Superman, Batman, X-Men... There is probably no one in the world who hasn't heard of these superheroes. While watching them, we may admire such heroes, who have, in some way, shape or form, been a part of our lives, regardless of how culturally or religiously undesirable they may have been. How wonderful it would be if there were Muslim super heroes who could entertain our children.
The US-raised Kuwaiti clinical psychologist, Dr. Naif Al-Muwata, had just this idea in mind when he established Teshkeel Media in 2003. Despite great protests by Endermol, the company which produces the popular reality show, "Big Brother", "The 99", which will be aired as a cartoon in the British media, is a project that aims to pass on Islamic values to the younger generation and create role models for Muslim youth.
"99" is a comic book series named after the 99 names of Allah and features super heroes who utilize the attributes of Allah, such as al-Fattah, Al-Nur -- and His other names, with the exception of 30 names which have not been unveiled and whose attributes are not present in human beings. When the comic book series first appeared in 2003, it received a great deal of criticism from the leaders of the Islamic community in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries; however, since then, by not publishing anything that degrades Islamic beliefs in any way, 99 has proven itself. 99, which has been named by Forbes magazine as one of the 20 trends to have taken the world by storm, has already opened up a theme park in Kuwait, and there are plans to open up five more. 99, whose annual sales are expected to hit one million, is a project that is being co-produced by Marvel, a giant in the world of comic books and sci-fi cinema. Currently, in addition to many other famous illustrators, Fabian Nicieza, who writes for X-Men and Power Rangers, is working on 99.
Another interesting detail is that the producers of 99, who aim to compare and contrast the characters of 99 with the characters of Cat Woman and Batman in order to create a new special series, have been receiving complaints from parents in the West. These parents are concerned because they believe that the series will result in Islamic values being imposed on their children. Of course, along with the criticisms, there has been an incredible amount of attention generated, as this series underlines global values and contains no blatant references to Islam.
After such a detailed introduction, perhaps the questions that need to be asked are as follows: Are these efforts on behalf of Muslims beneficial? How ideologically free is a project which has a global giant, such as Marvel, by its side? But most importantly, there is the question of the possible damages exceeding the benefits of such a project, in which characters are depicted alongside the names of Allah. When I first heard of this project, the first thing that came to my mind was, "Why the names of Allah?" I found this sort of approach quite disturbing. Al-Fattah, who opens the doors as he pleases, the ever powerful Al-Jabbar (The superb comforter) and al-Nur, who shows people the right path, and Al-Musawwir (The Shaper, fashioner) are some of the current characters; at present there is a total of 23, all with names that we attribute to our Creator. When we give these names to our children, we never do so in hopes that they will carry these attributes or symbolize them. However, in this series we are faced with characters that carry those specific powers of Allah.
Despite the fact that 99 seems to be getting a great deal of attention, there are other Muslim comic book characters as well. AK Media is another company making a name for itself in terms of comic book characters. Other than exotically depicted characters, which have been drawn in a Western light, from head to toe, and which display a limited "good behavior", there is nothing in this series that is new. There is even a character called Dust, whom Marvel incorporated into X-Men, a frail little girl who dons a burqa and has the power to transform herself into a sand storm.
When examining these comic books, it seems that the producers are bringing their ideologies to the fore; the image of a Muslim is most clear in their depiction of Muslim female superheroes. Jehanzeb Dar, a young Pakistani producer, has examined the matter in depth in his articles penned for the Muslim portal http://www.altmuslimah.com/
Let us first take a look at Dust, also known as Sooraya Qadir, who was first featured in Marvel's X-Men series. Dust, who is dressed in black from head to toe, sports a face veil that is enticing. Dar, in his article, points out that this Afghan mutant, who can fight against her enemies as a sandstorm, is saved (!) from the hands of the Taliban who are about to attack her, by Wolverine, the most "male" character of the X-Men series. Furthermore, there is very shallow, weak and prejudiced information about the character of Dust, who arrives at a mutant shelter home. Dust, whose choice of wearing the veil is highlighted as a personal choice, notes the sole reason for her veil as personal protection against the gaze of men.
This character, a Muslim woman who has not been properly depicted, nor properly understood and who is, furthermore, not a depiction of reality fulfills the usual role: loading Muslims and the outside world with self-prejudice. Dar also finds the way in which Marvel presents events in this comic strip to be extremely chauvinistic, as depicted in the character of Dust, who both covers to escape the "male gaze" and is dependent on a man in order to be saved.
Let's assume for a minute that Marvel, which doesn't know enough about Islam, is not able to break free of this stereotyping. What about the Muslim female characters depicted by Muslims? Cairo-centered AK Comics has a totally US-inspired approach which does not reflect any religious or cultural characteristics of Muslim women, save Muslim-Arabic super-names. On the contrary, these female characters, such as Jalila, who is the protector of the city of all religions and Aya, who is the princess of darkness, have been depicted in a blatant, misogynistic light and are no different from stereotypical females superheroes like Cat Woman with their sexuality brought to the fore, complete with skin tight clothing.
Dar's analysis of the series 99 is somewhat more optimistic. Of the six female characters which have emerged in the series so far, five are not covered, while the sixth, a Persian character, is covered. While why they chose to depict the female Persian character as covered is a completely different question, it can be said that overall the female characters of this series are better rounded, stronger in terms of their character and their sexuality has not been brought to the fore. However, even though the characters may appear to be much more demure than their Western counterparts, one can still feel a sexual backdrop looming over the work. And the depictions of characters that carry and symbolize the names of Allah are, mildly speaking, "shallow."
The first female character in the series 99 is 18-year-old Dena Ibrahim of the United Arab Emirates. The daughter of a wealthy man, Dena was kidnapped and while in this vulnerable state discovered a "Nur" (Light) stone that helped her find her way. The stone possesses a power that distinguishes what is good from what is bad in every person and thus Dena is able to see these two opposing quality in each person. While undergoing a personal struggle, Dena finds the stones; at the same time Dr. Ramzi is conducting research on people who carry these stones. (Those who are familiar with the X-men series will recognize this story line). Dena will later discover through Noora that the Nur stone has chosen her for a specific reason. Noora is a character whose experiences and personality comes to the fore. Amira Khan, on the other hand, is of British descent and a character known as Hadya (Guide) among the 99. Hadya, who has the ability to draw up a map of any location and depict three-dimensional characters when necessary, is presented dressed in modest clothing; however, she does not wear the Islamic veil. Buran of Iran, who is not yet a Nur carrier, is the only covered character of the series so far. Even though the female characters of 99 may be portrayed in a more positive light overall as opposed to other series, their depiction, being the center of attention and aimed at pleasing a young audience along, with an array of other qualities, all make them contradictory to Islamic perceptions. Bearing in mind their ever-expanding market and the power of the Western media that lies behind them, the affects of this series on young people may be much stronger than imagined.
The children of religious families today, who have a very difficult time in finding role models for themselves, may, upon discovering such characters, internalize them without questioning them, causing them to look at themselves, their environments and most importantly their religions from this new framework.
In our modern times when the conscious and sub-conscious affects of cartoons, cartoon characters and computer games are subjects of research, and there are understood to affect increasing trends of violence and early teen aggressiveness, such religious and ethnic orientations give cause for concern.
Pondering these "alternative "superheroes who are being marketed by large media organs such as the New York Times and the Independent, whose benefit, at the end of the day, they are serving, and whose image of Islam and Muslims is being pushed to the fore, we have to remember to what they are offering is an alternative to what is being imposed on the Muslim world; surely this is worthwhile.