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Better Representing Muslims: A Few Ideas

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Robert Rath has an excellent article on how Muslims can be better represented in the media in general and video games in particular over at the Escapist. Here we reproduce that article with the permission of the author.

Better Representing Muslims: A Few Ideas

ROBERT RATH | 13 JUNE 2013 11:00 AM183

I think it’s pretty fair to say games haven’t represented Muslims very well. Not only have the last ten years been a cavalcade of games about shooting Middle Eastern “terrorists,” but even outside the FPS market, fantasy games trade on stereotypes for the faux-Muslims they portray. Untrustworthy merchants. Fat, opulent despots. Diabolical sorcerers. Assassins in head scarves. Noble but savage Bedouins. Muslim writers and those who’ve studied the Middle East have pointed out these problematic depictions for years – so let’s focus on something else. Let’s look at a few steps we can make to fix the problem.


A couple of Iraqi students stayed at my dorm as part of an exchange program during college. When I first met them I wanted to make an impression, so I mentioned that my sister was a Middle East journalist who’d lived in Beirut for three years.

I thought they’d be impressed by her bravery, or that maybe we’d find kinship in it – instead they snickered. “Beirut,” snorted one. “Beirut is Disneyland Middle East.”

Since the 19th century Westerners have attempted to lump the Arab world together without understanding its complexities. Colonial administrators often drew national borders with rulers and T-squares, heedless of the different (often competing) ethnicities and cultural groups they blocked in together. One of the legacies of this insane policy is our inability to define the region ethnically or even geographically. “Arab” fails because many countries like Iran neither speak Arabic nor have Arabic genealogy. “Middle East” leaves out countries like Libya and Afghanistan, which share religious or cultural roots with the region. “The Muslim world” leaves out Christian minorities, not to mention Israel and its Palestinian population. The current favorite, the slightly weasel-word term “the Arab world” misfires just as badly as all the rest – it’s about as helpful as making generalizations about the English, Scots, Irish, Americans, and Canadians because they all speak English. Westerners desperately want to group the multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual people of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia under one banner but the whole region resists labels.

Each country contains a multitude of identities. Just like a New Yorker isn’t the same as a Californian, an Iraqi from Tikrit isn’t the same as an Iraqi Kurd from Sulaymaniyah. Even though both might identify as Sunni Muslims their politics might skew in opposite directions due to Saddam favoring most Iraqi Sunnis but practicing genocide against the Kurds. Just like in the U.S., political feelings vary province by province, city by city, block by block, family by family and person to person. You can talk about the “Arab world” all you want, but it won’t stop the Jordanians and Lebanese from sneering at “Saudi opulence” using the disparaging term “Gulfies.”

When creating foreign characters, it’s better to be specific. A little research can go a long way. Instead of throwing a stereotype at the player, think things through – is a character or group Muslim or Christian? What ethnic group are they? What language do they speak? How does that inform who they are, and why they’re doing what they’re doing? Understanding that “the Arab world” contains a vast array of cultures, languages, traditions and political beliefs – some at odds with the United States’ regional goals, some not – gets you a long way to breaking down the stereotyped Western view of Muslims.


You might think fantasy and sci-fi settings would be a respite from stereotypical portrayals, but they’re not. “I think our culture in general has a lot of fantasy-fueled misconceptions about the supposedly dystopic Middle East and the people who live there,” says Saladin Ahmed, author of the Arabian Nights-themed fantasy novelThrone of the Crescent Moon. “So those misconceptions tend to pop up in our stories, whatever the genre might be.”

It’s hard to miss when you look for it: Skyrim‘s “Redguard” loading screen features a Moorish-looking character in a head wrap, peering into a soul gem with one hand on his scimitar – pretty much the default pose for an covetous bandit prince. The Covenant are religious radicals prosecuting a holy war under the order of a prophet, and Grunts frequently suicide bomb the player with plasma grenades. Game of Thrones populates its eastern lands with barbarians, sorcerers, deceitful merchants and slave kingdoms. “If, broadly speaking, science fiction looks to an imaginary future and fantasy to an imaginary past, all of the -isms that taint our collective cultural imagination are going to seep into those imagined eras and worlds,” says Ahmed. “If one is writing underwater, one is going to get wet. And right now our culture is swimming in ignorance about and hatred toward Muslims.”

