© 2014 Valerie Dionne

Superheroes and the Future of the Middle East: WHAM! BAM! ISLAM! at Colby College by Chris Moody

On Monday, April 7, students, professors, faculty, and community members packed into Colby College’s Ostrove auditorium for a film screening of Wham! Bam! Islam! The film was brought to campus by the Center for the Arts and Humanities as part of their annual humanities theme for 2013-14, Censorship Uncovered. The event concluded with an informal conversation between the audience and the director of the film, Isaac Solotaroff.

Wham Bam Islam_poster

The movie tells the story of comic book entrepreneur Naif al-Mutawa and The 99, Naif’s band of Muslim superheroes. The goal of The 99 is to provide new role models to children around the world. The comic books are unique in that they are set against an Arab backdrop and are rooted in Islamic culture. Known for their embodiment of widely held human values such as strength and beneficence, The 99’s ultimate mission is to portray the religion in a way not often seen in the media and popular culture.

Naif got the idea for The 99 after seeing a sticker book in the occupied West Bank that depicted bloody scenes of the Arab-Israeli conflict and extolled the virtues of martyrdom. The sticker book convinced the creator that something needed to be done to save Islam from itself. The 99 portrays Islam in a positive light in an attempt to wrest the conversation over how to define Islam away from the growing fundamentalist trend in the Middle East that preaches an anachronistic and hostile form of the religion.

For me, the most powerful scene in the film comes when a picture of two young boys standing next to each other appears on screen. The one on the left is wearing a suicide vest and a green headband embroidered with the insignia of Hamas, an Islamist organization known for suicide attacks in their struggle against Israel. The boy on the right looks similar, except the suicide vest is replaced by a school backpack and the Hamas headband is replaced by one with “The 99” written on it. Naif’s vision, he says, is to turn the boy on the left into the boy on the right. More than a simple business ploy, The 99 is an effort to bring about social change through comic books.

The film follows Naif’s endeavor to turn his idea into reality. The concept, however, was never going to be an easy one to turn into a thriving business. Any portrayal of Allah is highly forbidden by Islamic law. Each superhero in The 99, however, exemplifies one of the 99 attributes of Allah. Naif claims that each one of 99 attributes are universal human values that happen to be shared by Allah, although more conservative sectors of the faith disagree and find the comic books blasphemous. The creators had to aggressively defend their position that The 99 do not break with the most fundamental tenants of Islam.

Crossing the wrong religious authorities not only would have been a deathblow to the business, but could have endangered the lives of all those associated with the project. The fear of what happened to author Sir Salman Rushdie after publishing the Satanic Verses (see Vanity Fair‘s article), was very real among Naif and his team. Rushdie’s book was deemed offensive to Islam and led to the fire bombing of bookstores that carried his novel and several assassinations of those involved with the publishing of the book.


With hard work and the help of a few greased palms, The 99 eventually passed muster in some of the toughest markets, including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, and the idea was free to grow.

Tough demographic realities and deep underlying prejudices continued to make life difficult for The 99‘s creators. Exactly where The 99 were to have the greatest impact, conflict zones inside the Middle East, money for comics is scarcest. Furthermore, Naif’s efforts to grow the brand and enter new markets, notably in the U.S., has been foiled by “islamaphobia” within the media. When it was announced that The 99 would be turned into a TV show, the station set to air the show cancelled at last minute after a New York Post article warned that the show would indoctrinate American children with Islamic values.

Naif is part of a new class of Arabs who are trying to redefine Islam and show the world that the religion of Muhammad is compatible with the modern era. Western-educated and one with its democratic ideals, Naif prefers to let the market be the final judge of his work, as opposed to relying on the fatwas and edicts of unelected religious authorities with narrow and unswerving ideas about the world. Naif is a perfect representation of what he is trying to create in the young generation. A man who can easily swaps blue jeans for flowing robes, Naif comes to his own conclusion about Islam while embracing the effects of a globalized world. It is the effort of people like Naif who speak of Islam in terms of peacefulness and tolerance that is doing the most to usher in a brighter day in the Middle East and the world around.

The theme of censorship is central to the film. The 99 push the boundaries of acceptable practice in the Middle East and run up against numerous critics who wish to silence their message. The comic book is highly political since its message is contradictory to that which is preached from the highest religious authority in many countries. The 99 are spreading a new, forward looking message for kids to sink their teeth into, which gives pause to authorities that see their power shrinking in light of this new reality.

Kids around the world are reading the comics, wearing the merchandise, and riding themed amusement park rides. Needless to say, The 99 has been a big hit so far. Only time will tell the 99 can achieve their ultimate aim of creating a more peaceful tomorrow.


Isaac Solotaroff and Naif al-Mutawa