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Can comic book heroes challenge religious stereotypes?

September 10th, 2009
06:30 PM ET
A young boy reads a copy of the 'The 99' comic book at his school in Jakarta. (PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
A young boy reads a copy of the 'The 99' comic book at his school in Jakarta. (PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The events of 9/11 and its aftermath provoked, understandably, much analysis and soul searching. For a small group of individuals thoughts immediately turned to a seemingly impossible task. Could they create something positive from the tragic events of that day?

One such man is Kuwaiti psychologist Dr Naif al-Mutawa who, in the wake of 9/11, created the ultimate 21st Century comic book hero. "The 99" are superheroes inspired by Islamic culture and tradition – their mission is to spread peace and tolerance and, in the process, reclaim Islam from militants . The heroes appear in comics that sell around the world.

Today we want you to comment on 9/11 and its aftermath and we'd especially like to know whether you think any positives emerged from that dark day.

On a lighter note we'd also like to hear from you about what impact you think superheroes have had on popular culture ,and tell us what superpower you would most like to have.

Join us for this debate and if you have any specific questions for Dr al-Mutawa let us know because he is our Connector of the Day.

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Filed under:  General
soundoff (64 Responses)
  1. Jeff

    But can comics really change attitudes?
    Yes – "culture change" can occur with efforts of this nature.
    There are many examples of this.
    One example is "same sex" relationships.
    Look at public perception today vs. 20 years ago.

    September 10, 2009 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  2. Mays

    Public perception and attitude has changed in the western world but hasn't in the Islamic world. A few comics will not bring about any 'culture change'.

    September 10, 2009 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  3. Mustafa Malaki

    Hi Naif, I'm Moh'ds younger brother from BBS.
    It's awesome your work has made it on CNN.com's front page, good stuff.
    Good luck.

    September 10, 2009 at 10:16 pm | Reply
  4. Alladin

    yes comics can change attitude... why not... violence on comics can make kids violent.... isnt that wat they been trying to tell us... then why not a muslim super hero change the preception of people.

    September 10, 2009 at 10:47 pm | Reply
  5. Bernhard

    If this question comes from media it must be considered as stupid because you people from the media should be aware of the role in society for the good and the bad changes initiated by your words and pictures.
    I answer your question with yes – but it will take time before the readers of these comics will be able to transform their readings into activity. If we are lucky it will be the next generation.
    kind regards,

    September 10, 2009 at 11:00 pm | Reply
  6. Salvice

    cool concept in a fringe field. comics are typically considered a niche area of entertainment, but the television broadcast may make waves here in the States. it is about time that we had a more diverse cross section of televised superheroes anyway. cultural changes take place in small steps, and this is one in the right direction.

    September 10, 2009 at 11:26 pm | Reply
  7. Mohamed

    Wow Jeff, you took 1 example of culture change regarding Islam, and you just HAD to mention Islam's biggest Sin.

    September 10, 2009 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  8. Steven ong

    By its fruits we shall know the tree, says Jesus. One cannot just with comic books or speech changed a perception, can we? By our actions and deeds , our true characters are revealed. Of course one can deceived others by a well concocted show, for how long? Can one lied to all all the times?

    September 10, 2009 at 11:36 pm | Reply
  9. Tom

    Comics that spread an objective message of peace and toleration will help and are certainly welcomed. But these would work a lot better in a general broader environment that encouraged these same values. Official texts in many chools in many parts of the Arab world, for instance, continue to demonize the West and Israel in particular. These create prejudices in the adults of tomorrow which is partly to blame for the absence of peace over multiple generations.

    September 10, 2009 at 11:37 pm | Reply
  10. bandu

    Idea is good, well this might do it in 25-50 years time unless Mullahs don't issue patwa against it. Don't forget that only moderates read these.

    September 10, 2009 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  11. Jason

    I'm all for speading peace and religious tolerance...as long as it's a two way street. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case in many countries in the middle east.

    September 11, 2009 at 12:13 am | Reply
  12. elmer

    20 Years ago is nearly the 90's already. Some people would say we've actually moved backwards.

    Comics might influence people, particularly theyoung, who are the most important people to affect positively, but in recent years the news media has been influencing people more, particularly the 'not so young', and much of it has held a very negative world view – from all sides.

    September 11, 2009 at 1:01 am | Reply
  13. KN

    I don't see the connection between fixing stereotypes and comics. Comic characters aren't real in any way whatsoever. What exactly is your story again? I don't get it. Fine, the comic author is doing some great work but I don't think this will solve the hatred certain people have in their hearts against Muslims. If media can correct their ways, perhaps some people will start thinking rationally again.

