Ka-pow! The intolerant reaction to a PC comic

The US furore around Islam-inspired The 99 suggests we need superheroes who can do battle against censorship.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

Animated films and comics are often blamed for turning kids violent, aggressive and anti-social. So you’d think that a comic about superheroes who embody and extol the virtues of tolerance and diversity might be welcomed. Well, The 99, a comic created by a Kuwaiti psychologist, has stoked controversy despite promoting such benign values. Its 50 female and 49 male superheroes, who are all of different nationalities, have triggered ire in some American quarters.

The Columbia-educated Dr Naif Al-Mutawa reportedly got the idea for The 99 after hearing about a Palestinian sticker book which championed suicide bombers. ‘I wanted to reposition Islam for Muslims’, he said in a recent interview. Each of the superheroes in the comic embodies one of the 99 attributes of Allah: generosity, mercy, wisdom and so on.

Al-Mutawa has spoken about his desire to create positive role models for Muslim children, but in 2009 he also wrote in an open letter to his young sons that ‘only when Jewish kids think that The 99 characters are Jewish, and Christian kids think they’re Christian, and Muslim kids think they’re Muslim, and Hindu kids think they’re Hindu… I will consider my vision as having been fully executed.’

Mutawa’s efforts to realise this ambition were the subject of Wham! Bam! Islam!, a documentary aired on PBS last week after being shown at the New York Film Festival. When he wrote that letter to his sons, Al-Mutawa’s comics had already inspired a theme park in Kuwait and the heroes of The 99 had joined forces with DC Comics’ Justice League of America in a six-part story. The 99 heroes now adorn lunch boxes and other merchandise and Endemol has created an animated series based on the comic. In 2010, the US channel Hub TV announced that it would broadcast the show, which means it could reach 60million American homes. Even President Obama has commended The 99 for spreading tolerance.

But when the Hub added The 99 to its roster last year, some Americans were unhappy. In a New York Post column, Andrea Peyser wrote: ‘These Islamic butt-kickers are ready to bring truth, justice and indoctrination to impressionable Western minds’. Right-wing blogger Pamela Geller, who campaigns to ‘stop the Islamicisation of America’, called The 99 ‘garbage’ and ‘Islamic proselytising’. Adrian Morgan, editor of the website Family Security Matters, warned: ‘Be prepared for the latest exercise in Muslim propaganda’.

Such commentators are accusing Al-Mutawa of the very opposite of what he wanted to achieve: they say he’s turning kids into champions of radical Islam. ‘How cliché is it that something that’s been created to promote tolerance is being shot down by haters?’ Al-Mutawa has said.

All this hubbub led to the US broadcast of the series being indefinitely postponed and with the release of Wham! Bam! Islam!, the controversy is now being aired again. The documentary showed that the comic also ran into trouble in the Arab world. It was banned in Saudi Arabia and there were threats of a fatwa against it. But it’s now been sold to 50 countries and the Saudis have lifted the ban. Even though Saudi Arabia bought the show a year after the Americans, it will end up airing there first.

As the controversy is revisited in the US, there is much speculation about what it all says about Americans’ attitude towards Muslims post-9/11. Some have interpreted the opposition to the Hub’s purchase of The 99 as proof that Islamophobia is rampant in the States. Yet, as Al-Mutawa himself put it, ‘Even though we’ve been covered in thousands of articles, it only took three or four people saying things that were really unfair’.

In other words, the opposition to The 99 has come from a small minority. Despite their loud objections, it was not their handful of blog posts and op-eds that indefinitely delayed the airing of the comic. It was the TV company executives, who caved in rather than defended their decision to bring The 99 to American homes.

The small furore over The 99 and the disproportionate influence its critics have had is no proof that Islamophobia is a deeply pernicious force in American society, but it does show that offence-ophobia is. The fear of causing offence, of upsetting the sensibilities of one section of society, has led to widespread cowardice in the world of culture and entertainment.

For fear of being accused of showing intolerance toward some cultural sensibility or other, artists, publishers and TV producers too often avoid subjects that may offend someone, somewhere. The result is a censorious atmosphere in which we’re all treated as deeply impressionable and fragile.

Ironically, Al-Mutawa’s hyper-tolerant set of superheroes are more likely to perpetuate than slay this wicked force.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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