The Middle East and North Africa region needs heroes

Sunday 01/10/2017

The Middle East is losing its youth but an old-fashioned comic book super­hero could soon save the day.
An Emirati recently said his country is “lacking in heroes.” Sheikh Zayed is considered the “hero of heroes,” this 38-year-old, Abu Dhabi-based, father of six said. In 2018, the United Arab Emirates will celebrate the Year of Zayed. It will be the 100th anniversary of the UAE found­ing father’s birth.
It has also been 13 years since the country’s first president died, which raises the ques­tion: Where are the region’s modern heroes to lead the youth of today?
The Middle East and North Africa region needs to get its young people believing in themselves before it’s too late. The moment to inspire this target audience is now.
A study conducted from 1990-2015 by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) said the number of suicides in Muslim countries has never been higher. The data indicated a 100% increase in suicides during the 25-year period, compared to a rise of 19% in the rest of the world.
“Intractable and endemic violence is creating a lost generation of children and young adults,” said lead author Ali Mokdad, director for Middle Eastern Initiatives at the IHME. “The future of the Middle East is grim unless we can find a way to bring stability to the region.”
In a November 2016 report, the United Nations said people aged 15-29 accounted for 30% of the population of MENA — about 105 million people — and that 60% of the population is younger than 30.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, UAE vice-president, prime minister and ruler of Dubai; and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al- Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, on August 12 sent a message to the Emirati youth to mark International Youth Day, telling them: “We want to tell you that you are the hope… you are the future.”
This youthful region is not just fighting to save itself; it must also change global perceptions. For good or for bad, MENA must care what people around the world think about it. Public relations is an important part of any success story and, if this region is to thrive, it needs home-grown heroes who are transferrable and recognisable to people outside the Middle East. A boy in California or a girl in London must see attractive qualities in these MENA heroes because this is what will help break down prejudicial stereotypes.
The West spread its brand of principles — at least in part — through its DC and Marvel comic book and film charac­ters. These figures have become a key part of the “truth, justice and the Ameri­can way” story.
This is the true potential of soft power: Create the story and own the narrative. Dis­seminate the message in a manner that is easily digestible and less-than obvious. Fans believe in the power of Super­man (altruism, independence, determination to stick to his principles) because his more obvious abilities (X-ray vision, flying, bending steel with his bare hands) are somehow more understandable and acceptable than his inner strength.
Certainly, heroes can be presidents but they can also be mothers and fathers, teachers and coaches. They can even be mythical figures, which are essential to attract today’s younger — and more media-exposed — generation.
In 2006, Naif al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti and licensed psycholo­gist in New York, launched the comic book THE 99 (with the approval of the Ministry of Information). The comic book includes superheroes with special powers — such as gener­osity and wisdom — based on the 99 attributes of Allah.
Now the MENA region may soon have a new hero for a new age.
Antar the Black Knight (also known as Antarah ibn Shaddad) is one of the great figures in ancient Arabic poetry, and American comic book publisher IDW Publishing is to introduce this regionally relevant hero in 2018. At Comic-Con International in San Diego this year, there was a panel discussion titled: “Antar: A Hero from the Middle East for the Modern Era.”
The Middle East needs more of these types of popular figures who can transcend nationalism and religion. After all, MENA is made up of more than a dozen countries as well as Muslims, Jews, Christians and Druze. The region needs not just politicians, sheikhs and spiritual leaders but heroes. The region, which is killing itself in record numbers, also needs men and women who can unite the youth and instil that greatest of heroic qualities: Hope.