Throne of the Crescent Moon (which has earned “Best Novel” nominations in both the Hugo and Nebula Awards) is a great example of writing about a fantasy “Arabian” culture without resorting to stereotypes. Though the novel has its fair share of bandit princes, cruel Khalifs, holy warriors and Bedouins, every portrayal is three-dimensional. Characters feel like people rather than props. Demon hunter Adoulla might at first glance look like just another old sorcerer, but he’s also a kind, if cynical, pleasure-seeker. Think a potion-wielding Falstaff after ten miles’ walk in the rain. He’s more familiar than foreign. “Part of this is just the simple-yet-uphill work of reminding readers that there are heroes, idiots, cowards, geniuses, libertines, revolutionaries, despots, fanatics, pranksters, murderers and loud farters in every culture,” says Ahmed. “The challenge is doing so without defaulting to a facile ‘We’re all the same!’ equivalency.”

That subtle alchemy – creating characters who’re culturally different but still relatable and human – is a skill that can change people’s preconceptions. “The older I get, the more skeptical I am of [novelists'] ability to seriously transform things on any kind of macro level,” says Ahmed. “For me it’s all about the micro. I get emails every week from readers who say they’ve had their world opened up a bit by my stories of (mostly) Muslim cowboys, cyber-soldiers and monster hunters.”

As Throne of the Crescent Moon attests, you don’t have to throw away all of the old imagery for fear of causing offence. Developers just need to make sure their scheming viziers or tubby spice traders amount to more than what appears on the surface. Stereotypes cease to be stereotypes when you flesh them out into real characters.


Modern Warfare would probably be a little different were it actually written by a Muslim – or even if the team brought on a cultural expert. The fact is, we really love to talk about consulting military veterans when putting together military shooters, but those guys are rarely cultural experts and they always look at a country from the perspective of an outsider. It could really help to bring someone in who really knows a country, rather than has seen it primarily through a gun sight or a camera lens. Someone who can give the environments and people a greater sense of authenticity or suggest a plotline other than ERMAHGERD NUCLEAR MISSILES GO AMERICA SHOOT EVERYTHING THAT MOVES. Perhaps taking down an underground militant network that’s been targeting Afghan leaders or hunting a particularly talented bomb-maker. Or maybe Nathan Drake’s next adventure will put him on the side of the Jordanian police, tracking down a stolen artifact.

That is, of course, if we’re truly as interested in “realism” as we say we are. I suspect when studio PR reps use that word, what they really mean are “realistic guns.” These days, we spend more energy making a gun true to life than we spend on the person in its crosshairs.


What’s so frustrating about the negative portrayal of Muslims in most military shooters is that it would be so easy to fix. While the War on Terror is primarily focused on combating Islamic extremists, neither the U.S. military nor its intelligence services would be able to operate without Muslims – both local security partners and translators.

Games tend to ignore any aspect of war that doesn’t involve shooting, but in reality counterinsurgency operations hinge on the ability to work with and understand local needs and grievances. Likewise, intelligence agencies and federal law enforcement require assets that not only speak Arabic and Pashto, but can pass unnoticed in undercover operations. After all, when you hear about the FBI selling fake bomb parts to an aspiring terrorist, who do you think is impersonating the Al Qaeda operative? Sven Olafson from Lake Wobegon?

Translators in particular helped the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. They interacted with civilians, made sure local forces understood orders and served as cultural advisors to the military. As well as serving on patrol, some undertook dangerous operations with special forces – a Pakistani-American translator served during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

“Translators serving along with U.S. Military branches put their life in danger as much as the soldiers do with one exception: the majority are unarmed,” says Zuber Hewrami, whose company Hewraman Consultation, LLC recruits translators for the U.S. military. According to Hewrami, many translators join seeking an expedited path to U.S. citizenship or for educational incentives. Others are just patriotic or hope to work in government. “Some join because they think they can help the host country with building a bridge between locals and our soldiers.” Without them, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan – and most of the war reporting from the region – would’ve been dead on arrival. It’s led to a tight relationship between combat interpreters and their soldiers, each protecting the other in turn.

