President Obama did not go to Saudi Arabia this Friday to talk about comic books, but he should, because a new fatwa against them—specifically those showing right-thinking Muslim superheroes—underscores just how hard it is to sustain a positive relationship with Riyadh.
Obama himself once singled out the remarkable comic book series in question, called The 99, for special praise. The superheroes have the attributes associated with the 99 names of Allah—words like “strength” and “light” and “wisdom”—and these characters team up to fight evil. Kuwaiti psychologist Naif al-Mutawa created them after the 9/11 attacks because he wanted Muslim children, including his own, to have Muslim heroes who were not suicide bombers and jihadists. Since then the comics have been the subject of a PBS documentary, and they’ve inspired the creation of Muslim heroes in mainstream American comics.
“His comic books have captured the imaginations of so many young people with superheroes who embody the teachings and tolerance of Islam,” Obama told a group of young entrepreneurs in 2010. Obama alluded to his own 2009 speech in Cairo reaching out to the Muslim world to build a better future for all. After that, said the president, al-Mutawa “had a similar idea, so in his comic books Superman and Batman reach out to their Muslim counterparts,” the president said as the audience laughed warmly, “and I hear they are making progress, too.”
But now it appears that that sort of progress, those sorts of liberal forward-looking ideas, are being suppressed once again in Saudi Arabia, where the grand mufti and his council recently issued a fatwa calling the comics and the television show based on them “evil work that needs to be shunned.”
Al-Mutawa summed up his own frustration—and very possibly Obama’s as well—in a phone call with The Daily Beast this morning. “We put Saudi super heroes on global television,” he said. “We are saying, ‘We are the good guys, not the bad guys,’ and these people are saying, ‘No, you are wrong, we actually are the bad guys. Stop spreading lies, Naif!’”
The timing of the fatwa is interesting. The TV show about The 99 is not even airing at the moment, having finished its season. The fatwa was issued this week, just as the Saudi government was coming under sharp criticism for its failure to expunge what amounts to hate-speech and anti-Semitism from Saudi textbooks.
Of course, Saudi religious leaders have always lived, to some extent, in a medieval world of their own. In 2000, the then-grand mufti insisted the earth was flat and disk-shaped and the sun revolved around it. He insisted that satellite images that showed the contrary were part of a Western conspiracy against Islam. Since then another, lesser Saudi cleric claimed that Mickey Mouse was “one of Satan’s soldiers.” These and other silly rulings opened Saudi Arabia up to such ridicule that in 2010 King Abdullah issued his own edict restricting the issuing of fatwas to those clerics approved of by the monarch.
Unfortunately, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh and his colleagues who issued the fatwa against The 99 fit that description.
In recent years there have been many issues driving a wedge between Riyadh and Washington. The United States, rapidly becoming the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas, no longer depends on Saudi supplies of energy the way it once did. The Saudis, disillusioned by the Obama administration’s failure to use its military might against the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, and worried about American rapprochement with Iran, feel the defense guarantees they long enjoyed from Washington no longer are reliable. The counter-terrorism dossier is enormously complicated, since Saudi citizens, at least, support many of the world’s jihadist movements, while the Saudi government claims to be doing all it can to fight them.
So a ban on comic books and a TV show for Muslim kids would seem a pretty trivial issue. But if Saudi Arabia’s turn away from Washington and the West means that the mindset of the muftis will once again be ascendant, then efforts to build a strong and healthy alliance are likely to go nowhere.