A Saudi fatwa shuns the first comic book to feature Muslim superheroes

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Kuwaiti psychologist Naif Al-Mutawa poses in front of cartoon characters he created for his comic book and television series "The 99'. The comic book series features cartoon superheroes for Muslim readers that incorporate Muslim values but now Saudi relig

Kuwaiti psychologist Naif al-Mutawa poses in front of cartoon characters he created for his comic book and television series "The 99" — featuring superheroes that incorporate Muslim values.

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

There are many strange things about the new fatwa from the Saudi Grand Mufti. Perhaps most strange of all is that the comic was designed to celebrate Islamic values.

The comic book in question, The 99, was the first to feature a team of superheroes from the Muslim world and their virtues are those celebrated in Islamic culture and society. 

"It's really no joke," says Christopher Dickey, the foreign editor of The Daily Beast. "In clerical language, the fatwa says people should shun this series, both on television and in the comic books themselves. It's not just some loony cleric in Saudi Arabia saying Mickey Mouse is satanic, which we've seen before. No, this is quite serious and I think quite dangerous."

The 99 has been available in Saudi Arabia as a comic and a TV program for several years. Kuwaiti psychologist Naif al-Mutaway created it after the events of 9/11. Dickey has known al-Mutaway for years and says the psychologist "was shocked by 9/11, as many in the Arab world were, but he was especially shocked because he had spent a lot of his life in the United States."

Al-Mutaway went to school in the US and summer camp in New Hamphire. "He felt a strong identity with American values and 9/11 horrified him," says Dickey, "but what horrified him even more was that he realized that his own children, as they looked at their surroundings in Kuwait and in the Arab world, had almost no one they could look up to the way that American kids can look up to Superman or Batman or the characters in Marvel."

So al-Mutaway created comic superheroes who are Muslim and identify with Muslim values. And he gave them names with the attributes of Allah.

There are 99 attributes or 99 names for Allah, which include words like light and wisdom and strength. "They're all very positive virtues. In the Arab and Muslim world, lots of people are named Noor (light) or Jabbar (strength). That's very commonplace," Dickey says.

Another strange thing about the fatwa. Naif al-Mutaway had his comic book project approved at every level in Saudi Arabia. His company Teshkeel Media Group is funded through an Islamic bank. He had all the paperwork done in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, Dickey says, The 99 has always had its share of critics in Saudi Arabia. They accused the comic series of trivializing the Koran, and thereby trivializing the faith. "Naif [al-Mutaway] has always responded in a very clear way that that's not his intent and that's not what he's doing."

Al-Mutaway's aim, he says, was "to give Muslim children, especially young boys, characters that they could really look up to and dream about and idolize. And the argument of the critics is that children should be dreaming about the Koran and idolizing the characters in that. But, of course, that's a whole different framework than the way that most modern children fantasize, including children in the Arab world."

Dickey has been in touch with al-Mutaway since the fatwa was issued and says he's very frustrated by it. "I think he feels a little threatened because, along with the fatwa, there's been a Twitter campaign against him, accusing him of all kinds of things"

Still, Dickey believes that his friend will win out in the end. "The Saudi clerics, even the Grand Mufti, every so often go way overboard, and King Abdullah and the Saudi royal family have to pull them back."

President Obama had spoken publicly and positively about The 99 in a speech in 2010. Dickey says Obama cited it as a stellar example of positive outreach in the Arab and Muslim world. "And now, of course, just on the eve of his visit, the Grand Mufti issues a fatwa saying it's all wrong."   

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