Extremist groups package terrorism as heroism, but Suleiman Bakhit wants to counter that by giving young Arab Muslims an entirely different set of heroes.
Suleiman Bakhit knows more about the violence born of religious insecurity than most. The right side of the Jordanian comic book artist's face is marked from temple to cheek with an impressive scar, from where he was slashed with a razor in an extremist attack in 2008. "It's improved my dating life exponentially," he quips.
Suleiman was attacked for producing comics. But these weren't the willfully blasphemous provocations of Charlie Hebdo or Lars Vilks; the social entrepreneur's ongoing mission is to counter the attraction of Jihadi groups by presenting Arab and Muslim kids with alternative, positive models of heroism: superheroes instead of jihadis.
I caught up with Suleiman over Skype from Washington, DC, where he was speaking at the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism. "I feel I challenge some existing assumptions around extremism. A lot of people have done work on issues like poverty and unemployment, but in fact much of the most recent data indicates that sympathy for extremist groups actually goes up with the level of education and the level of employment, not the other way around," he told me. "Groups like al Qaeda, al Nusra, and ISIS may target young, naive boys from poor villages to become suicide bombers, but the leadership is always middle class and above."
For Suleiman, the urge to join groups like the Islamic State seems to spring from issues of psychology rather than economy, or even of theology.
"Many people joining these groups aren't even very religious," he said. "MI5 released a report that some British men on their way to Syria or Iraq bought the book Islam for Dummies—that's a real case. This is much more about a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, and a call to adventure... It's about narratives."
This analysis seems to chime with the attraction of other extremist gangs, both religious and secular, throughout history. The jihadi groups flatten and weave all the complexities of Islamic and Arab history into an elaborate, seductive, and high-octane mythology of self-definition. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is essentially the Rocky IV of Islamic extremism.
Suleiman's own story begins when he was studying at the University of Minnesota. Shortly after 9/11 he was attacked and beaten by four guys for no other reason than his being an Arab. "I did briefly think about hating all white people forever, but that wasn't really me," he said, smiling.
"I realized the problem was that the only story these guys knew about me, or about any Arab, was 'terrorism.' So I started doing talks and workshops in schools around the area, just thinking that if I could give these kids a positive experience and insight into where I come from we could all begin to change things."
In the talks he's done for TED and the Oslo Freedom Forum, Suleiman describes his "lightbulb moment" as when a six-year-old girl put up her hand and asked if there was an Arab Barbie. Suddenly the room was buzzing. Was there an Arab Batman? An Arab Superman?
The thoughts inspired in that classroom eventually led Suleiman to quit school and move back to Amman, pursuing the seeds of an idea. His initial research was immensely dispiriting.
"Going into schools in Jordan, I would ask kids who their heroes were, and they'd just give me blank looks," he told me. "Then, if I pushed, they'd say they had heard that Bin Laden and [militant Jordanian Islamist] Zarqawi were protecting the Arabs against the West, who were invading our lands. So these were the only heroes they really had. I realized that groups like ISIS and al Qaeda not only operate in a political vacuum, but also a narrative vacuum. One of the most serious problems in the Middle East today is that terrorism is packaged as heroism. That's what young boys grow up thinking it means to be a man."
Suleiman set about countering this toxic dynamic by developing a series of comic books, founding his own company—the Aranim Media Factory—with an initial grant from the King Abdullah II Fund for Development. The idea was to "inoculate" young Jordanians from extremist ideologies by giving them an entirely new and different set of heroes.
Some of Aranim's biggest hits were Element Zero, a kind of Arab Jack Bauer or James Bond character; Princess Heart, a modern retelling of the 1,001 Nights; and Mansaf and Uzi, a comedy riff on Popeye based on Jordan's national dish.
Two stories that Aranim had in advanced development, but were never published due to funding issues and what Suleiman describes as "cultural blocks," were Saladin 2100, a post-apocalyptic eco-warrior drama, and another based on the exploits of a real-life, all-female elite counterterrorism unit in the Jordanian military.
All in all, the Aranim comics sold over 1.2 million copies. This is impressive in a country of 6.5 million people, but becomes even more striking when—as Suleiman noted—you realize "studies show that any pamphlet or paper you release in Jordan gets passed around and read by at least three people. Aranim's work really showed what an absolute hunger there is among young people in the Arab world for another set of narratives. We saw huge changes in attitudes in just a couple of years."
Eventually Aranim shut down due to lack of funding, but Suleiman is currently setting up his new project, Hero Factor, which—if anything—is even more ambitious in scope.
Hero Factor will partly aim at creating cross-platform content, including comics but also films, TV, and apps, becoming, in Suleiman's words, "an Arab Disney, offering new narratives to Muslim kids: narratives of resilience, heroism, and service to others." But there is also a deeper, research-driven aim behind the new venture. "We are trying to learn about what people think and feel, to model what it means to be a hero, how the classic hero story fits into the modern Middle East," said Suleiman.
The importance of storytelling—and the idea of "the hero"—is profoundly important to Suleiman. His conversation was shot through with references to the myth-analysis and archetypes of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and Otto Rank.
"The most important story humans have is the classic hero's journey. Right now, all governments are saying to kids is, 'Don't be a terrorist.' The extremists are saying, 'Be a hero.' It's obvious which narrative is stronger. But all the extremists offer is what I call 'shadow heroism,' in the Jungian sense. We need to claim that narrative space back. Even people like Abu Qatada have said publicly that they will probably lose the war on the ground. Osama Bin Laden often referred to a 100-year war. This is a war of narratives, and to win we must present another mythology to displace that of the extremists. Because, right now, that toxic story is the only one Arab and Muslim kids are hearing."
Despite the hurdles, Suleiman is optimistic. "Approximately 50 percent of the Middle East is under 15; 62 percent of Muslims are under 30. With such a young population we can actually effect serious change within three to five years," he told me. "It just won't be governments that do it; governments aren't good at communicating. But they can enable us—civil society and social entrepreneurs who can really make a difference. And we're ready. I can make a long-lasting positive impact for less than the cost of a single drone."
"Yeah," I laughed, "what you need is a comic-industrial complex." Without missing a beat, Suleiman immediately fired back: "Well, what we really need is a hero-industrial complex."
And that makes me stop and think. In a world where politicians seem to range from the terminally bland to the terminally awful, the thought of a hero-industrial complex based on Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung is probably the most exciting political idea I've heard in years. Imagine it: teams of CIA goons in dark suits and sunglasses recruiting geeky artist fan-boys at Comic Cons across the world. It's almost like the setup for a classic screwball adventure-story comic book.