In light of increasingly successful terrorist recruitment tactics which are now drawing disaffected young people from around the world to join ISIL in the Middle East, one Jordanian man firmly believes that the solution may lie in comic books. For the past eight years, Suleiman Bakhit has dedicated his career to creating new Arab heroes in comics and video games which present positive role models for children who might otherwise idolize terrorist leaders.
On September 11, 2001, Bakhit was a graduate student in human resources management at the University of Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, he was severely beaten in a racist attack by four fellow students. As president of the university’s international student union, he began speaking at area schools to dispel stereotypes about Islam and Arabs.
It was at one of those school talks, he told the New York Times last week, that he had “an epiphany” when a student asked if there were any Arab superheroes. Realizing the answer was no, Bakhit decided to create some. He didn’t go about it haphazardly, either; after learning to draw, he studied up on ancient texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls for inspiration and conducted focus groups with children from different social strata in Jordan. He already knew that terrorist groups were co-opting the concept of the “hero’s journey” to inspire new followers, but his interviews with children confirmed it:
I went there and asked the kids, ‘Who are your heroes?’ he said. ‘We don’t have any heroes, but we hear a lot about Bin Laden, about Zarqawi,’ he said they told him, referring to the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led the group that evolved into the Islamic State. I’m like, ‘What do you hear about them?’ The children replied, ‘That they defend us against the West because the West is out there to kill us.’ And this is the terrorist narrative and Propaganda 101.
In 2006 Bakhit launched his comic and video game company Aranim, an amalgam of the words “Arab” and “anime.” He found success with comic series like Section 9, about an all-female military counterterrorism unit. Initially the Jordanian government welcomed his efforts–it probably didn’t hurt that his father Marouk al-Bakhit has twice served as prime minister–and distributed the comics in schools. But when the sci-fi comic Saladin 2100, a collaboration with British writer Tony Lee, depicted a future Jordan in which the Hashemite family no longer ruled, the government’s reception suddenly turned chilly. Prior to that Bakhit, like The 99 creator Naif al-Mutawa, was already a target of extremists; shortly after the founding of Aranim, he gained an impressive facial scar from a razor blade attack outside the company’s offices.
Bakhit tells the New York Times that the government has now come around somewhat, but unfortunately the thaw came too late. Feeling pressure from all sides, Bakhit was forced to dissolve Aranim. He is now in the process of launching another media company, Hero Factor, which may end up domiciled in the British Virgin Islands to avoid any future troubles with the Jordanian government.
Despite his struggles, Bakhit remains convinced that Arab-backed and produced comics, games, and animation could be effective tools against extremist ideologies such as those peddled by ISIL. Fighting violence with violence only creates more terrorists, he says, but comics can offer positive role models “for a fraction of the cost of a drone strike.”
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.