In Jordan, The Comic Book Superheroes Fight Extremism

Jan 15, 2015
Originally published on January 26, 2015 7:11 pm

We've been hearing a lot about cartoons for all the wrong reasons recently: the horrifying attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the divisive images, the threat of extremism. But one man in Jordan has been using comic book superheroes to try to bridge the divide and curb extremism.

His name is Suleiman Bakhit, and at a bar in Jordan's capital, Amman, he cracks open his laptop to show off some heroes. The artwork is sophisticated, vivid and influenced by Japanese comics.

"This is Element Zero. It's the story of a Jordanian special forces operator," he says of one of his superheroes.

He scrolls down his computer and the story bursts off the screen — disguises, deception and victory against extremists.

Bakhit started these comics after he met some children in a conservative area of this mostly Muslim country. He asked them about their heroes. They said they didn't really have any, though they heard a lot about someone called Osama bin Laden.

"Talking to those kids, what it showed me is there's a huge appetite for positive role models, real heroes," he says.

One of Jordan's royal foundations and the education ministry paid for Bakhit to to produce the printed comics that are distributed to schools.

It's one way Jordan is trying to dispel radical views in a still-stable country which worries about extremism seeping in from its chaotic neighbors Iraq and Syria.

Other tactics include the minister for Muslim affairs asking imams to keep their sermons moderate.

Under King Abdullah II, and his father King Hussein before him, Jordan has managed to stay largely calm for decades despite the region's volatility. Still, some think that despite the carrots it's offering, the government is using too much stick.

Last year, an anti-terror law was broadened and people are now being jailed for "sowing discord" online. Marwan Shehadeh, a religious man who is also an academic and an author, says that when you imprison someone it makes them look heroic, and jail hardens people.

"You created an extreme person who will [seek] revenge in the future," he says.

Shedadeh estimates that extremists in Jordan have grown from hundreds to thousands in recent years.

A key moment came in September when Jordan joined the U.S. in the coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS. Radicals who admired ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi now also see him as standing up to the Americans. The radicals also despise Jordan for helping in airstrikes against someone they admire.

In fact, he's seen as a hero if he can "implement an Islamic State and defeat many enemies," Shedadeh says.

In Jordan, you often hear worries about the kingdom's role in the coalition fueling extremism.

Ruheil Gharaibeh, a moderate Islamist with the Muslim Brotherhood and a university professor, says he keeps an eye on what students are saying in what they put on social media.

"When I criticize radicalism and violence they don't like it," he says.

A survey by the University of Jordan last year found 10 percent of respondents consider ISIS a legitimate resistance organization.

For Bakhit, the comic book creator, this extremist undercurrent is very real. He has a scar across his face from an attack a few years back.

"I realized that their attack meant that I was doing the right thing. I kicked the hornet's nest," he says.

And like the cartoonists in France, he's still creating comics.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We have seen over the past week the power of cartoons. Well, some believe that power can be harnessed to help curb extremism. In the Middle East Kingdom of Jordan, the government enlisted a comic book creator to do this using anti-jihadi superheroes. NPR's Alice Fordham met up with him.

SULEIMAN BAKHIT: My name is Suleiman Bakhit. I'm a Jordanian social entrepreneur and a best-selling comic book creator.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Bakhit and I are in a bar in Jordan's capital, Amman.

Hey, cheers.

BAKHIT: Cheers.

FORDHAM: He cracks open his laptop to show me some heroes. The artwork is sophisticated, vivid, influenced by Japan. The subject matter...

BAKHIT: All right. So this is "Element Zero." It's the story of a Jordanian special forces operator. This is...

FORDHAM: Oh, wow.

BAKHIT: This is like one of the terrorists.

FORDHAM: He scrolls and the story bursts off the screen, disguises, depravity and victory against extremists. Bakhit started these comics after he met some children in the conservative area of this mostly Muslim country. He asked them about their heroes. They said they didn't really have any, though heard a lot about someone called Osama bin Laden.

BAKHIT: Talking to those kids, what it showed me is there's a huge appetite for positive role models, real heroes.

FORDHAM: He ended up funded by a royal foundation and the education ministry to produce the comics for schools. It's one way the state is trying to dispel radical views in a still stable country which worries about extremism, especially seeping in from its chaotic neighbors, Iraq and Syria. Other tactics include the minister for Muslim Affairs asking imams to keep sermons moderate. Some think despite the carrots, the government's using too much stick.

MARWAN SHEHADEH: Because they concentrate on security and military. They don't talk to these people.

FORDHAM: This is Marwan Shehadeh, a religious man himself, an academic and author. Last year, an anti-terror law was broadened. People are now being jailed for sowing discord online. When you imprison someone, he says, they look heroic. And jail hardens people.

SHEHADEH: You created an extreme person who will revenge in the future.

FORDHAM: Shehadeh reckons extremists here have grown from hundreds to thousands in recent years, and the turning point came when Jordan joined the U.S. in a coalition against ISIS in September. Radicals who admired ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi now also see him as standing up to the U.S. They despise Jordan for helping in airstrikes against someone they see as, well, kind of a hero.

SHEHADEH: It is a model of hero that he implemented Islamic state and he defeats many enemies.

FORDHAM: You often hear worries about Jordan's role in the coalition fueling extremism. Ruheil Gharaibi is a moderate Islamist with the Muslim Brotherhood and a university professor.

RUHEIL GHARAIBI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "I see the youth in classes," he says, "and their conversations in real life and social media. When I criticize radicalism and violence, they don't like it."

A survey by the University of Jordan last year found 10 percent of respondents consider ISIS a legitimate resistance organization. For the comic book creator Bakhit, this extremist undercurrent is very real. He has a scar across his face from an attack a few years back.

BAKHIT: I realized, actually, that their attack meant that I was doing the right thing, that I was, you know, kicking the hornets' nest, I guess.

FORDHAM: And like the cartoonists in France, he's still creating comics. Alice Fordham, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.