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By Jason Polen Islam Today 6/10/09
The new hit comic book called The Ninety-Nine is a top seller amongst Muslim children around the world. The title, sometimes written The 99, refers to the ninety-nine attributes of Allah. Throughout the plot there is a superhero for every attribute of Allah; some use their power for good and some for bad, much like some political leaders in Islamic countries. The western style comic book was created by Dr. Naif al-Mutawa of Kuwait. As a child, Dr. Mutawa was sent to summer camps in the United States, and eventually received a PhD in Clinical Psychology and an M.B.A from Columbia University. Dr. Mutawa says, “The biggest lesson from Spiderman is that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Is that a Judeo-Christian ethic or an Islamic one? Absolutely not, that is a universal message. And that’s what we are trying to achieve with the 99. We are dipping into our own culture and pulling out those messages for a global audience” 2. His Kuwaiti upbringing combined with a western education is enough to label him as having a hybrid identity, or someone with dominant influences from distinctly different cultures. The comic book’s blending of an inherently American genre of pop culture and the religion of Islam, which has sometimes been used as a tool to promote anti-Americanism by Islamic fundamentalists, also creates a hybrid identity that is highly controversial given the geopolitical situation between Islam and the U.S. I analyze Dr. Mutawa and his comic book’s hybrid identities from the perspective of postcolonial mimicry. V.S. Naipaul created the term “mimic men” in his 1967 novel called The Mimic Men, which set the course for a postcolonial theory that addresses the phenomenon that occurred in colonialism by which the colonized imitates the colonizer; this could include acting, dressing, thinking, pretending, or speaking. Mimicry, in and of itself, is really more of an observation made by Naipaul. Derek Walcott interprets Naipaul’s observation as,
“To mimic, one needs a mirror, and, if I understand Mr. Naipaul correctly, our pantomime is conducted before a projection of ourselves…No gesture, according to this philosophy, is authentic, every sentence is a quotation, every movement either ambitious or pathetic, and because it is mimicry, uncreative” 6. I focus specifically on mimicry as viewed by Walcott’s, “The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry”, and Homi Bhabha’s, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse”. I argue that, although Dr. Mutawa has not been literally colonized by a western force, his western influences from childhood and education make him a type of modern mimic man. Finally, I argue that the implications made by the use of his modern mimicry and the comic book’s hybrid identity are far from V.S. Naipaul’s depiction of mimic men as uncreative; in fact, they ultimately contribute to a much healthier relationship between Islam and the West. Dr. Mutawa is clearly using a very western canvas to apply his Islamic idea. In fact, most of the artists and writers are Americans. The comic book is also written first in English, and then translated to Arabic. All these western ideas, but with and Islamic twist, are exactly what Naipaul would call mimicry. From Naipaul’s perspective, being educated and spending time in the U.S. has caused Dr. Mutawa to look at himself from western standards. In PBS reporter Issac Solotaroff’s diary he says, “Naif proved to be a study in contradictions, an Arab who grew up going to a predominately Jewish summer camp in New Hampshire; a doctor of psychology who had worked in Bellevue Hospital’s Torture Unit, treating former Iraqi soldiers who had once invaded his native Kuwait; a Muslim who had never been particularly religious, but was creating a comic book based on teaching from the Koran” 5.
However, does he only see himself through western standards? If so, then he could not really have a hybrid identity, because, according to Naipaul, in the mind of a mimic man the “superior culture of the West” has won out over that of the East. The truth is Naipaul’s view of mimic men is not very accurate; Walcott and Bhabha’s view of mimicry paint a very different picture. Walcott criticizes Naipaul’s view of mimicry by using the analogy of the evolution of apes to men, “The absurdity of pursuing the anthropological idea of mimicry then, if we are to believe science, would lead us to the image of the first ape applauding the gestures of what we must call the fist man” 6. Walcott rightly states that mimicry underestimates mimic men by saying they have ‘monkey see, monkey do’ mentalities. In reality, there is no such moment where the ape suddenly realized he was only mimicking, and henceforth became man. Walcott’s analogy can be applied to The Ninety-Nine. Dr. Mutawa is not an Arab who just realized Western standards are “better.” He is using the traditionally Western idea of the comic book and giving it a Muslim identity. This is where Walcott makes the distinction, “Mimicry is an act of imagination and, in some animals and insects, endemic cunning” 5. The Ninety-Nine’s success is a testament to Mutawa’s creativity. The storyline uses Middle Eastern history and Islamic teachings throughout. All the characters have Muslim names, and many of the female characters are wearing hijab. The comic book is almost evenly split between male and female characters. The first character that is reveled is Nawaf, who embodies the attribute strength. He is almost exactly like the classic American character, the Hulk, except Middle-Eastern. Is this problematic? Does the character Nawaf take western values and try to implement them on Islamic culture? No, it is actually the opposite. His foundation for the comic is based on using the ninety-nine attributes of Allah, which have a universal message that cross-cut East-West boundaries. He is using a western means to promote and even integrate Islamic values. In The
