Friday, March 04, 2011

Do not let Islamophobes defeat 'The 99' everyday heroes


Name a positive Arab or Islamic character from a Hollywood film. Not easy, is it?

But don't worry, there is nothing wrong with your knowledge of popular culture. Those characters, for the most part, simply don't exist.

From Rudolph Valentino's The Sheik in the 1920s, through Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia in the 1960s, to Arnold Schwarzenegger's True Lies, Arabs have been portrayed by a rogue's gallery of cartoonish, blood-thirsty criminals and harem-dwelling belly dancers.

Those stereotypes quickly come to mind when an Osama bin Laden arrives on the scene. Post September 11, things have hardly improved, with Hollywood's Arab caricatures reaffirmed in television's 24 and the risible Sex and the City 2.

One person who has tried to stem this relentless tide of bad publicity is Dr Naif al Mutawa, the Kuwaiti creator of The 99, a comic book series whose 99 Islamic superheroes are named after the names of Allah.

Special Issue - Timelost

While The 99, which was recently commissioned to release a crossover series with DC Comics, received critical acclaim from Arab and international media alike, predictably there has been a backlash from conservative voices in the US.

An animated television series of The 99 was scheduled for mid-October but has been postponed until January. This planned exposure on American television screens has riled the religious right in the US - which, admittedly, is not so difficult to rile.

"Hide your face and grab the kids. Coming soon to a TV in your child's bedroom is a posse of righteous, Shariah-compliant Muslim superheroes," Andrea Peyser in the New York Post wrote. "These Islamic butt-kickers are ready to bring truth, justice and indoctrination to impressionable western minds."

Jaleel The Magestic

There were others. The conservative blog Patriot Post debated, somewhat hysterically, whether The 99's "old-fashioned values" would include honour killings and suicide bombings, while other forums accused DC comics of "Muslim pandering" and, laughably, "treachery".

The irony that they are the ones spewing religious hate seems lost on these angry voices.

The 99 are not the only other modern Islamic comic book heroes. Iman, the brainchild of the Dubai author Rima Khoreibi, is a teenage, cape and headscarf wearing Muslim girl who helps children deal with their problems. Khoreibi, whose 2005 book The Advetures of Iman dealt with racism and feminism among other issues, also cited the Quran as her inspiration.

Acclaim came from mainstream sources. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, a strong critic of honour killings and the abuse of women, lauded Khoreibi's creation and her role in showing a moderate face of Islam.

The truth is that every society requires its own heroes. In a memorable episode of The Simpsons, the hapless Homer is cast as the lead role in the film adaptation of the comic book hero Everyman. It satirically brought to light a craving for a new breed of caped crusader who the masses could identify with.

Hollywood has not been slow on the uptake. Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Kick-Ass and Defendor are just three movie adaptations of comic books starring, not so much superheroes, but wannabe heroes.

These do-it-yourself vigilantes are not faster than a speeding bullet, cannot swing from buildings and their uniforms are not made of iron. They are ordinary folk who have found themselves fighting the eternal battle of good versus evil (hero attire optional). They are you and me. They are, in essence, Everyman. Or, indeed, everyman.

They capture the zeitgeist perfectly. If America needs its new heroes with old fashioned virtues, why can't the Arab world have its own?

Even the most powerful man in the world, Barack Obama, is not safe from the powers of everyman. Whatever you may think of the Tea Party, their recent success in the US midterm elections has shown that the message of ordinary people taking back their country has struck a resonant chord with, well, the ordinary people.

Which brings us back to The 99. It is hoped that with their increasing influence, the conservative voices can see beyond their prejudices when it comes to positive Islamic role models.

Repositioning Islam through The 99 - The National

The 99 deserve their day in the sun, and indeed on the screens.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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