As provocative as Wonder Woman, but in an entirely different way, Batina the Hidden is a character in the hit comic book series “The 99” who is not only a Muslim girl from Yemen, but one whose outfit of choice when fighting evil is a burqa.
“Most articles about Islam these days involve terrorism, so that was my challenge: How do I redefine this? The media not only reflects reality but can help change the course of reality,” said Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of “The 99,” during a speech at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity last month. “The idea was to reposition Islam not only to the West, but to Muslims themselves as well.”
“The 99,” features Islam-inspired characters, based on the 99 attributes of Allah, who discover magic stones that unleash powers like superhuman strength, ability to read minds, and to teleport. And, in true super-hero style, they use these powers to fight bad guys.
In one typical episode, three of the characters, including a young boy just discovering his powers, work together to save one of the other characters from an evil dictator. “The bad guy is 500 years old and won’t let go of power – sound familiar?” quipped Dr Al-Mutawa. “At the end, the characters use social networking to get together, and to get him.”
The comic series, which began publication in 2007 by the Teshkeel Media Group in Kuwait, is the first of its kind from the Middle East geared toward an international audience.
The characters may have Muslim names, but they represent diverse backgrounds, such as Hadya the Guide from London, a human GPS navigator, and Bari the Healer from South Africa.
This year, the comic series secured distribution in its ninth language, French; a theme park has opened in Kuwait; and deals with DC Comics have been made for “The 99” to feature the likes of Superman, Batman and a fully clothed Wonder Woman. By early next year, an animated television series based on the comic strip will be broadcast in North America, the Middle East, North Africa, parts of Europe and Asia, and eventually Australia.
“When it hits TV, it will showcase one of the highest standards of animation,” Dr. Al-Mutawa, a New York-trained clinical psychologist and entrepreneur, said at the Cannes conference.
The idea of cultural crossover is one that Dr. Al-Mutawa has grown up with; as a child, his Arab Muslim conservative parents sent him to a culturally Jewish summer camp in New Hampshire by mistake in 1975. He did not realize this until later, yet continued to attend for a decade. His five boys currently spend their summers there.
After earning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Long Island University in New York and working with survivors of political torture at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, he went to business school and obtained an M.B.A. from Columbia University.
Eventually, he returned to Kuwait and flirted with a few business ventures before coming up with the idea to start a comic book with Islam-inspired superheroes. Within a few months, he raised $7 million from 54 investors in eight countries. Today, the project has secured more than $40 million in financing and is expanding into an animated series.
“His concept is potentially world changing,” said Elliot Polak, founder and creator of Textappeal, a British firm that provides cross-cultural marketing and advertising expertise for global companies. “Dr. Al-Mutawa is working on rebranding, not of a product or service, but the rebranding of Islam.”
His work is turning heads. At the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington in April, President Barack Obama singled out Dr. Al-Mutawa during a speech promoting interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural initiatives.
Still, the road to success has “not all been roses,” Dr. Al-Mutawa said at the Cannes conference. “There have been a million setbacks.”
He has had to defend his ideas against a potential ban in Saudi Arabia and a fatwa by scholars in Indonesia. Of the 50 female characters in the series, Batina the Hidden is only one of five characters who wears a head scarf.