At an Arab summit in Montreal, self-image and the challenges of projecting a positive face for Muslim identity took centre stage.
Muslim comic book is 'the antidote to bin Laden'
Speaking to a large crowd of Arab youths at an international development conference in Montreal, Canada, Dr Naif Al-Mutawa, the creator of The 99 cartoon, rushed enthusiastically through his ideas about the importance of self-image and the challenges facing Arab and Muslim identity.
"There are many levels of the story I am presenting," said Mutawa. "One of which is the entrepreneur who had an idea, raised money and set up this company and created almost a thousand jobs.
"That story, when people see it, they see that anything is possible," he added, referring to his project for which he has raised millions of dollars and found markets around the world, including major television networks in both the United States and the Middle East.
The Arab Development Summit - held as part of the Arab Development Initiative earlier this month - was organised by a group of 30 students from McGill university, one of the leading educational institutions in Canada.
It attracted more than 500 delegates in addition to entrepreneurs, speakers, partners and sponsors, including the World Bank, Harvard Arab Alumni Association and Etihad Airways. Speakers included the poet and political science professor Tamim Barghouti, the leading entrepreneur Dr Ahmad Ashkar, founder of the Hult Global Case Challenge, and Mariam Eskandari, an award-winning architect.
Mutawa reminded the audience of the importance of flexibility in Islamic teachings, citing a conversation with Talal Eid, a Harvard Islamic scholar, who told him that the necessities of modern life dictate certain religious adaptations. "Eid said to me: 'If you ask me if interest is haram, I would say yes. But without that loan I could not have bought a car to come here."
He said "many bad things are committed in the name of Islam these days", but added that it is very important not only to dissociate ourselves from that, but also not to be confused about who are the Muslims and what Islam is about".
One of the examples he gave was two incidents of banning contact between a boy and a girl. When a group of Arabs were presented with the stories and were asked 'where do they think they have happened?', they answered 'they must have been in Saudi'. The reality was that one of them took place in India and the other one in New York.
"There are extremists everywhere, but not all of them are Arabs," he said. "It is very dangerous if we start viewing ourselves the way others see us."
Mutawa, whose project The 99 has been described by Forbes as "The antidote to Bin Laden", said he hoped that his cartoon, which discusses common good issues, will help reposition Islam.
"What I am trying to do is to help position Islam. In my storylines there is no religion, but the mission is very clear," he said. "I believe there will always be extremists and some people will come back with bad messages. The cartoon is a mutual medium to talk about the issues. These archetypes happen to be Muslim, but the stories are just the same [as] you would see in a Hollywood production or a Batman series.
"I believe the youth in the stories are about working together, honesty, tolerance and respect for each other. And that is very important, especially that they are real characters that go through real problems." Showing an episode of The 99 that discusses a smuggling ring in Jordan, Mutawa said his characters were human.
"They make mistakes, they admit them and they discuss them. And this is a very important idea because in our culture no one wants to talk about mistakes.
"The message I send here is that the values of those Muslims are the same values of everybody else. So, it does not matter what religion you have because at the basic human level we are all the same," he said.
But The 99 is facing resistance in the United States and television networks that have purchased the series were rethinking their decision to air it, Mutawa said. "It took only five extremists in the US, accusing us of radicalising children, to make the TV networks fall into doubt.
"These are the same kind of extremists we have in the Middle East who would ban Mickey Mouse. The media has been extremely supportive in this case and such resistance will not weaken us." MBC and other television networks would be airing the cartoon series, he said.
Dana Shawish, one of the participants, praised Mutawa's speech and said he had succeeded in creating an image for young Arabs and Muslims who may feel "bombarded by the media and [that] their identity is challenged".
"Everyone is looking for an identity to be proud of," she said. "Self-image is the most important element in taking someone forward because if you have the right self-image you can take the potential very far. On the other hand, you may have an idea or potential, but with bad self-image you will go nowhere. I like the fact that in order to address self-image and other issues, he incorporated both western and eastern views and put them together and created something completely new."
The participants discussed six development subjects including health, economic development, education, law, society and culture, and science and technology, while workshops focused on a variety of issues ranging from the advantages and disadvantages of implementing Sharia to administrative corruption and the role of media in development.
Ahmad el Baghdadi, one of the conference organisers, said he hoped the outcome of the discussions would help provide practical solutions for youth in the Arab world.
"We are proud of what we have organised and very happy for the crowd that we have attracted," he said.
"There is a huge wave of change in the Arab region. We believe that we have a responsibility to help in the development efforts because we are in a good position; we have ties to the region and understand its challenges and at the same time we live in the West and have a different kind of experience that we can introduce to the Arab world."
One of the seminars that enjoyed strong attention at the conference was How your idea can change the world, by Dr Ashkar, founder of the Hult Global Case Challenge, a competition for business students to come up with ways to solve pressing global problems.
Ashkar encouraged participants to go beyond what they think they know and try to learn more, telling them that ideas develop over time and sometimes ideas need to connect with other ideas to reach a stage where they can unite and become world-changing ideas.
"A very interesting idea I heard today was about creating a railway system in the Arab region to facilitate trade and movement," he said. "I am really impressed."
Award-winning architect Maryam Eskandari, who spoke about "designing space for social change", described how inspiring it was to create a mosque in Sudan that later became a place of worship for people of all faiths.
Eskandari, who is of Iranian origin, said her Muslim clients who wanted to build the mosque discovered they lacked financing. But then members of the Christian community agreed to give them money for the project and the Muslims decided to share the prayer space with other religions to promote tolerance and peaceful coexistence in their own community.
Tarek Kanaan, one of the participants, said that such ideas and examples of economic and social development were exactly what Arab young people need to embrace.
"We know the challenges that are ahead of us and we know some of the solutions, but we needed to get together, discuss these issues and put them in an organised manner," he said. "We have spoken of economic change, civil society, minorities, pluralism, religious tolerance, self-image and political change among many other issues openly and frankly."
"I believe we have put our foot on the right track to help serious and constructive change in the Arab region."