Being an interpreter is a dangerous profession. They take the same small arms fire as the soldiers they work with, the same IEDs. Most fight with nothing other than a flak jacket and their voice. Militias have been known to assassinate interpreters and their families, a threat that became so prevalent that many took to wearing masks. Those that die in the line of duty rarely make the headlines – a dozen local interpreters can get killed in an attack, and the media will report “no military casualties.” As the U.S. continues to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, local translators increasingly find that the visas the State Department promised them aren’t forthcoming.

Making a combat interpreter part of your squad, or working with local security forces, could mitigate some of the problems with military shooters. Crucially, it could put a human face on the local population and show that the country contains a diversity of opinion – reinforcing that we’re supposed to be fighting against a radical ideology, not a people. And playing as an interpreter, say in place of a vehicle section, could create some interesting gameplay opportunities as you try to dodge bullets while transmitting orders to a local commander. Medal of Honor (2010) made some laudable steps in this direction. During an early mission the players work alongside the Afghan National Army, and in another the player rescues a tribal informant who gives his opinion of the Taliban – saying they’re little more than violent thugs.

If we’re going to make games about the War on Terror, let’s stop pretending that we’re the only ones fighting.


Developers could use any of the suggestions I’ve given in this article, but here’s a revolutionary idea: how about just depicting Muslims as normal people? Is it so difficult to imagine that the people you’d run into while investigating a murder or fending off the apocalypse would be one of the 2.6 million ordinary Muslim-Americans in this country? Omid from The Walking Dead is a great example. He’s Persian-American, but beyond that he’s also a history buff, comic relief, and puts out such good vibes that Clementine doesn’t mind him swearing. For all intents and purposes he’s just a nice dude, his ethnic background completely secondary to his likable personality. While characters like Omid aren’t cultural bridges in the educational sense – that is, he doesn’t advance the player’s understanding of Persian culture – his unforced inclusion sends the message that he’s a person shaped, rather than defined, by his background.

Games really could use more Omids.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits atRobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.


In San Francisco!

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(Image Source: SF in SF)

Taking a break from regular posts I just wanted to announce that I will be in San Francisco for the the next 10 days for a Network Science conference. If anyone is interested in meeting up, hanging out or want me to speak somewhere then drop me a line. I will be in San Francisco and Silicon Valley area until the 10th of June.

Arabic SF

Translating Science Fiction into Arabic

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The ArabLit website has a nice article on translating Science Fiction into arabic.

The Whys and Wherefores of Translating Science Fiction into Arabic

by mlynxqualey

At this year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, YA author and would-be/will-be publisher Noura al-Noman drove in from Sharjah to talk about translating literature for young people. She spoke alongside Dar al-Muna publisher Mona Henning, author and translator Sampurna Chatterji, and Literature Across Frontiers’ director Alexandra Büchler.

booksAl-Noman spoke about the particular importance of translating science fiction into Arabic.

This is an interest of hers “because of the fact that I’m focused on this rare genre.” Although al-Noman is producing spec-fic novels—two now, with a third in progress—there is a need for the genre to be enriched by translations if it is to flower, she said.

“How many books can I come up with per year? There has to be more of that content available for young adults for them to keep interested in the genre. The only way to do that is by translating.”

This isn’t just true of science fiction, al-Noman said. Other languages could contribute a lot to the Arabic-language flowering of genres that are less common in Arabic, including fantasy, paranormal, and graphic novels.

For this reason, al-Noman has “already started my own publishing house.” But she has hit a sticking point: “Besides the fact that you have so many costs, who’s going to pay the translator? Translation isn’t cheap.”

Büchler echoed this: “When you translate, this is one of the major obstacles. There is very little support available, and when publishers apply for grants, when they want to publish books translated from European languages, they [the grant organizations] usually would go for adult novels. It’s still quite rare” for grant money to go to children’s books.

So, if it’s not going to make al-Noman a wealthy woman, why bother translating other science fictions into Arabic?

“My kids started reading exclusively in English,” al-Noman said. So at some point, when she realized what was happening, she decided to go out, “and I looked for books [in Arabic] that could compete with Harry Potter and Twilight, which I hate, and all the other books that they’re reading—nothing.”

