His weapons are pen and paper, and he risks his life by what he is doing: Suleiman Bakhit is a comic book creator from Jordan who has declared war on terrorist militias such as ISIS. He is not alone but supported by his own army of superheroes, including Element Zero, Princess Heart, and Hawker Hunter.
Through his empowering stories, Suleiman Bakhit wants to counter the myths and legends of violent extremists with something positive – and thus save especially children in the Arab world from heading towards radicalization.
A long scar runs across his face – the result of an attack which almost cost him an eye.
His courage and leadership in fighting for tolerance, justice, and peace comes at a prize. Suleiman Bakhit is not only verbally harrassed by Muslims who see him as a collaborator of the West. He is also targeted as an enemy by extremists who do not agree with his message. A long scar runs across his face – the result of an attack which almost cost him an eye and which makes him sometimes wear an eye patch. Add to this his impressive physique, his bald head, and his beard, and Suleiman Bakhit himself quickly becomes a “real-life action hero” – as the New York Times described him.
Bakhit accepts his injuries with dark humor. “My dating life has improved exponentially,” he says. What has definitely improved is that Jordanian school children now have access to role models other than the hate preachers of terrorism. So far, ISIS leaders and other extremists have defined the narrative, weaving their myths and legends and glorifying the terror against presumed infidels as a legitimate fight for a better world.
Berlin Global Forum
Comics against terror: Exclusively for the Berlin Global Forum, Suleiman Bakhit created a walk-in comic strip: The interior of a two-meter-high greenhouse was completely wallpapered with comics. The installation was part of an exhibition about the BMW Foundation Global Table series and symbolized the topic of radicalization.
This was also the experience Suleiman Bakhit made when talking to children in Jordan. “Who are your heroes?,” he asked the boys and girls. “We don’t have any heroes, but we hear a lot about Bin Laden, about Zarqawi,” said the children, referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, co-founder of the so-called Islamic State. Both men killed many people, both men are dead, but heroic stories about them live on.
“But what do you hear about these men?,” Suleiman Bakhit pressed on. — “That they defend us against the West, because the West is out there to kill us.”
"The biggest threat we face in the Middle East is terrorism disguised as heroism."
For Bakhit, this is the essence of the terrorist message – and he does not want to accept that it spreads further, by word of mouth or social media. “The biggest threat we face in the Middle East is terrorism disguised as heroism,” says Bakhit. “They preach terrorism as a heroic journey.”
The children’s answers gave him the idea to draw superhero comics in an Arab context. Bakhit taught himself to draw; stylistically, many of his comics resemble Japanese manga. With the growing success of his stories, he switched from drawing to producing and hired a team of comic artist that brings life to his characters.
Element Zero is a kind of Jack Bauer, the hero of the American TV series “24.” Hawker Hunter tells the story of a Jordanian fighter pilot. And of course, Suleiman Bakhit’s comic universe also includes female heroes, such as Princess Heart, a reinterpretation of the Arabian Nights.
Bakhit, the son of a former prime minister of Jordan, Marouf al-Bakhit, studied in the United States — the original home of superheroes such as Spiderman, Ironman, or Captain America. But his heroes rarely have superpowers; they rather deal with everyday problems. This way, young readers can relate to the stories. “The point of all of these stories is to infuse positive heroism into youth and empower them to be the heroes they want to be,” says the artist. “You can be a hero against poverty, or against violence. It’s the idea that, instead of dying for something, why not live for something?”
Bakhit presents his message in an entertaining way. And he does it so successfully that his comics have achieved a print run of 2 million and that his visually stunning stories about tolerance, hope, and gender equality have become part of the curriculum of 4,500 schools in Jordan – a country that borders directly on hot spots such as Syria and Iraq and that fights the extremism seeping in from across its borders.
Suleiman Bakhit will not run out of stories. For positive heroes are in greater demand than ever. Or as the artist himself puts it: “The time for heroes has been and will always be right now.”