Can the world of fictional superheroes have a positive impact on real life? Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti psychologist, thinks so: he's designed an Islam-inspired comic book series, The 99, to create exemplary role models for Muslim youths.
Named after the 99 attributes of Allah, such as justice, kindness and patience, the international cast of characters promotes Islam’s positive messages, as well as friendly cross-cultural relations. One might expect that more conservative Muslims could have problems with the series' Western comic book format, or its suggestion that humans have the ability to channel the almighty power of Allah. But the franchise has actually become quite successful in the Arab world, having been translated into eight languages and even inspiring “The 99 Village” theme park in Kuwait.
The place where it has met the most opposition, in fact, is the United States. Despite having been personally praised by President Obama, the series has seemingly struggled due to post-9/11 religious intolerance: even a decade later, nearly one-third of Americans say their opinion of Islam is “not favorable at all” according to a Gallup survey. Al-Mutawa’s troubles with American acceptance are now being brought to light in the new PBS documentary, Wham! Bam! Islam!.
It might be easier to reduce the comics' controversy by considering another recent documentary about superheroes, which features "DIY" ones who make their own costumes and teach themselves skills to fight crime throughout North America. The appeal of these humble citizens comes not from any special powers, but from their earnestness in using superheroes as models to improve humanity. With a wider distribution, The 99 could do same, providing admirable icons not only for young Muslims but hopefully non-Muslims as well.
“The 99 never talks about religion,” Mutawa explains in an interview with The Washington Post. “We never discuss God, we never address the mechanics of any religious law. Our superheroes are archetypes — blueprints — of values we all aspire to.”