She found “nothing that would compete.”

That’s why al-Noman wrote her first science fiction novel, Ajwan, and her second as well:Mandan. But two science fiction novels are hardly enough to build interest in the genre.

There are other scattered efforts in different Arab countries, and at the Abu Dhabi fair, for instance, al-Noman ran across a science fiction novel for middle-grade readers by debut Emirati author Shaima al-Marzouki. But science fiction has yet to fully take off in Arabic.

Al-Noman also spoke about the challenges of science fiction in Arabic, particulary how difficult it was to express certain ideas and conventions. As Palestinian poet Mazen Maarouf said in a recent interview, parts of the Arabic language have become “frozen.” He said: “We have 30,000 terms in physics that have no translation into Arabic.”

Al-Noman said that, as she writes, she often wonders: “How do you do this in Arabic?”

But as Büchler noted, “this is how writing develops, and takes on interesting directions.”


Neil Gaiman on the Refugee Crisis in Syria

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'All I want to do is cry' … Gaiman watches a nurse tend to a girl who lost half her jaw in a landmin

'All I want to do is cry' … Gaiman watches a nurse tend to a girl who lost half her jaw in a landmin
(Image Source: The Guardian)

Here at Islam and Science Fiction we seldom discuss the going on in the world but the refugee crisis in Syria is one of the most important humanitarian crisis of our times. It is encouraging to see that one of the seminal science fiction authors of our time Neil Gaiman is working with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to bring attention to this humanitarian crisis. Here is an excerpt from the Guardian article by Neil Gaiman and what he has to say about the refugee crisis:

Before I came out here, I tried to imagine what a refugee camp would be like. It would consist of several rows of tents in a field. It would be dusty, of course, because the field was in Jordan, where it is dry, and it would be a big field, because there were a lot of refugees. I had not imagined cities. Where Azraq is a ghost city of white boxes in a flint and lava desert, Zaatari is an anarchic dusty city of tents and box-like people-containers, in which every streetlight is covered with a wild spaghetti-tangle of wires, stealing electricity to light people’s homes, charge their phones and power televisions. Kilian Kleinschmidt, the UNHCR camp manager who is mayor to this “city” of 100,000, has resigned himself to an electricity bill of $500,000 a month, and now concentrates on putting in boxes on the lamp posts that allow authorised electricians to access the power safely, and urging people to raise the wire tangles up off the ground during the rains. People move house in Zaatari by putting wheels on to repurposed fenceposts, lifting their houses on to them, and hauling them through the streets, while boys jump on and off, like a fairground ride.

You can also donate to UNHCR clicking on the following image which will take you to Gaiman’s Syrian refugees page on the UNHCR website.



Congratulations to Nebula Awards Winners!

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Congratulations to the 2014 Nebula Awards winners. The Nebula awards are given every year by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and are considered to be the most prestigious awards in Science Fiction along with the Hugo Awards. Here is the list of awards and nominees for this year.


Winner: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Marian Wood)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (Morrow; Headline Review)
Fire with Fire, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
Hild, Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The Red: First Light, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island)
A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar (Small Beer)
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker (Harper)


Winner: ‘‘The Weight of the Sunrise,’’ Vylar Kaftan (Asimov’s 2/13)
‘‘Wakulla Springs,’’ Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages (Tor.com 10/2/13)
‘‘Annabel Lee,’’ Nancy Kress (New Under the Sun)
‘‘Burning Girls,’’ Veronica Schanoes (Tor.com 6/19/13)
‘‘Trial of the Century,’’ Lawrence M. Schoen (www.lawrencemschoen.com; World Jumping)
Six-Gun Snow White, Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean)


Winner: ‘‘The Waiting Stars,’’ Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky)
‘‘Paranormal Romance,’’ Christopher Barzak (Lightspeed 6/13)
‘‘They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass,’’ Alaya Dawn Johnson (Asimov’s 1/13)
‘‘Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters,’’ Henry Lien (Asimov’s 12/13)
‘‘The Litigation Master and the Monkey King,’’ Ken Liu (Lightspeed 8/13)
‘‘In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,’’ Sarah Pinsker (Strange Horizons 7/1 – 7/8/13)

