Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Along the Heated Trail of the Man Who Created Muslim Superheroes

Published: October 12, 2011
New York Times (Copyright: All Rights Reserved)

Muslim children need new role models. That is the message at the heart of The 99, a comic book of superheroes who each exemplify one of the 99 qualities that Muslims believe Allah embodies, like generosity, strength and patience.

The man behind these figures is Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti psychologist whose quest to develop, publish and promote them is the subject of “Wham! Bam! Islam!,” the season premiere of PBS’s “Independent Lens” series. (Broadcast nationally on Thursday and in New York on Sunday, it was shown at the New York Film Festival this month.)

The impetus for the comic book came in part from a story Dr. Mutawa heard about a sticker book developed for children in the West Bank. It championed suicide bombers and martyrdom while depicting bloody scenes of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

“I wanted to reposition Islam for Muslims,” Dr. Mutawa said during a recent interview in New York. “My message was secular, not religious.”

But his efforts to turn The 99 — whose characters he likened to Superman and Batman, as opposed to those in “Veggie Tales,” the animated series with Christian themes, values and lessons — into reality met with mixed success. “Wham! Bam! Islam!” captures those highs and lows.

Whereas American heroes often wear skintight costumes, The 99 figures must be clad more modestly. Relying on the heroes, rather than God, proved a problem for some religious authorities, as were expressions of vengefulness, as when a villain cries, “I’ll tear you into pieces!”

Dr. Mutawa, who wrote The 99 with Fabian Nicieza, a comic book writer, embarked on a tour of the Middle East to raise awareness for the comic and the money to publish it. In the film, there is even a door-to-door effort to convince bookstores to carry it. It’s a tough sell.

“Giving Allah’s name to people is prohibited,” a merchant says. “Suggesting that humans have the power of Allah is wrong. What is the Islam in this?”

It’s a fine line. The characters are extolling the virtues of Allah yet not personifying him, Dr. Mutawa argues, but it’s a message he must repeat again and again. He recalls a meeting in Saudi Arabia with an official at the Ministry of Information who found the comic book subversive and banned it. Compounding Dr. Mutawa’s frustration was the suggestion that a bribe could grease the wheels. “He’s standing on a religious platform, but it’s hollow and full of cash,” he says in the film.

Directed by Isaac Solotaroff, the film includes animated images shown as pages of a comic book are flipped from one scene to another.

“I was intrigued by what seemed to be this crazy social experiment,” Mr. Solotaroff said. “I was becoming aware of the various fault lines that existed in the Middle East, between the fundamentalists who want to anchor society to a way of doing things that were done 1,400 years ago and people who were trying to secularize and modernize. As Naif and I joked, he was the canary in the coal mine.”

By some measures, the experiment was a success. DC Comics published a six-part story that teamed Superman and its other top heroes with The 99. Dr. Mutawa also signed deals for lunch boxes and other merchandise, as well as for a theme park in Kuwait. An animated series based on the comic, produced by Endemol, was a global affair: the scripts were written in Hollywood, while the series was put together in India and Britain. Last year the Hub channel announced it would broadcast the show, meaning it could potentially reach 60 million homes in the United States.

But that’s where the superheroes stumbled. In The New York Post, Andrea Peyser wrote that the series would “bring truth, justice and indoctrination to impressionable Western minds.” That kicked up a dust storm that resulted in the broadcast being indefinitely postponed.

The Hub controversy is noted in a postscript, but Mr. Solotaroff has received financing to revise the ending to include the clash.

“Naif has become much more public about the last six months,” he said. “The revised third act will be what happened to The 99 when it came to the United States.”

Dr. Mutawa said the adventures of The 99 will begin airing in Asia and other international markets next year. After his many run-ins with authorities and others, he says if he himself had a superpower, it would be “the ability to expose bigots.”

Why are Pakistan's 'moderate' clerics defending Salman Taseer's murderer?

As the furore over Mumtaz Qadri shows, liberal Pakistan and the west are wrong to support one brand of Islam over another

by Syed Hamad Ali (Copyright: All Rights Reserved)
Wednesday 12 October 2011 06.00 EDT

He was only 18 years old at the time he was hanged for blasphemy. The accusations against him included allegations that he had made statements that mocked the "holy scriptures" and all "revealed religion". He was also said to have described theology as "a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense".

The man in question wasn't another Pakistani being victimised by the country's infamous blasphemy laws. Thomas Aikenhead was a Scottish medical student living in Edinburgh who left his mark on history as the last person to be hanged in Britain for blasphemy, in 1697. In his indictment he was, in fact, accused of having "preferred Mahomet to the blessed Jesus". However, when he was taken to the gallows Aikenhead was said to have held a Bible in his hands and denied the claims made against him.

What is of interest about the incident is its timing: it took place at the dawn of the Scottish Enlightenment. In that respect, Aikenhead's punishment was telling of the urgent need for change in a society that had been mired in superstition and intolerance. Fast-forward to the modern age and parts of Pakistan find themselves living, some would say being dragged back, into the dark ages. Protests by religious fundamentalists have been taking place all over the country against the recent court decision to hang Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of the liberal Punjab governor Salman Taseer. Now there comes news a Pakistani court has suspended the death sentence, pending an appeal made by Qadri against his conviction.

