‘Putting the Fun Back into Fundamentalism’: Ridiculing ISIS in Arabic Vs. English
Does comedy have the power to dismantle extremism?
This blog post is a joint-publication with the Transforming Society blog.
Laughing at Taboos
Is it OK to laugh at comedy that pokes fun at ISIS, religious extremism, violence, or terrorism? Some people find such humor untasteful or disgusting whilst others relish in the taboo. Many of us like to laugh at things that others deem inappropriate to laugh at, or find comic relief in the darkest of jokes. In fact, the very act of poking fun at something considered taboo is what makes us laugh out loud. Omid Djalili’s iconic joke about ‘putting the fun back into fundamentalism’ is an excellent example of the above. A couple of decades ago comedians tackled al-Qaeda, but now ISIS has become the target of ridicule.
Fighting Fear One Comedic Punch at a Time
Militant groups like ISIS spread fear both through acts of violence and by generating an impending fear of terrorist attacks. Pumping fear is their main currency. Fighting fear tactics with comedy might seem overly optimistic but transforming ISIS from scary to laughable is quite powerful, because when comedians ridicule ISIS, they are in effect saying that they aren’t scared. Reframing ISIS - as laughable - is thus a potent way of redefining the narrative and shaking the power balance.
Some scholars such as Ramsay and Alkheder even argue that poking fun at ISIS must be seen as an act of symbolic warfare.
Are Arab Comedians the Unsung Heroes of ISIS-Satire?
Over the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of praise for Western, English-language comedy that pokes fun at Islamist extremism. We’ve seen countless media headlines about how such comedic outputs are both innovative and brave acts of defiance. The subtext of such media reporting is that no one else is doing this act of comedic heroism. Arabic language ISIS-satire is thus often overlooked, which is odd considering that there is a long history of making fun of religious extremism in Arabic, with no shortage of skits ridiculing ISIS. The existence of Arabic satire shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering where ISIS operates and how Arab audiences are much closer to the line of fire. Al-Jazeera America argues a similar point.
To give an example of the Arabic-language ISIS-satire: a spoof commercial features an ISIS-wife who is shown how to remove blood stains from her husband’s shirt using Da’ek, ISIS-washing powder. Da’ek doubles up as an explosive - effectively removing the stain, the shirt, and her.
Many of the Arab-language skits, depict ISIS-members as dim-witted, sex-crazed, violent fools who lack even a rudimentary understanding of Islam. With visibly fake beards, the Arabic ISIS-characters allude to the lack of sincerity of their religious commitment in addition to adding comical effect. Perhaps an overly Anglo-centric focus on ISIS-satire has rendered Arabic-language comedians the unsung heroes of ISIS-satire?
The Palestinian skit Daesh (ISIS) went viral and harvested both praise and criticisms for tackling ISIS head on. It has also been adapted and featured on Rotana a pan-Arab satellite channel. Stylistically, Daesh draws on slap stick humor but also includes some actual documentary footage of ISIS stopping civilians at check points (at least in the original version). Thus, elements of Daesh contribute to the obscuring of what is to be considered comedic ridicule and real events. The two baboon-like ISIS-characters in charge of the checkpoint are modelled after an actual checkpoint incident, while simultaneously drawing on an Arab comedic tradition of portraying religious militants as dimwitted with visibly fake beards.
In an iconic scene, an ISIS-soldier asks his partner to cover him – which leads to a (literal) misunderstanding – and the subsequent covering of his face and head by a black cloth.As the skit progresses, the two childish characters argue about a ridiculous point system which dictates different points for civilians based on their religious affiliation. This game, while comedic also serves as a sharp critique of the killings of civilians and as a reminder of how many of ISIS’s victims are both local – and – Muslim. It also serves serves to underline how little value Muslim lives are accorded.
In contrast, The Real Housewives of ISIS focuses on ISIS’s recruitment of women from the UK.
The Real Housewives of ISIS
The British skit The Real Housewives of ISIS has been hailed for its boldness in ridiculing ISIS, but as Arab News points out, it has also generated a wave of responses indicating that not all viewers were amused. Packed with one-liners, the skit draws on the Real Housewives reality show genre, with the characters showing a considerable interest in gossiping, fashion and what’s the next big fad, all juxtaposed against a dreary backdrop of what to wear to the next public beheading. As I argue in my chapter ‘Putting the Fun Back into Fundamentalism’: Toying with Islam and Extremism in Comedy» the main comedic premise the whole skit is the question of why on earth these British women would leave a comfortable life in the UK for a life of hardship and violence in the ISIS. Through a series of inter-related jokes - viewers are only meant to feel more puzzled as to why on earth these women would make this choice.
Same, Same, Different, Different?
Context is everything. The UK skit is clearly targeting UK- and international audiences and no real knowledge of ISIS is required to get any of the jokes. All one really needs to know is that joining ISIS may be appealing to a few British citizens. For the Daesh skit, some knowledge of ISIS, regional relations, and Islam, is necessary to decode the intertextual references embedded in the jokes.
Neither Real Housewives of ISIS or Daesh conflate Islam or Muslims with ISIS. Yet, the context in which they are produced, and their imagined audiences, shape the intertextual jokes in the skits. In Daesh, the references to the ways in which ISIS distorts Islam only work as jokes if viewers have some basic knowledge about Islam. While Daesh, focuses on the suffering of civilians and the arbitrariness of violence that spills into their lives, in the English skit, it is the (voluntary) suffering of the ISIS -housewives which audiences are invited into. Still, the delivery is chirpy. For instance, a character speaks about how she’s now on husband number six because her husbands keep on blowing themselves up! The absurdly cheerful mood is somewhat reminiscent of the iconic Monty Python line “and now for something completely different”.