Short Story

Winner: ‘‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,’’ Rachel Swirsky (Apex 3/13)
‘‘The Sounds of Old Earth,’’ Matthew Kressel (Lightspeed 1/13)
‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers,’’ Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons 1/7/13)
‘‘Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer,’’ Kenneth Schneyer (Clockwork Phoenix 4)
‘‘Alive, Alive Oh,’’ Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (Lightspeed 6/13)

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

Winner: Gravity
Doctor Who: ‘‘The Day of the Doctor’’
Europa Report
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Pacific Rim

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book

Winner: Sister Mine, Nalo Hopkinson (Grand Central)
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Holly Black (Little, Brown; Indigo)
When We Wake, Karen Healey (Allen & Unwin; Little, Brown)
The Summer Prince, Alaya Dawn Johnson (Levine)
Hero, Alethea Kontis (Harcourt)
September Girls, Bennett Madison (Harper Teen)
A Corner of White, Jaclyn Moriarty (Levine)

Kevin O’Donnell Jr. Service to SFWA Award: Michael Armstrong

2013 Damon Knight Grand Master Award: Samuel R. Delany  


The Trouble with Gulf Futurism

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Image Source: Vice Magazine

The Vice has an article on the problems with Gulf Futurism by Nathalie Olah. While this is technically not science fiction but the idea of Gulf Futurism has many of the trappings of Science Fiction so we wanted to cover it here. The aesthetics and the kind of development that accompanied the recent growth in the Persian Gulf was christened Gulf Futurism by Sophia Al-Maria. While the recent boom of various architectural and cultural projects in the Gulf represents an alternative model for how the future may be envisioned, the kind of rampant development in the Gulf has many pitfalls especially the salve labor which has made such development possible. It is not just the locals which are to be blamed but the multi-national corporations also have an important part in making the lives of the guest workers miserable. Here is a relevant except from Olah’s article.

It’s not exactly surprising that cities throughout the Middle East look like they’ve been inspired by a less-dystopian version of the Blade Runner universe. In 2005, the film’s “futurist designer” Syd Mead visited the region and met with Bahraini royal Sheik Abdullah Hamad Khalifa to discuss building projects. And despite all its patriotic function, the Kingdom Tower is itself a work of American creation. Designed by Chicago firm Smith Gill, it’s loosely based on plans for an architectural pipe-dream of the seminal Frank Lloyd Wright: a one-mile-high tower called the Illinois. Unfortunately, planners at the site in Saudi Arabia deemed the original height too tall for the relatively unstable terrain of the Red Sea Coast.

The complete article can be viewed here: Vice article on Gulf Futurism

African SF

Arabic sci-fi and other literary revolutions

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(Image Source: Al-Jazeera)

Al-Jazeera has just ran an article on the rise of Horror, Speculative Fiction and Science Fiction in the Arabic language in recent years.

But the Katara prize is untested, and this year’s Sheikh Zayed award hardly launched a tweet. Meanwhile, the IPAF sparked an avalanche of social-media zaghrutasand attendant speculation by authors and publishers.

It wasn’t just Iraqis who were delighted. This was also the first time the prize went to a work that hopped the track of literary realism. Saadawi’s compelling novel tells the story of Hadi Al-Attag, “a rag-and-bone man” who haunts the streets of Baghdad, searching for fresh human body parts to stitch together a human corpse. Once completed, the patchwork Frankenstein, or “what’s-its-name”, stumbles off on a journey of revenge.

Science fiction, horror, thrillers, and other “genre” novels have been a tiny minority in Arabic literature, and have hardly been considered part of the serious canon. But on this year’s IPAF shortlist, there was not just Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, but also Ahmed Mourad’s popular psychological thriller, Blue Elephant.

Indeed, the 2014 shortlist included a wide range of books, from magical-realist prison literature (Youssef Fadel’s A Rare Blue Bird that Flies with Me), to historically minded travel literature (Abdelrahim Lahbibi’s The Journeys of Abdi), to a grim literary realism (Inaam Kachachi’s Tashari and Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives).

Thanks to Hal for the pointer!