While Pakistan may not be at the cusp of some kind of enlightenment, it is a society being overwhelmed by the changes brought by modernity. At the same time the country finds itself being pulled in the opposite direction by strong regressive forces.

The furore over the blasphemy laws is indicative of a larger failing to understand the underlying causes behind the fundamentalist problem. Some of the most vocal street protests by admirers of Qadri have been by a group called the Sunni Tehreek. This is an organisation with roots in the Barelvi school of Islam, which has widespread adherents in the country. The Barelvis have for years been touted in certain western and liberal Pakistani circles as the more moderate answer to Saudi-exported Wahhabi or Salafi versions of Islam. But what one finds is the various Barelvi, Wahhabi, Deobandi and Shia schools of thought actually united in critiquing Taseer over his stance on the blasphemy laws. In fact, the Barelvis perhaps came out more fiercely than others in condemning the death sentence to Qadri. This is due to their supposedly stronger attachment to the Prophet Muhammad.

Unfortunately, post-September 11 there has been a taboo in understanding the rise in influence of Wahhabi Islam among Muslims. To imagine Barelvis or "Sufis" as all being peace-loving mystics and "moderates" simply doesn't hold. Many people have been sucked into the more puritanical Wahhabi Islam as a reaction to superstitions they are led to believe have crept into Islam – such as offering prayers at tombs, celebrating the prophet's birthday, visits to pirs (faith healers) who exploit people's blind faith and other practices considered to be "shirk" or idolatry. Tragically, such literalist interpretation has also created an intolerant mentality, which has led to the shocking destruction of graves of many of the prophet's close companions and family members in Mecca by the Saudis – wiping out irretrievably sites of great historic significance to Islamic culture.

The various Barelvi clerics who are protesting against the death sentence for Taseer's killer are, paradoxically, also the ones to have issued condemnations of Islamist terrorists and Taliban. Their shrines have been attacked by suicide bombers and Pakistan has witnessed prominent Barelvi figures killed in recent times. But the problem is we now have a situation where clerics loosely allied with the west in the "war on terror" are defending a man who has committed open murder.

In June 2009, in an article in Foreign Policy magazine, the writer Ali Eteraz warned of the folly of Washington's policy of actively supporting one brand of Islam over another. "After years of bemoaning official Saudi sponsorship of Wahhabism, and condemning official Iranian sponsorship of milleniarian Islam, we are now being asked to celebrate a state-sponsored brand of Islam in Pakistan," he wrote. "We are asked to believe this is 'different' from those other cases solely because it's a version of the religion that looks benign. But not only is this unprincipled – it is going to backfire, leaving Sufism discredited and more religious resentment among the numerous peaceful Salafis in the world." His prediction appears to be coming true.

Using one religious faction to confront another can be a dangerous strategy. For one, it only gives an excuse for more sectarian conflict in a country already rife with enough violence. More significantly, there lies the danger of turning a blind eye to religious groups appearing to be "moderate" who, when the time is ripe, may start to assert their own agenda using street power.

Instead, the starting point to confront this menace should be to highlight the selective outrage of the fundamentalists, as the Pakistani actress Veena Malik did earlier this year. Appearing on a TV show, Malik had an all-out confrontation with a mullah who had critiqued her over her appearance in the Indian version of Big Brother. "If you want to do something for the glory of Islam," she retorted, "you have plenty of opportunities. What are the politicians doing? Bribery, robbery, theft and killing in the name of Islam. There are many things to talk about … There are Islamic clerics who rape the children they teach in their mosques and so much more."

Sadly there are yet to be massive street rallies over these issues.

Islam's war on the Cross: Egypt's move to democracy under threat after latest attack on Coptic community

Christians in Egypt are used to persecution, but this week's deadly attacks on a Copt demonstration threaten the country’s move from military rule to democracy.

By Con Coughlin in Telegraph News UK
9:17PM BST 11 Oct 2011
Published: (All Rights Reserved: Copyright)

In the 19 or so centuries since Christianity first took root in Egypt, the ritual of mourning has become an all-too-familiar experience for the majority of the country’s Coptic community. Egypt’s eight million Copts may claim to be their nation’s oldest surviving indigenous faith, but that has not spared them from prolonged periods of persecution, most recently at the hands of Islamist militants.

In many respects, the tone was set for nearly two millennia of oppression of the Copts, one of the world’s oldest Christian sects, by the martyrdom of St Mark the Evangelist, the disciple who established the Christian faith in Alexandria just a few years after the ascension of Christ.

The establishment of a new religion was bitterly resented by the city’s pagan population, who feared it would turn Alexandrians away from the worship of their traditional gods. They exacted their revenge on Easter Monday in 68 AD when Roman soldiers put a rope around St Mark’s neck and dragged him through the streets of Alexandria until he was dead.

These days the methods used to persecute Egypt’s Copts might not be so primitive, but their overall effect is no less barbaric. During the latest outbreak of Coptic-related violence in Cairo on Sunday night, several Copts are reported to have been crushed to death by the tracks of an armoured military vehicle that ploughed into a group of protesters as they sang hymns and held aloft the Cross.

