Make Laughs Not War: The Comedy Groups Fighting Islamic State with Humour
In a video that has garnered nearly ten million views on YouTube, a musical promotion for an Iraqi television series that parodies the Islamic State (IS) shows the militant group springing forth from a wedding between Satan and an Israeli bride, with a whisky-swilling American cowboy in attendance.
The series, Dawlat al-Khurafa (‘state of myths’), which cost $600,000 to produce and aired on the state-funded al-Iraqiya channel, is one of the many spoofs of IS that have come out of the Arab world in recent years. This particular trailer referenced a widely held conspiracy theory in the Middle East that the United States, Israel and Qatar were behind the creation of IS, although the show’s creators later backed off from that premise in the wake of a US-led bombing campaign against the group.
Some of the comedy pieces are slickly produced by major television networks, others made by activists with a small budget. They often paint the IS militants and leaders as hypocrites or bumbling idiots or both, and many portray the group as being friendly with Israel (Israel has produced its own pieces mocking IS).
A sketch from the Lebanese comedy show Bas Mat Watan (a play on the Arabic words meaning either ‘smiles of the homeland’ or ‘when the homeland died’) shows a Christian couple who are stopped at an IS checkpoint escaping unharmed after the husband recites a Bible passage and tricks the jihadists into thinking it came from the Koran. When his wife asks how he knew the trick would work, the man responds that anyone who commits the kind of acts carried out by IS must not know much about the Koran.
Similarly, a popular episode of the Palestinian comedy Watan a Watar (‘country on a thread’), also set at a checkpoint, shows militants executing Muslims for minor infractions, arguing over which of them will kill a Christian until he dies of a heart attack, then cheerfully welcoming an English-speaking Israeli Jew.
And a sketch by a group of Syrian video activists living in Turkey shows IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, sending selfies to a girl on WhatsApp and listening to pop music, before sending an eager Moroccan recruit off on a suicide mission against a Free Syrian Army unit by telling him the rebel soldiers are actually Israelis. The activists risked their lives to produce the sketch and had to move after receiving death threats from IS supporters in Turkey.
One member of the comedy troupe, a former supporter of another Islamist group in Syria, told al-Jazeera that many of his friends had joined IS and he saw the satires as a way of convincing them to reconsider their involvement. “They can be saved,” he said. “We have to give [them] time to make a choice, to understand. We have to listen to each other, we need books, we need television, we need to joke.”
Saudi comedian Nasser al-Qasabi also received death threats for his 2015 anti-IS comedy series Selfie, which aired during Ramadan and garnered top ratings. He told al-Arabiya news channel that he is not deterred by the threats. “God is my protector. I’m an artist, and the artist’s essential role is to reveal society’s challenges even if he pays a price,” he told the channel. “Warning the people about [IS] is the true jihad, because we’re fighting them with art, not war.”
Many of the comedians producing anti-IS comedy say they have a political mission to combat the group’s message by pointing out the inconsistencies in its ideology and making adherents look ridiculous.
Some outside the Middle East have also advocated this approach. At a congressional hearing last year in the United States, Bono, lead singer of the rock group U2, suggested that America should send comedians to fight IS. “The first people that Adolf Hitler threw out of Germany were the Dadaists and surrealists,” he said. “It’s like, you speak violence, you speak their language. But you laugh at them when they are goose-stepping down the street and it takes away their power. So I am suggesting that the Senate send in Amy Schumer and Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen, thank you.”
Certainly some of the comedy pieces poking fun at IS have found commercial success in the Middle East, but it is unclear what impact they are having on the group’s recruitment efforts. There has been limited research on the effects of media counter-messaging in preventing people from joining extremist groups.
A recent study by the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research in Bath, UK found that ‘the theory that the messages, myths, promises, objectives, glamour and other enticements propagated via [violent extremist] narratives can be replaced with, or dismantled by, an alternative set of communications is an assumption that remains unproved … Moreover, publicly available evidence, beyond isolated case studies, is at present unable to sufficiently demonstrate if and how counter-narratives are having a positive impact on their desired audiences.’
But the study also noted that there had been evidence of television shows helping to foster social change. In one example, a soap opera created in 1995 by the international development charity Search for Common Ground about neighbouring Hutu and Tutsi families was rated by 82 per cent of respondents surveyed as having helped the reconciliation process after the genocidal violence in Rwanda.
Daniel Aldrich, a professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston, US who evaluated a USAID project aimed at preventing violent extremism in Mali via radio programming, said he was not aware of any empirical research into the effectiveness of comedy in combatting extremist messaging. However, he said he thought the approach could be successful.
“I could see value in comedy because it would take an otherwise terrifying, directed message of hate and violence and invert it to become one that is mocked and derided,” he said. “Humour has a particular power to undermine ideologies like fascism and hate, as we saw with very popular cultural works such as Charlie Chaplin’s attack on Adolph Hitler in The Dictator. Literature, plays and humour are all effective ways to counter messages; we just need more research on them.”