English SF

Mohsin Hamid on Global Sci-Fi

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Clifford Harper illustration of man with mineral water bottle

Mohsin Hamid

(Image Source: The Guardian)

Priyanka Joseph interviews Mohsin Hamid over at Cafe America in MFA and the subject of Science Fiction comes up and Hamid makes an excellent point about representation in Science Fiction:

CA: So about future themes you want to explore: I was really excited when I read the science-fiction piece you wrote for the Financial Times. Have you always been a reader of science fiction? Where did the piece come from creatively?

MH: When I was younger I was a reader of sci-fi, then in the middle for a good twenty years there was a time I didn’t read sci-fi at all, till about three years ago. But I’ve always liked watching sci-fi. I’m a big fan in that sense. The problem I’ve had with reading sci-fi is that the prose is so often clumsy. Lately I’ve been reading more, and I think that it’s interesting because we have a lot of science-fiction today that is not fully sci-fi, you know, just a little off center, and I thought what about full-blown science-fiction with aliens and action? And I was drawn to it, because I can’t remember reading any South Asian, or African or Latin American science fiction. I’m sure it’s out there, but it’s not much. I mean, why are we abandoning our collective literary imagining of futuristic scenarios to people from just a handful of countries or identities? It seems like such an odd thing to have happened. So, I’m very interested in that— I don’t know if it will work, but I’m very interested in doing a sci-fi novel that isn’t understated at all about being set in the future.

Arabic SF

THE 99’s latest challenge: A Saudi Fatwa

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Here we go again. Sigh:

A version of this article was published in The National on Sunday, April 26 2014
THE 99’s latest challenge: A Saudi Fatwa


View in Arabic

Seven years ago, THE 99 were granted approvals to Saudi Arabia. What began as a suspicious relationship, my not expecting approvals to begin with, and their suspicion of the subversive nature of the content we were at loggerheads. It turned out that the solution was simple. I had to first get approvals from a religious authority for my superheroes to fly in the Kingdom.

I was specifically skeptical about getting approvals in the beginning because when THE 99 was an abstract idea, I was worried I would be limited by the imagination of the person I spoke to. But by 2006, THE 99 was no longer an abstraction. It was as real as the air I breathed and I could get an opinion regarding my creation, then in comic book form. The most practical solution was to seek a round of financing from a Saudi owned Islamic Investment Bank.

The bank, Unicorn, was intrigued but the process wasn’t easy. We were scrutinized as to what was Islamic (to them) and what wasn’t. They had an illustrious Sharia board. This was a stamp of legitimacy. Media plays that are Sharia approved are few and far between. The space is coveted. The game is all about mindshare. He who gets the most adherents to his philosophy wins. And there are lots of philosophies within Islam, it’s just that some are not as well funded as others. We had to sell an asset at a loss due to its’ non-Sharia compliance. The asset in question was Cracked Magazine, and only a moron would argue that Cracked had value to Islam (or any civilization that existed outside of a boys locker room for that matter). So it came to pass that we were put under the scrutiny of a Sharia microscope and remained compliant thereafter.

The journey with THE 99 has been long and arduous, but, ultimately fulfilling and certainly impactful. Today, 11 years after THE 99 were born, we have completed our mission and created an internationally recognized award winning concept with close to 50 comic books worth of content (including a series where they work with Batman and Superman) and 52 half hour episodes (the prize number all producers seek to get to) of an animated series. Season 1, the first 26 episodes, have been airing on television in excess of 70 countries from the US to China and most places in between for over two years. Not only did we become the first media property from our region to go global, we were basing it on values that Muslims share with the rest of humanity to boot and competing with the negativity that all too often is used to reflect our culture. We were giving children alternative role models whose values were universal in nature yet rooted in Islam. We were making a difference. And, finally, the global media was taking notice and reporting on the good within Islam.

So you can imagine my surprise to wake up to a Fatwa from the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia himself along with the rest of the Higher Council of Clerics calling my work evil. I couldn’t believe it. Why? And more specifically, why now? Why 6 years after THE 99 has been selling in Saudi Arabia with full support and approvals from the Saudi Ministry of Information and two years after THE 99 started airing in Saudi Arabia on television, and ironically months since the last episode aired. Why would the Grand Mufti ban a show that was no longer airing?

