Mike Gold: Fatwa In Four-Colors
It’s possible you’ve heard about the superhero comic book series The 99. According to the Grand Comics Database, it ran for a total of 19 issues between 2007 and 2011, plus a six-issue mini-series crossover with the Justice League of America.
Despite its professional credits and its careful design, it was unsurprisingly clear that here in the United States a series about Muslim superheroes who derived their team name from the 99 names for Allah would be a tough sell. Even Superman and Batman couldn’t help. PBS did a documentary, and it was cover-featured in Newsweek – back when Newsweek actually had covers. President Barack Obama, a former comics reader himself, praised the series: “His comic books have captured the imaginations of so many young people with superheroes who embody the teachings and tolerance of Islam.”
The “he” in “his” referred to the series’ creator, Kuwaiti psychologist Naif Al-Mutawa. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Al-Mutawa wanted Muslim children to have Muslim heroes who selected a path different from the suicide bombers and jihadists.
Sadly, to no avail. It was a noble effort, one that was successful in places like Saudi Arabia – it even spawned a television series. But success can bite you on the ass, and the laws of Newtonian physics apply to politics as well as to apple trees.
The 99 is now the subject of a genuine Saudi Arabian fatwa, issued by grand mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh and his council because the comics and the television show are “evil work that needs to be shunned.” Good grief, I’ve worked on comics that received bad reviews, but nobody said they needed to be shunned.
For the record, a fatwa is defined by Merriam-Webster as a decree handed down by an Islamic religious leader. It is not a death sentence per se, although with organized religion one has to take into consideration how the zealots might react.
But what the fatwa does do is effectively end The 99’s commercial prospects. Unless the fatwa is lifted the teevee show, which is off-season, is unlikely to continue. The comic books face the same fate.
There really isn’t that much difference between a fatwa in Saudi Arabia and an undeclared boycott of The 99 in the United States due to its pro-Muslim content. Despite solid promotion here in the States and the aforementioned exposure from both PBS and President Obama, people simply did not sample the series to see if it was to their liking.
To those of us who vest our first amendment fantasies with a zealot’s enthusiasm, both actions are repulsive. I wish Dr. Al-Mutawa well, and I hope he’s got a great idea for a Wolverine mini-series.