here's a look at five comic franchises the studios have somehow overlooked -- and five they should have.

    Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and Iron Man all have had multiple movies, yet comics' most iconic female figure has never had even one live-action, big-screen portrayal. A script by Joss Whedon (of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fame) never came to fruition, and a promised Warner Bros. movie is still at least two years away. Do we smell super-sexism? Maybe the Amazon princess hit the glass ceiling in her invisible plane. (DC Comics) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Catwoman (2004)

    Doubtless inspired by Michelle Pfeiffer's memorable turn as the ultimate cat lady in "Batman Returns" (1992), French director Jean-Christophe "Pitof" Comar upped the ante by casting the uber-sexy Halle Berry as the title character in 2004's "Catwoman," but still somehow managed to cough up one hairball of a movie. The narrative has little or nothing to do with the classic Batman villainess (her age-old alter-ego "Selina Kyle" is jettisoned in favor of mousey "Patience Phillips," for instance). And while visually striking in her leather get-up, Berry is so unconvincing that she earned a Worst Actress Golden Raspberry award -- which she bravely accepted in person. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Doctor Strange

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  4. The Punisher (1989, 2004, 2008)

    Deliciously devoid of even the slightest shred of compassion, Marvel's gun-toting, grimacing antihero The Punisher is precisely the type of comic book character that gives parents pause, given that he's more like Charles Bronson in "Death Wish" than mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. So, while not the ideal comic book for Junior to be thumbing through, he seemed perfect for the big screen. Yet three attempts have ...er... backfired. The 1989 adaptation starring the wooden Dolph Rundgren was tepidly cheesy and went straight to video. A 2004 version starring chiseled Tom Jane (left) as the vigilante was more faithful, but crumpled under the weight of its own humorlessness. As for "Punisher: War Zone" from 2008, the less said the better. The silver lining? The franchise seems to be finally out of ammo. (Artisan Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The New Teen Titans

    Though the original Teen Titans were a superhero team in their own right in the 1960s , DC Comics’ New Teen Titans made their mark in the early 1980s as yin to the yang of Marvel Comics’ wildly popular X-men. No longer relegated to trailing behind Batman’s cape, Robin leads the show here, flanked by other super-sidekicks like Wonder Girl, Kid Flash and new characters like Cyborg, Raven and Starfire. Though possibly lacking the tortured mutant pathos of their Marvel counterparts, the New Titans exuded their fair share of emotional turmoil via the soulfully complex conscience of gloomy empath Raven and the youthful warrior’s rage of alien Starfire, a scantily-clad doppelganger of the X-men’s volatile Phoenix.

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  6. Howard the Duck (1986)

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  7. The Inhumans

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  8. Jonah Hex (2010)

    You have to wonder how the Warner Bros. pitch meeting about this turkeyburger must have gone. “Hey, here’s an idea: With superhero movies making zillions, let’s ignore all the beloved characters our DC Comics division owns. Instead, let’s make a western based a second-tier comic with a hideously disfigured antihero. Yeah, that’ll work.”

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  9. Milk & Cheese

    From the twisted mind of writer/artist Evan Dorkin, cult favorites Milk & Cheese are two pint-size -- literally -- dairy products who were first unleashed on an unsuspecting comic underground in the late 1980s. Driven by a fondness for booze and a rampant appetite for violence and mayhem, the anthropomorphic carton of milk and diminutive wedge of cheese giddily run afoul of all semblance of decency. Though Dorkin has reportedly turned down all offers to turn the nihilistic duo into cartoon or movie stars, there is a deluxe hardcover anthology slated for December 2011. The perfect holiday gift! (SLG Publishing) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The Spirit (2008)

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  1. DC Comics
    Above: Slideshow (10) Comics that should (and shouldn’t) be movies
  2. Image: Handout publicity photo of the cover of "Female Force: Paula Deen"
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    Slideshow (15) When real people star in comic books

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