    September 11, 2009 at 1:20 am | Reply
  14. Elizabeth

    I am a Muslim American convert. I converted after 9-11 and really this is a great thing you are dong however, My question to you is are you targeting the right people here. Children read comic books and young teenagers read them. There are very few Adults that will walk into a Comic Bookstore and pick up something like this especially if they are already feeling a certain way about Islam.

    What is your plan to target the Adult population and with all the things you are putting in the comic books are you going to put any references for facts, hadiths, ayahs etc... in the comic book so people dont think you are trying to just manipulate ideas for the sake of our Religion!?

    September 11, 2009 at 1:28 am | Reply
  15. Samuel

    I think there definitely needs to be more of these forms of entertainment. Not only can these stories be used to present meaningful themes and messages, but they can also be break down stereotypes and generalisations, which are unhelpful for people trying to understanding any group of people.

    People who study the ethical values being presented in comics such as Spider-Man and Superman can tell you that they do play a big part in influencing avid comic readers.

    September 11, 2009 at 1:34 am | Reply
  16. Ahmar Rashid

    The children of the past live in a fantasy world. The adults of the day want to do the same? Come on, grow up. Islam does not require any fake comic characters for its promotion. The Islamic leaders have shown very strong characters in the past, and they can do the same even now. All they have to do is adhere to the principals of Quran and Sunnah.

    September 11, 2009 at 1:58 am | Reply
  17. Hydar de Islam

    YES!!! We desperately need to nurture "positivity" within Islam! Video, including animated video, is a very, VERY powerful method of teaching...probably THE MOST powerful outside of parents and family! We use this powerful form of education to teach "violence" indirectly by showing violence over and over and over again....some movies at an astounding rate of 150 acts of violence PER MINUTE!!! And most humans seem to just "take this for granted" as normal!
    I applaud this effort....and would like to see it expand into, or in combination with, nurturing also our physical environment...."our collective Mother Nature"!!! She needs our help too!!!
    Good On You Naif!!! A Salam AliKoum, Hydar

    September 11, 2009 at 2:05 am | Reply
  18. Robin

    absolutely. More people pay attention to entertainment media than anything else. If it becomes popular (and makes money) pretty soon variations will pop up everywhere and then the issue gets integrated.

    September 11, 2009 at 2:53 am | Reply
  19. Frankie Smith

    I think this is one of the biggest steps any single person for bridging the Islamic world with everyone else. I myself thought that if we practiced subliminal messaging, geared towards this than we would achieve even greater results. Peace cant be gain through violence and with a clear understand of the issues. I think Islamic leaders should get together and form some kind of league that explains to the world and the Islamic believers the true form of Islam and how terrorism has no part in it.

    September 11, 2009 at 3:19 am | Reply
  20. Carl

    kudos for that Kuwaiti psychologist! Yes, I believe comics can very least change the attitude for the kids. It is normal that all kids, regardless of ethnicity, like to read books that have pictures on it, even the one who does not like any literary reading. It is the same as how we imagine we were superman when we were young.

    September 11, 2009 at 4:31 am | Reply
  21. Rae

    Yes, i believe that comics can contribute to changing stereotypes and attitudes with regards to certain topics. Comic characters are usually born out of a need to inspire a generation with positivity and the ability to escape from the reality that surrounds them. I believe this to be true with the birth of the characters from ' the 99' ... However my fear is that extremists will always find somethings to hate about spreading the truth about Islam... the truth being that Islam is a religion dedicated to peace and humility and not to jihad or revenge. On the flip side I think that the idea of creatively imparting the true qualities of Islam is not only original but also a wonderful way of imparting understanding of tolerance to a wider and more youthful audience, which one hopes, would mean that the message of tolerance is earlier taught and thus retained.

    September 11, 2009 at 4:42 am | Reply
  22. Robert

    Of course they can.
    Hey, comics in islamic world is a good sign of global integration.
    Also you can see that on the net there are also more arabic subtitles for japanese anime and chinese drama.
    Yes arabic youth is getting along with the global processes.
    Net is a great equalizer.
    And comic is a great medium for meme transmission.
    Books, comics, anime, tv series, movies ... and the idea stays in the culture.

    September 11, 2009 at 4:51 am | Reply
  23. Yonah

    Islamic characters using violence to spread peace and tolerance? Isn't that what "the terrorists" think they're doing?

    Who is going this comic? Muslim kids, maybe, but not your typical Joe/Jamal/Jose American boy.

