The Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 and resulting protests over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in Western media have fueled assertions that Islamic culture does not value free speech and is without humor.
In response to the Islamic State, the Muslims globally have tried unique repartees that include:
- An Islamic State game show,Who Will Butcher a Million;
- ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi doingstand-up comedy; and,
- An ISIS workout of curling barbells of human skulls.
Quite simply, it’s humor.
Social media has seen the rise of anti-ISIS humor and political satire from within the Muslim world. Twitter hashtags of #AskIslamicState and #ISISMovies (films with an ISIS-twist), Internet memes, and even YouTube channels (including the Islamic State Comedy Club) have spread throughout the Muslim and global community mocking ISIS.
Mainstream Muslim media are also joining in. Lebanon’s Ktir Salbe Show and Iraq’s Dawlat Al Khurafa (State of Nonsense) are comedy sketch shows that regularly take ISIS to task. YouTube has helped spread their content.
On Iraqi state-run TV Al Iraqiya, “State of Superstition” was a hit comedy where the threat of ISIS is a daily reality. The show portrayed an al-Baghdadi-inspired character, the Beheader, as a “slogan-spewing buffoon” and lampooned the gratuitous violence of radical Islam. The show featured many common themes in ISIS mockery, including blatant hypocrisy in their fundamentalist ideology and actions; selective and slippery “logic” of ISIS devotees; and, everyday fear of being stopped at ISIS checkpoints. Even word choice contains a sophisticated satire. Show creator Thair Chiadexplains the title is “a play on the word khilafa, or ‘caliphate.’” Only one letter change is required to form khirafa, which loosely translates as “superstition” or illogical belief.
So if ISIS is a serious danger, why the humor?
As Libyan-American writer Hend Amry wrote: ‘Sometimes, you have to mock, to belittle. Because sometimes, belittlement is your enemy’s greatest fear.’
It’s working. In the United Kingdom, Pakistani comedian Humza Arshad has become an Internet sensation and a rising influential voice within Britain’s Muslim youth. The longtime-American comedy show, Saturday Night Live, has aired sketches mocking ISIS. Japan took to Twitter with anti-ISIS Internet memes in reaction to a Japanese reporter and a private security consultant held for ransom by ISIS.
While the U.S. and French policy have taken straight-forward approaches to dissuade those from joining ISIS, facts and Public Service Announcements don’t always win hearts and minds. Meanwhile, Muslims have undermined ISIS with truths about Islam and making people laugh in the face of extremist violence. Cultural wars need cultural weapons, and humor can be the strongest truth teller of all.