In public, Islam always appears in flames. Sometimes it's on fire in the movies, sometimes it's on fire in the newspapers. The most recent example, of course, is on the cartoon South Park, where the Prophet Muhammad was depicted wearing a bear suit.
That gave a platform to a website called "Revolution Muslim" to direct a threat against the South Park writers. Which gave a platform for a couple of scary-looking guys with beards to go on TV and talk about how Muslims are required to terrorize people (how kind the media is to radical Muslims: so much free air time, and they don't have to pay a PR company). Which gave the industry of Islamophobia a platform to say, "See, didn't we tell you their religion makes them violent?" Which made Americans scared of Muslims, again.
It's a too-familiar story, so familiar, in fact, that it just about writes itself.
And that's the problem, actually. The arsonists want you to associate Islam with flames -- that's why they light it on fire whenever they send it out to the public. They are masters at manipulating media, from newspapers to videos to cartoons.
But there are other Muslims who are mastering media and who are telling different stories. Meet Dr. Naif al-Mutawa, founder of the Muslim cartoon series The 99. He is an Arab educated in America, a psychologist who went to business school, a Muslim aghast at how Islam is viewed as violent and hateful by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, a father of five boys, and one of the most impressive cultural entrepreneurs of our times.
Naif had just been accepted to Columbia Business School when 9/11 happened. There was the horror of the terror that had hit the land that had educated him. There was the double horror of the hijacking of his religion. And there was the triple horror that there was no alternative message about Islam even a fraction as powerful as the ugliness that Al Qaeda was offering.
The fact that even Muslims were starting to believe that Islam was ugly was brought home to Naif in a lecture that he gave to students in Kuwait. He handed out two stories of religious extremism from the New York Times, blanking out the names of the religions and the places. One was a story of a group of thugs who violently shut down Valentine's Day festivities, the other a story of a religious community oppressing its own women.
"Who did these ugly acts?" Naif asked. All of the students agreed the perpetrators must be Muslim. There was some disagreement over whether the acts took place in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.
The actual communities were a Hindu group in India and a Jewish group in New York, respectively. But Naif was astonished. So deep was the belief that Islam violently destroys fun and oppresses women in these young people's minds that when they saw such ugliness, the image of the perpetrator was Muslim.
Clearly, this was a job for Superman -- a Superman inspired by Islam. But that person didn't exist. Indeed, the whole universe of a contemporary, inspiring, heroic Islam didn't exist. The standard view is that Islam was heroic at the beginning, in the time of the Prophet, maybe extending a few centuries forward to Medieval Córdoba or Cairo or Baghdad. In Muslim communities around the world, 60-year-old men with long beards gear up to give lectures that drone on about how great Islam was long ago and how oppressed Muslims are now and how it is the fault of this people or that people. And in all of those Muslim communities, eight-year-olds and twelve-year-olds and eighteen-year-olds, who grow up in a world of iPhones and 3-D movies, dread those lectures.
Enter Naif al-Mutawa, who saw his kids bored by Muslim education lessons but attached to cartoons and comic books. How do you make the teachings of an ancient religion interesting to a twenty-first-century kid? How do you combat the ugly message of Al Qaeda and the Islamophobes? Why not make a comic book series of a group of superheroes inspired by Islam, write into it some age-old Islamic archetypes like the ninety-nine names/qualities of God (the merciful, the compassionate, the just, the creator), and give it a fully twenty-first-century form?
The product is beautiful and compelling. The storylines are nuanced, inspiring, and funny. The illustration is top-notch. The characters are genuinely diverse -- women and men, hijabis and non-hijabis, from all national and ethnic backgrounds. And The 99 is no small operation. It's already translated into eight languages, and Naif just signed a deal with a major American broadcaster to launch a televised animation series that "will set the global standard in animation," Naif says.
No wonder President Obama gave Naif a shout-out in his speech to the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship: "His comic books have captured the imagination of so many young people who embody the teachings and tolerance of Islam."
This is a story about cultural entrepreneurship. It's a story about changing the discourse. It's a story about reframing the Us and Them -- from America vs. Islam to Heroes We All Admire vs. Violence We All Deplore. But mostly this is a story about a man fighting for beauty against a world peddling ugliness.
Imagine being the father of five Arab Muslim boys. Imagine watching them observe how their religion is made ugly -- by Muslims and non-Muslims alike -- in every medium possible. You can't just hide the newspapers, you can't just turn off the evening news; the ugliness will find them. It will come in the cartoons, on the web, through conversations on the street. Soon, they will begin to believe that Islam is ugly. Maybe they will feel that if they want to be Muslim they must become ugly.
There is a line in the Muslim tradition: "God is beautiful and loves beauty." God made Islam inspiring. The Prophet Muhammad made Islam heroic. We Muslims are meant to live out that beauty and inspiration and heroism, to live up to the call that God gave to all humanity, to manifest those 99 qualities of Allah.
I have many reasons to thank Naif, as a religion writer looking for a good story, as an interfaith leader seeking to bring people together. But mostly I want to thank him as the Muslim father of two boys, living in a world that seems dedicated to making Islam ugly, desperately wanting his sons to see Islam in its original light of holiness, and inspiring them to be the heroes God meant them to be.