    September 11, 2009 at 5:01 am | Reply
  24. Mike

    Actually by conforming to the west's paradigm(s) the islamic movement shows it's true weakness by being absorbed into corporate profit making via comic books. That's fine by me.

    September 11, 2009 at 5:04 am | Reply
  25. Yash Sharma

    You need a life! there are better things to cover.

    September 11, 2009 at 5:12 am | Reply
  26. SV

    The attitudes that need to be changed are not those of West, which have good to reason to be worried, even paranoid, at the rise of militant Islam.

    As long as the bombings and beheadings in the name of Allah continue, no amount of comics or 'culture change' can change Western mindsets.

    While the effort is at least laudable, i think the moderate Muslims should be trying harder to change the attitudes of their fellow Muslims, who have hijacked and desecerated their religion.

    September 11, 2009 at 5:41 am | Reply
  27. Dinesh

    Why not some real change instead of PR? Can the fictional super fighter girls in lycra (designed to appeal to a western sensibility) hide the reality of burqa clad Islamic woman who shares her abusive husband with three other women?

    September 11, 2009 at 6:15 am | Reply
  28. awais rehman

    Yes definitely… comics can really built perception about anything in humans right in their childhood… and the perceptions made in the childhood plays a pivotal role in defining human personality…taking advantage of this powerful tool Mr. Naif al-Mutawa is really doing a noble work not only for the Muslims but also for the whole humanity for making the perception of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance

    September 11, 2009 at 6:34 am | Reply
  29. Edward

    Children around the world have grown up with US invented comic book characters. Illustrated comic books and the psychology conveyed through them is something that all of us at one time or another have used to better our feelings. Comic books have indeed played an important role in how we perceive our friends and more so enemies. Islamic comic characters are no different than those that were created by US comic book writers.

    Most of us adults are able to understand and accept the imaginary entertainment objective of a comic book. Some sadly will not and that’s why we have crime, racial and ethnic tension and wars.

    September 11, 2009 at 6:54 am | Reply
  30. fadi

    This is a brave effort and should lead to a good turn if done right.
    I am curious to learn how he is using the 99 names of God as personalities. I am afraid that he will be in danger himself under the accusation of impersonating God. Did Dr. Al Mutawa face such accusations and how does he plan on responding to them?
    Does he plan on adding female figures to his heroes?

    September 11, 2009 at 7:06 am | Reply
  31. felix sabiniano

    I do not think it will help to change the attitude. Religion is not an attitude. Basically when someone hijacked a religion for other purpose than religion itself, its difficult to defeat or change it. Comic superheroes gives you false information and they know its not real. Pit it against the holy book and the twisted interpretation of it is no match. Kids will enjoy it but they are not the one involve in terrorism.

    September 11, 2009 at 7:42 am | Reply
  32. Graig

    Not when the only female character still wears a veil.

    September 11, 2009 at 8:25 am | Reply
  33. omygod

    Can comic book heroes challenge religious stereotypes?

    jeff you are so right- comics can lead to "culture change"-
    since migrants in swizerland are forced to read Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics their share of the national crime rate fell from 49 percent (2006) to zero...(2009)

    September 11, 2009 at 8:41 am | Reply
  34. Qutubuddin

    Will the west remove stereotype outlook and ETHNOCENTRISM and accept Islam as a peaceful religion?

    September 11, 2009 at 8:45 am | Reply
  35. Erwin

    Yes it can change attitudes, as the young and impressionable are the ones who will read these comics. it will take time, but the culture needs to change from the bottom up – it is often too late for the ones that are already indoctrinated!

    September 11, 2009 at 8:52 am | Reply
  36. omer

    i think this will help break some of the stereotypes that are going around

    September 11, 2009 at 8:54 am | Reply
  37. Trimukti

    It depends on how read comic attitude is well spread among kids in a country and how well the comic distributed among the kids.. Nomatter how good the comics are, if it is not well spread, it's gonna be useless.

    I've read once one of those the99 comic, quite cool.. well educated enough


    September 11, 2009 at 9:22 am | Reply
  38. Tariq Celik

    Can comics change what Mohammed literally did and said?

    The answer is NO!

    Turkey has fought against this ideology for years by establishing a secular state founded by Ataturk. France is now following suit. Let's wake up and stop being politically correct by making Islam what we want it to be.

    September 11, 2009 at 9:25 am | Reply
  39. Terence

    Just the concept of marrying superheroes, a decidedly Western - specifically American - phenomenon, with Arabic culture is a pretty radical example of cultural diffusion resulting from conflict.