The roots of the current wave of anti-Coptic violence are murky. At first it was assumed that Islamist militants, who have waged a vicious campaign of intimidation, sparked the unrest by burning down a church in the southern province of Aswan. This attack was the latest in a series of clashes between Muslims and Christians, which began when 21 worshippers were killed as they left mass at a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve.

Thousands of Copts descended on the state TV building in Cairo on Sunday to protest against what many Christians regard as the growing strength of ultra-conservative Islamists since the overthrow of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in February. But the uncompromising response of the Egyptian authorities, which resulted in government forces firing live rounds at stone-throwing protesters, has prompted accusations that the army, which has interim control of the country, is deliberately fostering sectarian hatred in order to disguise its own plans to maintain control of the country.

Following the high-profile protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square earlier this year – during which Muslim and Coptic protesters joined forces to demand the overthrow of President Mubarak – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed responsibility for creating a modern, pluralistic democratic state following decades of authoritarian rule.

But the delays that have hindered plans to hold fresh parliamentary and presidential elections – they are now due to start at the end of next month – have led many to conclude that the military, which effectively ran the country during the Mubarak era, has no real interest in establishing democratic institutions. And what better way to abort the transition from military to democratic rule than to instigate nationwide sectarian violence?

As one Coptic protester commented in Cairo yesterday: “This is not about Muslim-Christian hatred. It is about the army trying to start a civil conflict for its own reasons, and we all know what those reasons are.”

Certainly the vitriolic language used by state-controlled broadcasters during coverage of the protests undermined the interim government’s claim to represent the interests of all Egyptians, Christians and Muslims alike.Newsreaders appealed for “honest Egyptians” to protect their soldiers against Christian “mobs”, while the Copts were denounced as “sons of dogs”, despite the fact many moderate Muslims, who want Egypt to be free of sectarian divisions, supported the protesters.

But then Egypt’s Copts are used to state-sponsored persecution. Tens of thousands of Copts fled the country in the 1950s after Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalised Egypt’s private businesses, most of which were owned by Christians. Today it is estimated that two out of three Egyptians living in Britain are from Christian families. Egyptian communities in northern Europe, North America and Australia are also disproportionately Christian.

Nor is the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East confined to Egypt’s Copts. One of the more alarming trends of recent years has been the violent persecution of Christians throughout the region.

In Iraq, for example, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 was supposed to herald a new era of sectarian harmony. Instead a wave of al-Qaeda-related attacks has had a devastating impact on Iraq’s once-thriving Christian community, which numbered around 1.4 million 10 years ago, but has now declined to around 400,000.

As in Egypt, the exodus was hastened by a series of grotesque attacks on Iraqi churches, the worst of which was the suicide bomb attack on the Church of our Salvation in Baghdad at the end of last year, which killed 58 people. To mark their contempt for the Christian faith, the al-Qaeda bombers blew themselves up on the altar, together with a child hostage.

Not all the persecution of Christian minorities is as violent as that experienced in Iraq, but the refusal of even pro-Western countries such as Saudi Arabia to tolerate any expression of Christianity has forced believers to practise their faith in private. There are an estimated one million Catholics in Saudi Arabia, most of them guest-workers from the Philippines, but they risk immediate expulsion if they are found observing their religion.

In Iran, meanwhile, the persecution of Christians that began with the 1979 Islamic revolution resulted in a Christian pastor being sentenced to death in the provincial town of Rasht earlier this month for refusing to renounce his faith. The ayatollahs’ refusal to countenance any other faith has also resulted in an upsurge in the persecution of the country’s Baha’i sect, the world’s youngest monotheistic faith.

Much of the blame for the deterioration in relations between Islam and Christianity in the region can be laid at the door of the growing legions of Islamist militants who refuse to acknowledge the other main monotheistic faiths. They point to the comment made by the Prophet himself on his deathbed, when he instructed his followers that only one faith – Islam – could be tolerated in Arabia.

This interpretation is disputed by moderate Muslims – such as those who joined the Copts for Sunday night’s protest in Cairo – who argue that Islam is a tolerant faith, which allows for peaceful co-existence with other religions.

Unfortunately for Christians in the Middle East, this is increasingly the minority view among the region’s ruling elites, which are no longer prepared to recognise basic rights of their citizens, such as freedom of worship.

Arguably the most extreme example of this intolerance has been seen in Sudan, where decades of mistreatment of non-Muslims by the conservative Islamic government in Khartoum resulted earlier this year in the secession of the country’s Christian population to form South Sudan. The new state, which is the size of France but has just 38 miles of paved roads, is the world’s poorest, but simply to be free of the tyranny of their former Islamic rulers is reward enough for the new country’s four million Christian inhabitants.

The break-up of neighbouring Sudan will serve as a warning to the military authorities in Cairo, who should be mindful of St Mark’s remark that “Every affliction tests our will”. The current wave of persecution directed at Egypt’s Coptic community constitutes not only a major test of the interim government’s ability to maintain order, but also of its desire to establish a government that represents the interests of all Egyptians, irrespective of their creed.