One of the lessons my mother taught me was that your enemy is never the person that talks about you behind your back. Your enemy is the person who brings you that information. Context is key. And the intent of the message bearer is tantamount to how the information is spun. In this case my enemy and the Grand Mufti’s enemy is one. It is the person that purposefully took misleading information to him for him to give a Fatwa based on. It might surprise you that I actually agree with the contents of the Fatwa. It is Islam 101.

The question asked of the Mufti was couched in negatives and misstatements perhaps purposefully and maliciously, perhaps out of ignorance. For example, it was alleged that I had created 99 characters all of who had one of Allah’s divine attributes to the extent that Allah had them and they were going to get together to become a deity and that this would confuse children and take them away from the unity of God. If I had done that, it would indeed be blasphemous. But there are less than 40 members of THE 99 and in the first interview I gave about THE 99 in the New York Times in 2006, I specifically said that it’s doubtful we’d get close to 99 as some of the attributes are simply not amenable. However, some of the attributes are human if not in their absolute form (like being generous or being strong). And some are human in abstraction. It was also said that MBC3 was still airing the show. This is an untruth as they stopped airing months ago due to the cyclical nature of programing. Lastly they said there was music. Of that I am guilty. I like music. A lot. So of the three parts in the question posed to the Grand Mufti the only truth was that there was music.

What is being attributed to THE 99, by the person who asked for the advice of the clerics, is simply untrue. All anyone would have to do is watch the show or read the comics to see that. But people have been judging books by their covers long before ink was created. It is truly disappointing that after years of hard work, THE 99 was judged as an abstraction, as an idea, rather that as a body of work that has made global impact. But I understand that that is the nature of the beast. When asking for a Fatwa, the seeker asks a question, and the clerics answer based on the wording of that question.

So now it is my turn to seek a Fatwa from the higher council of clerics. And here are my questions.

Your Eminences, what is your ruling on a concept that has created positive role models for children all over the world, using Islam as a base for its storytelling? What is your ruling on a concept that is based on values that are human manifestations of less than 40 of God’s 99 attributes like generosity, and mercy and others that human beings can have in lower doses and that good citizens of the world should aspire to? What is your ruling on an Islam inspired series that has gained favor in the living rooms of millions of children from China to the United States? What is your ruling on a series that has inspired major media companies to launch their own Muslim Superheroes, instead of the Muslim Super Villains that was so often the case before THE 99? What is your ruling on a series that has changed the face of how Islam is represented in global media by highlighting the tolerant, friendly sides of the faith and making (some) people more accepting of Islam?

Prophet Mohammed PBUH states in a hadith that all work is judged by its intent. My intent has been clear and consistent and public since I started. But there have always been those that have been suspicious of me. That is their right. Having a healthy dose of doubt is needed in life. But like everything else in life, moderation is important. To those that doubt the intent of THE 99 and choose to do so without watching the series or reading a comic book I leave with you with these words from the Holy Quran “Oh you who believe! Avoid most of suspicion, for surely suspicion in some cases is a sin.”

May God reward us all based upon our intentions.

Naif Al-Mutawa is a Kuwait-born, U.S. educated psychologist who created “THE 99,” a comic book about a group of superheroes based on Islamic archetypes.
Follow him on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Thanks to Amir T. and Jason P. for pointing out this link.



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If you in Detroit Michigan or are planning to visit in July and even if neither of these are the case you should consider visiting Detroit because DetCon1, which will be the North American Science Fiction Convention, is coming to town from July 17 to July 20. Our guests of honor are as follows: Steven Barnes, John Picacio, Bernadette Bosky, Arthur D. Hlavaty, and Kevin J. Marone, Helen Greiner, Bill and Brenda Sutton, Nnedi Okorafor, Jon Davis, Roger Sims and Fred Prophet. I am also part of the program committee of DefCon1 so please spread the word with friends and foe, protagonists and antagonists and hope to see you there. Here is the description off the convention from the website.

Detcon1 will be the North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC) in 2014, to be held in Detroit, MI July 17-20, 2014. The NASFiC is an all-inclusive science fiction and fantasy convention with extensive programming, many special events, and round-the-clock activities for all ages of fans and pros interested in the genre. 

DetCon1 website