Because Tanenbaum combats religious ignorance, prejudice, discrimination and hate, often contacted by people that have an idea or a project that they think might be of interest or aligned with our work. It happened again recently, and this time I learned about an unusual project that is having an impact across the globe, but which is not receiving the same exposure in the U.S.
Naif A. Al-Mutawa is a clinical psychologist who lives both in the U.S. and Kuwait and has worked with former prisoners of war and survivors of political torture. Through his heart-wrenching work, he developed a devotion to sharing, in simple ways, what he understands as the core of his Muslim faith. He created THE 99, a concept that uses the mediums of comics and animated television to tell stories about superheroes. The superheroes are secular (not religious), but are drawn from the 99 attributes of Allah. The comics are intended to expose people of all ages to Islam and its core values which, according to Al-Mutawa, are the same values that all people share irrespective of religious affiliation. For Naif, this work presents an alternative understanding of Islam to children who are surrounded by media that emphasizes religiously motivated terrorism. The cartoon series has gained wide popularity from Kuwait to England and was picked up in the United States by The Hub, a children’s television channel.
Naif’s effort to make this vision a reality is chronicled in the documentary “Wham! Bam! Islam!” currently being show around the country on PBS stations (the project was featured in the NY Times two weeks ago). There is a lot of coverage of the THE 99, but not all of it is favorable. Although he has succeeded in drawing attention to his project, Naif has encountered some opposition in the media as well. Notably, from some people who have repeatedly characterized Islam with alarm, reiterated stereotypes about Islam and predicted harm to the U.S. from exposure to the comic's characters.
Although The Hub has yet to announce an air date for The 99 in the U.S., we at Tanenbaum look forward to the release. The need to debunk stereotypes about people from all religions including Islam is urgent, as the globe increasingly divides along lines of identity, including religious identity. Tanenbaum’s work certainly tackles this (for example, the Prepare New York initiative that provides fact sheets on such issues as Sharia, Diversity in Islam and World Religions), and I believe Naif intends to debunk stereotypes as well. We need multiple voices sharing accurate information so that we – and the children who one day will be world leaders – are not driven by misinformation, ignorance and stereotypes.