Which Is Scarier: Terrorists or Superheroes?

If you've caught the news lately, you will have noticed a terrorist plot was recently exposed in Greater Cleveland. Most of the community that is giving these five misguided self-proclaimed anarchists a second thought is wondering what on earth was motivating them and whether we should be worried about more homegrown discontent. If you ask the pundits who spend full time hours worrying about terrorism, though, the big threat to Cleveland isn't bomb plots. It's superheroes.

The 99 are a multinational group of young crime fighters inspired by the 99 attributes of Allah (the merciful, the creator, the powerful, and so forth). There's a pretty good chance you've heard of them. Their creator, Dr. Naif al Mutawa, has spoken at TEDGlobal and gotten a shout out from President Obama; the comic book and animated series are now available in a whole lot of non-U.S. countries.

Mutawa came to Cleveland as part of a speaker series organized by the Northeast Ohio Consortium for Middle East Studies, an effort that began in 2010 with a collection of like-minded university professors to bring scholarship about the Muslim world and the Middle East into the community. They partnered with a handful of community groups, including a Cleveland's hundred-year-old free speech forum, the public library system, and the local branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, among other groups (including The Civic Commons, where I work). Mutawa is the fifth speaker to come to Northeast Ohio in the series.

Previous speakers had very provocative messages. Rutgers historian Toby Jones made the case that current U.S. foreign policy tacitly endorses Saudi suppression of the Bahraini uprisings. Princeton University political scientist Amaney Jamal told an audience at Cleveland's largest mosque that the Obama presidency has actually made anti-Muslim sentiment a socially acceptable form of prejudice.

But nothing gets people exercised quite like the successful appropriation of something perceived as an American art form -- in this case superhero comic books. First, The 99 came to the attention of anti-Islam crusader Daniel Pipes, which led to a piece of fear-mongering sponsored by the Pipes-led organization Campus Watch. If you're wondering what the upshot of this looks like, here it is, excerpted from an email which graced just about every inbox at The City Club of Cleveland:

It is abhorrent, disgusting, reprehensible, and outrageous that the City Club of Cleveland will host an evil Arab-American terrorist, Naif Al-Mutawa, and his affiliate terrorists from CAIR-Ohio, who promote the interests of Hezbollah, Palestinian Jihad, and Hamas.

The anti-Israel political agenda of Naif-al-Mutawa and CAIR-Ohio promote genocide and terror. This political agenda is incompatible with democracy, human rights and the rule of law that Americans cherish...

Hosting an Arab-American terrorist at the City Club is a sordid insult to all who value justice and truth.

I beseech you to repudiate Naif al-Mutawa, CAIR-Ohio, and to denounce their hate-filled, anti-Israel advocacy of terror and genocide.

So, while The 99 join forces with the Justice League to fight crime and bad guys, Mutawa and Teshkeel Media Group fight intolerance. It's kind of crazy. You'd think that after we all got over the absurd controversy over All American Muslim, we'd be ready for an earnest attempt to engage and build greater cross cultural appreciation. But no, not yet.

To be clear, Mutawa is a clinical psychologist and writer. He created The 99 specifically to combat terrorist propaganda that was targeting young people in Arab nations. He's not a terrorist. He happens to love America, a condition associated with people who come to the U.S. for summer camp and keep coming back for college and then graduate school.

The superheroes in The 99 are kids, for the most part, who shun weapons and even cringe at the use of a tranquilizer gun. No one prays or even talks about religion (they mirror their creator in this respect). They talk about working together, about not being self-centered, not acting out of hate. They talk about the importance of being a force for good in the world. And Mutawa has explicitly stated that to the extent he is trying to win a war for hearts and minds, his opposition are the forces of Muslim extremist jihad, not Western values.

So, while purveyors of fear will continue to create bogeymen out of playthings, a few professors in Ohio will continue to fight for truth, dialogue and religious tolerance, which is the American way, right?