    I'd be interested to know how culturally specific issues relevant to the Arabic-speaking world are represented in the comic book.

    Other questions:

    What kind of powers do those superheroes have?

    As well there seems to be a woman on the cover of the book in the picture above. What role do women play in the storylines?

    And can Dr. al-Mutawa imagine a scenario where American superheroes might join forces with their counterparts from the Islamic world - or has that already happened?

    September 11, 2009 at 9:31 am | Reply
  40. George

    But can comics really change attitudes? Kids look at Pokeman characters as superhero's, but they dont want to grow up and be one. This would depend on how the Superhero is portayed. Are they fighting in the name of Islam? Superhero's generally fight for good over evil. If that is what this comic is giving as a perception then kids won't know or care that the characters are Islamic. If the cartoon is trying to promote Islam.... I wouldn't be surprised if the arch-enemy doesn't become Jesus Christ.

    September 11, 2009 at 9:45 am | Reply
  41. Peter Broadhurst

    Comic fiction may change perceived stereotyping, but only outside of the Arabic world and even then to a very limited degree, in light of overwhelmingly contradictory publicity. Change within will only come about if cultural proponents are receptive to outside influences and/or new ways of thinking. As a comic book reader for over forty years, I'm only too aware of how superheroes have long been vehicles for all sorts of subliminal messages; some admirable, others questionable. Unfortunately, that includes idiot religious ideology.

    September 11, 2009 at 10:17 am | Reply
  42. Jitesh

    Maybe there will be a small change. Muslims have to change their attitude as well. They must be accountable for their actions and if this comic teaches the youth this then it will be good news for the world.

    September 11, 2009 at 10:50 am | Reply
  43. Fawad

    Being a Muslim, I don't think this idea will work. Yes on the flip side of it, if the idea is combined with toys/ figures/ action heroes, which public can see in supermarkets/hypermarket, would definitely have an impact not only on kids but adults as well.

    With comics only, it will be decades before we can see any change and with the digital revolution, who knows print media might become obsolete and a thing of a past........

    September 11, 2009 at 11:05 am | Reply
  44. Nacheez

    The religous stereotypical hero amongst the muslims is peace loving and tolerant. The comics are not trying to change the culture or the perception. Just trying to underscore the key characteristics amongst the Islamic superheros. As such I find the debate totally misleading.

    September 11, 2009 at 11:22 am | Reply
  45. gary beesley

    If the posionous words of a minority of Islamic fundamentalists can change Muslim perceptions of the nature of their faith, why shouldnt some carefully considered words AND pictures produced by moderate Muslims not have the power to change those perceptions? Islamism is a product of ignorance; information in whatever form educates and empowers.

    September 11, 2009 at 11:57 am | Reply
  46. Ayman A.H.

    I think we need another comic book for the west to change all concerned attitudes.

    September 11, 2009 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  47. Rami

    I would like to see such efforts geared towards a rapproachement between the Arab world and the West, without going into the religious differences. In other words what we need is more culture and less religion.

    September 11, 2009 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  48. Ivan

    How arrogant and pretentious is this subject, including most of the comments. “Us smarter”- “Them stupid”, “Us civilised”-“Them savages”.

    September 11, 2009 at 12:45 pm | Reply
  49. youssef

    they need more of that in Saudi Arabia and other exremist countries to be effective. But I doubt that these countries with thier etremist anf fanatic clerics would allow them to be spread to childrens.

    September 11, 2009 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  50. serenade

    The efforts by Dr. Al Mutawa are applauded but when you look at the reality of the situation you will see how little they can do when you see children being killed in Gaza, chaos in Iraq, and bombings of civilians in Afghanistan on a daily basis. It's a two way street, if there is no real effort from the West to either genuinely help the Middle East or stay out of their affairs for good, then the hate will continue.

    September 11, 2009 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  51. ahmed

    why do u want to bring about cultural change? the islamic culture has been there for over a thousand years. and we shouldnt aim at making the globe one uniform culture. thats absurd.

    secondly, its not like all moslims are naturally terrorists due to their culture!??? i say it is time to change the american culture as well. Its dependence on fake news machines is laughable at best.

    September 11, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  52. Kristian

    Maybee we should make super-heroes not killing anybody,aimed on usa. The usa people is so neurotic about terrorism.They see a terrorist behind every corner,every tree and in every dark skinned human beeing .The usa people should get treatment against this disease.That would help the world moving forwards.

