Nahrain Al-Mousawi is a writer and academic based in Rabat, Morocco.
In the wake of the deadly attacks on the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, some are portraying the current showdown as one between Western free speech versus an angry and intolerant Islamic world. In fact, it is the Islamic countries of the Middle East that have led the way in attacking the extremists of groups such as Islamic State using the instruments of satire. The use of mockery and caricature as a way of mocking Islamic extremism is, in fact, in some ways far more pronounced in the Middle Eastern media than it is in Europe.
Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) has slaughtered hundreds of Iraqi civilians and soldiers, raped and enslaved hundreds of women, held public crucifixions and stonings in Syria, and staged the executions of U.S. journalists and British aid workers. The group is revolting, abhorrent, and terrifying. But the region on which Islamic State has unleashed its sadistic campaign has responded producing a surprising volume of satire.
On Iraqi state TV, a satirical soap opera dedicated to mocking Islamic State, State of Myth, depicts the gruesome yet absurd "contributions" ISIS fighters and ideology unleash on a fictional town in Iraq, such as a green-energy car-bombing factory– cost-effective, reasonably priced, environment-friendly, and export-ready! All this information is provided by an IS engineer in a TV interview, where the female news announcer has resorted to wearing a sheet while asking questions.
While some claim humor is a way of taking back power – the power to name, to shame – on an uneven playing field, the show appears to be making fun of not only IS's crude, fumbling, and sadistic methods to gain power, but also the strategic powerlessness of Iraqis trying to play along with, manipulate, and knowingly skirt the cruelty of that blundering power.
On another episode, the host of an Iraqi game show titled "Who Wants To Butcher a Million" asks an IS jihadi contestant what country will be the site of all this destruction and placatingly provides random, unrelated words in rhyme: "Daesh [Islamic State's name for itself], Baesh, Maesh, Jaesh. The show offers not just an ironic treatment of IS, and thus the subversion of its authority; it also communicates to other Iraqis the recurring predicament in which they are yet again facing another form of tyranny (Saddam, foreign occupation, IS) and attempting to thwart its weightiness with humor.
Less astute in social criticism, but still aimed at the absurdity of ISIS fighters, is a musical parody video broadcast in October by Iraqi Kurdish KurdSat TV, featuring a group of goofy bearded men jerkily playing air guitar on rifles, pretending to sword-fight and fumbling with skulls, while belting out lyrics like: "We are ISIS. We are ISIS. / We milk the goat even if it is male. / Our music is without rhythm. And our leader is called Qaqa. / Our pockets are full of Qatari money. Our language is bullets and cutting."
TV shows across the Middle East have dedicated a sketch or two to the group's hypocrisies in adopting modern methods, such as Twitter and Facebook campaigns, to demand the return of medieval Islam. The popular Lebanese show Ktir Salbe showed a skit where a taxi driver picks up an Islamic State fighter who asks that the radio be turned off because this technology did not exist in the early days of Islam. When the driver suggests turning off the air conditioning because it did not exist in the early days of Islam, the fighter refuses and then starts talking on his cell phone, at which point the driver kicks him out and tells him to wait for a camel instead.
Even IS's practice of gunning down innocents is apparently not off limits for comedic fodder: Palestine's Al-Falastiniya TV broadcast a skit featuring three Islamic State fighters who reminisce about partying with Beirut's beautiful women before shooting a Lebanese driver for not answering correctly a trick question about the number of times to kneel during prayers and upon entering a mosque.
Since then, a Jordanian play satirizing IS has been successfully touring theaters, while an Iranian animation mocking the foibles of IS is soon set to be released. Using satire to neutralize the threat of IS is not only the realm of network television, but social media, where the Twitter hashtag #ISISMovies played with popular film titles to mock the militants. Lebanese satirist Karl Sharro tweeted his own take on a news report claiming to outline the "anatomy of ISIS" – a haphazard napkin sketch of a chart mocking the group's leadership and hierarchy: "the committee for oppressing women," "the video guy," "the Twitter fanboys body," etc.
Although there is a tendency to dismiss the impact of social media, not to mention the role of humor, it is worth noting that this is where the networked Muslim majority might do the most damage in discrediting Islamic State – considering the Internet appears to be one of IS's main battlegrounds (the group uses social media and YouTube for propaganda and recruitment efforts).
While the efforts highlighted above are organic, based on a shared community, other efforts appear to be more technocratically orchestrated. A recent article noted that Mr. Sharro's satirical chart was widely shared, including by the U.S. State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. The CSCC has exhibited its own type of muted mockery in a video countering IS recruitment efforts. The integration of humor in U.S. counter-terrorism strategies has been ramped up since the development of social media and its snarky style of communication. A State Department program calling itself Viral Peace confronts and undermines online currents of extremism with "logic, humor, satire," in its creator's words.
But a government-backed effort does not necessarily make for an effective means of striking back (and can often be perceived as intrusive, stilted or awkward). After all, satire's subversiveness can be an ill-fitting mask worn by government institutions, distinct from more organic efforts, produced in times of crisis by a shared, discursive community – at least, when that community itself is threatened. Still, if laughing in the face of the absurd reveals an ability to "dwell with the incomprehensible without dying from fear or going mad," then that may be the first step in striking back – by having the last laugh.