New York Times article entitled, “Comics to Battle for Truth, Justice, and the Islamic Way,” it says, “They are like comics and western entertainment, and yet they are attached to their roots and intend to hold on to their customs” 2. Homi Bhabha’s view of mimicry, while in congruence with Walcott, takes a different approach. He sees the relationship between colonizer and mimic men to be ambivalent, in that the colonizer’s success is dependent on mimicry, while the mimic man can never achieve equality with the colonizer. Bhabha says the result is, “a subject that is almost the same, but not quite” 1. For Bhabha, the concept of mimicry is an artificial creation that discredits mimic men themselves. Mimic men are kept in the realm of the “other” by the colonizer so they cannot have a significant impact on society. This creates an identity crisis within the mimic man. Now the mimic man is dependent on his own colonization to for survival, “It is this area between mimicry and mockery, where the reforming, civilizing mission is threatened by the displacing gaze of its disciplinary double, and that my instances of colonial imitation come” 1. Is Dr. Mutawa caught in this colonially constructed limbo causing a disruption in his authority? I think to a certain extent he is; although his disruption of authority is only evident from the critics on the Muslim side, especially considering there is no criticism from the American side. Then on the other hand, why would there be criticism from the American side? Isn’t Mutawa Americanizing Muslims, just like Sepoys enforced British ideologies on Indians? This is the attitude that many Islamic fundamentalists are taking; in fact, the comic book has been banned in Saudi Arabia. While PBS correspondent, Isaac Solotaroff was at Kuwait University he talked to a Sharia student named Yusef who called The Ninety- Nine, “the greatest threat to Islam today” 5. The problem with this attitude is that is definitely doesn’t speak for all Muslims. It has sold tens of thousands of copies world wide is very popular in Indonesia, the largest Muslim population of
any country. All this confusion is what Bhabha is referring to when he says mimicry is ambivalent. He criticizes the way the concept of mimic men was constructed by Naipaul, and concludes, “the ambivalent colonial authority repeatedly turns from mimicry- a difference that is almost nothing, but not quite- to menace- a difference that is almost total, but not quite.” 1 In this case Islamic traditionalists have made it a point to deny anything Western, and a comic book is a clear representation of Western imperialism in their eyes. An important distinction to make in Dr. Mutawa’s case is that his mimicry doesn’t result from colonialization, but instead emerges as a product of globalization. Globalization is often called a new form of Americanization, where instead of imperialism via colonialism, imperialism is conducted through influence over popular cultural. Within this perspective, a mimic man would be any non-American who promotes American culture over that of their own. That is where I make the distinction between a mimic man and a modern mimic man, like Dr. Mutawa. Dr. Mutawa’s credibility is maintained, except by those Muslims who find his work to be in opposition with their ideological views of Islam. The Ninety-Nine’s characters, language, and plot prove to maintain the comic’s Islamic roots. The comic is riddled with references to Islamic history, culture, and religious beliefs. All the characters take on Islamic names, and come from mostly Islamic countries. The beginning of the book is set in 1258 AD in Baghdad’s greatest library Dar Al- Hikma, where the librarians who are seen as the keepers of knowledge are forced to condense all of the Muslim world’s knowledge into 99 stones to protect them from destruction by Genghis Khan. Then these stones, contain supernatural powers for their finders, are scattered around the globe. In one scene Nawaf’s strength is out of control and he is surrounded by men with guns yelling, “Surrender yourself now!” To which he responds, “I already have!” 3, an obvious reference to the first and most important pillar of Islam, which says one must surrender
themselves to Allah. In a PBS interview, Dr. Mutawa talks specifically about how he and his team were careful when depicting female characters. He made sure to not over sexualize them as many “western” comics do. There are a variety of different hijebs that fully represent the reality of the wide spectrum represented today. While the comic has taken all the right precautions to be accepted in Islamic culture, it can really only appeal to reformist minded Muslims. Dr. Mutawa’s comic book is an inherently reformist idea: it uses a piece of Western pop culture (the comic book), and utilizes it in a way that is beneficial to Muslim society, but without adding and “western influence”, therefore maintaining its Islamic identity. After all, he didn’t create the comic out of a desire to be like Americans; he created it in response to seeing trading cards that idolized suicide bombers being passed among children in the Middle East. He created it to give Islamic children new role models whom they could look up to. Whether Dr. Mutawa will be able to reach his goal of ending the idolization of Islamic martyrdom is a difficult question, but he is on his way to cresting a phenomenon in Islamic culture. “The Ninety-Nine Village,” a Disneyland like theme park, just opened in Jahra, Kuwait March 3rd. Dr. Mutawa’s ingenious idea is gaining popularity with or without the support of traditionalist outlooks that consider The Ninety-Nine another product of Western imperialism.
Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse”, October, Vol. 28, The MIT Press: (Spring, 1984), pp. 125-133. Fattah, Hassan. “Comics to Battle for Truth, Justice, and the Islamic Way”, The New York Times, January 22, 2006. al-Mutawa, Naif. “The 99: Origins” (Preview Edition), Teshkeel Media Group, 2008. Naipaul, V. S. "The Mimic Men". Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. Solotaroff, Isaac. “Reporter’s Diary: Isaac Solotaroff”, PBS Frontline World, Aired on June 26, 2007. Walcott, Derek. “The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry?” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs. Vol. 16 No. 1 (Feb., 1974): 3-13.
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