    September 11, 2009 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  53. Dave

    I think it is crucially important for Islamic youth to have positive role models, such as comic book heros, that they can identify with and that foster tolerance and acceptance rather than hatred and jihad. Some people see Disney as solely a commercial enterprise, but I see movies that teach the young of the world to identify with, respect and even idolize other cultures. A child that grows up loving Mulan or Pocahantas or Aladin is much less likely, in my opinion, as an adult to accept xenophobis attitudes about that or any other culture. Islamic superheros are a geat idea. Perhaps we should have some western, christian ones that also fight for tolerance as well. Too often western superheros are very US-centric and very "anti" whatever culture it is "in" to hate.

    September 11, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Reply
  54. Bgc

    Please correct me if I am wrong but isn't it a sin in Islam any painting or sculpture of a figure? If you look at Islamic art, you cannot see any portre. So, I guess Islam needs more fundemantal reforms than some comic book.

    September 11, 2009 at 1:42 pm | Reply
  55. Ramon F Herrera

    For the best example, look at how SNL has changed attitudes.

    The make fun of blacks, jews, italians, hispanics and others, in the most positive and acceptable way. They are allowed. Fox News and the rest of hate spewing wackos are not allowed.

    Keep up the good work, CNN!!

    September 11, 2009 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  56. ahmed

    bgc, islam does not condemn art. only pictures of god and the prophet are not allowed. plus why do u need to reform islam? do u even know islam? id hate to pick on you, but i will, just because ive had it with dumb minded people who live in the us who watch fox news for a living. Anyways, my point is ppl point fingers at islam for the acts of a few misguided youths who are brainwashed.

    to tell u the truth, they are not misguided. im not applauding deaths of inocent people. just like americans wouldnt applaud the annhilation of iraqis, viatnamese, koreans, afghanis and a whole bunch of peoples they kill to preserve 'peace' hah bullshit. the american army is also a propogator of terrorism. so hmmmmm.... wats a man in the middle east to do when he is defensless against an all mighty corrupt institution like the american mlitary. srry defense corporations who pay money for washington groups.

    atleast when they ram a plane into a building they dont use uranium depleted weapons so generations of new yorkers would be deformed.

    its a cruel evil world. every government, army, terrorist group is guilty of misuse of resources for their own benefit. waging religous or democratic wars. at the end of the day everyone is guilty. osama bin laden is just as guilty as G.W.Bush. so everyone just mind their own business and may the strongest and rightous prevail.

    September 11, 2009 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  57. BaffaMustapha

    i really don't have a specific question.but i have a very important message to share or at least comment on:
    Its absolutely brilliant to see our Muslim brothers steeping up in sharing exactly what Islam means-PEACE- no more or less.Media(COMICS) is a good way in doing just that,keeping in mind that it is not just meant for the younger generation (kids) but also adults too.fascinating stuff.

    September 11, 2009 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  58. BaffaMustapha

    it must be quite a difficult job in choosing a topic.HOW do you manage to choose the best ones almost all the time

    September 11, 2009 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  59. Syed Raiyan

    do you think your cartoons are enough to counter tthe horrible danish cartoon? I think you are doing a great job by not attacking back as the danish do on on eparticular nation & culure.

    September 11, 2009 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  60. dan

    That's awesome! I'm working on The TV series based on The 99. It'll get released early 2010.

    September 11, 2009 at 5:02 pm | Reply
  61. jennifer

    I think that the parents of muslim children will have so much influence on them that any imact of a positive muslim comic will be lost. Perhaps if they have tolerant, peace-loving parents, the comic will reinforce the behavior, but on it's own... no.

    As for positive impact of 9/11... I don't see it. Our country seems to have turned to stewing in its own hatred. Mostly because 9/11 made those most prone to fear more afraid and those prone to violence much more aggressive. It has made us suspicious of all things non-White Christian American and has made us think that we have a right and duty to interfere with external conflicts in order to make everyone more like us. It really has brought the worst out of us. Honestly, if we keep it up, I think we could all say Al-Qaeda won.

    September 12, 2009 at 8:12 pm | Reply
  62. dark-light

    I am actually afraid of islam religion.I think this religion is meant to be built like an army and it is so strong.Thank God, there are many good people in islam.

    September 13, 2009 at 8:05 am | Reply
  63. Dinesh

    Will the clean hero have four girl friends and the heroin wear burqa? Islam is trying to be unlike Islam to dupe to the world while they continue to preach and practice their violent cult.

    September 14, 2009 at 10:13 am | Reply
  64. Solar Panel

    Hello, cool read. I just found your blog and am already a fan. 8]

    September 23, 2009 at 8:40 am | Reply

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