PSFK chats with Dr.Naif Al-Mutawa on the successful promotion of multiculturalism and tolerance via pop culture.
There is no question that America is re-working its foreign policy and perspective on the Middle East in a big way. The US government is acting swiftly to build bridges with Islamic governments not only through policy, but through culture as well.
Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa is one such bridge. His work has been recognized for the immense vision it presents when it comes to framing Islam in a de-politicized manner. His animated franchise, The 99, has been making ripples around the world and is currently in talks with broadcasters to distribute the 2nd season. He is essentially helping restart the conversation on what Islam means, for both the East and West.
We interviewed him to get a better idea of his vision and primary motivations that drove him to develop The 99.
Tell us about your role and how you came to establish The 99 and Tashkeel Media Group.
I’m the founder and CEO of the company. I got the idea during the summer of 2003; I wrote the business plan and financials and conceptualized the first few stories when I was raising money for it. We secured $7 million dollars within the first year and $37 Million after three more rounds; a million came from my business school classmates and the rest came from banks and institutions in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. I began hiring a team and setting up a strategy of trying to figure things out. Since then, we have several hundred people working on the project, so my role is now about finding where we need to go next and getting it done. We’ve grown the management team and I remain the thinking behind the project, but no longer the storywriter.
What are the biggest problems your organization is solving for?
As a psychologist, my work has always been about people and perception. When a client goes in to see a psychologist, you work with how the person sees himself or herself, how they think others see them, and somewhere in the middle you do your work. I wasn’t happy with the way people were seeing Islam, but more importantly, I wasn’t happy with how Muslims were seeing Islam itself. Not how the West sees Islam, but how we see it.
I made a bet on the next generation. I basically went back to the same place where groups that are weaponizing my religion have tied their messages, and tied my own messages of tolerance and multiculturalism there as well. They, in turn, become bad guys with bad messages and I can de-link them from religion. This was my initial hypothesis. So I took off with that, but the product itself is just a good comic and TV series without any of that in there. This is because the ways we address issues of tolerance and intolerance are not about your religion or where you’re from. It’s more about what power you have; and is it important to solve the problem at hand. So we deal with it in a very neutral way.
What has surprised you most about the way that people have responded to your work?
The most surprising response was when President Obama talked about The 99. That was amazing for us.
I haven’t been surprised at the impassioned response we’ve gotten to what we’re doing. Everybody understands it in the way that they want to–this is normal. The trouble is that there are those who try to pigeon-hole us based on their prejudices. That’s happened to us in the Middle East and now it’s happening in America. And it’s the flock of people that teach us that they are better than everyone else. These people exist everywhere and what I’d like to say, half-jokingly, is that The 99’s superpower is exposing bigots. It’s actually very cliché for a concept promoting tolerance to get shot down by people that are prejudiced.
You launched a Facebook page for The 99 a little over a month ago and now have thousands of followers. You’re also active on Twitter. Tell us about your online community and what you’re looking to get out of social media.
We started promoting the Facebook Page at the end of November in 2011. In less than a month, we’re at 600,000. We didn’t launch it until recently because we didn’t want to launch without having anything to feed it. So now that the animation series has been sold all over the world and we have 4 years worth of comic book content, we felt it was the right time to launch a Facebook Page.
From the start, a lot of the attacks we’ve received have been through social media. And while it might’ve seemed that there was this huge opposition to us, it was far from accurate, as our growing community demonstrates. Another part of why we did this is because we need a base. People had heard of us, but no one knew how to interact with us. I did not allow for that to happen because I needed to be strong enough to weather any kind of confrontation. The truth is that we got picked on, and so we’re building our ranks through social media.
Thanks Dr. Al Mutawa!