EWING, New Jersey — As the Islamic State spreads across the Middle East inhabiting larger and larger swaths of both Syria and Iraq, nearby Middle Eastern governments, in addition to mobilizing troops, are also mobilizing television channels and comedy shows in efforts to combat this group from in what may seem an unexpected method: satire.
Satire and jokes’ subversive qualities in upsetting power dynamics have been noted by authoritarian regimes worldwide, with sarcastic witticisms seemingly an universal way to spread dissent against ones government. An example of this can be seen in one famous joke told by Soviet Union citizens during the Stalin’s rule: “Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. Socialism is the opposite.”
Now, however, the subversive power of jokes to reduce the most fearsome and violent individuals in mankind’s history into nothing more than hapless victims of some well-timed puns is being utilized by Middle Eastern governments as they attack the Islamic State via Saturday morning cartoons.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is a radical Islamist militant group that currently holds control over large amounts of land in eastern Syria, and northern and western Iraq. They are known for their increasingly brutal attacks on religious and ethnic minority groups in these areas. Their actions have included the execution of prisoners, the killing of children and the enslavement, rape and forced marriage of women. Resulting from this brutality, has also been an attempted genocide on one religious group inside of Iraq. They have also killed two foreign journalists.
Al-Qaeda, the internationally-known terrorist group of which this group was originally an offshoot, disavowed IS in February. In the past, they have also condemned ISIS’ actions as overly brutal; in 2005, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, told them their actions were losing them “Muslim hearts and minds.”
The organizations ultimate goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate, or a state ruled by a single political and religious leader that would follow a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Originally known as ISIS, which stood for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, their shortening of the name to simply Islamic State shows a drastic broadening of the scope of their goals, as they now hope to encompass further territories in their future and hypothetical government. Recently, they have issued statements declaring their intent to advance into Palestine.
Currently, an estimated eight million people live under partial or full control by IS. There, they are required to follow strict interpretations of Islamic law. These strict interpretations have resulted in forced conversions, the enforcing of veils for women, and the use of flogging and executions as punishments for disobeying their laws.
Taking the Syrian city of Raqiq in March 2013, their recent advances in Iraq reached an apotheosis in the capture of Mosul in city in the north of Iraq and the capital of the Nineveh Province this past June. Both the Syrian civil war and the sectarian tensions in Iraq contributed to their rapid series of successes in these areas.
There are an estimated 1.2 million individuals displaced due to both the rapid rise, and the ensuing brutality in the areas under the Islamic State’s control.
In a recent speech concerning this group, United States President Barack Obama exposed certain misnomers inherent in the group’s name. “Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state… It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”
This terrorist group then, who is truly neither Islamic nor a state, has been met with fierce worldwide condemnation, U.S. airstrikes and some particularly funny and particularly scathing satire from the neighboring Middle East states.
Television networks throughout the Middle East have begun airing comedy programs and cartoons lampooning this militant organization. The programs, though mocking this militant group, highlight and critique the radical variant of Islam that they espouse.
In one program, a young militant first drops his rocket launcher on the toes of his leader before he points it at a target in Iraq. Then after taking aim, he fires, only to shoot it backward, hitting the already mentioned leader with bruised toes. This is a fierce condemnation of this radical group, as it portrays them as comically inept despite their murderous intentions.
Through this presentation, comedy shows are helping change the public perception of this group from something to be feared to something to be laughed at.
Nabil Assaf, a producer and writer of a comedy show in Lebanon titled the “Ktir Salbe Show,” has said on this matter, “These people are not a true representation of Islam and so by mocking them, it is a way to show that we are against them … this is one way to reject extremism and make it so the people are not afraid.”
In one of their skits, Islamic State militants are seen taking a taxi cab and admonishing the taxi driver for their reliance on various objects, such as a cellphone and the radio, which did not exist in the earliest days of Islam. The taxi driver, knowing that taxi cabs were not around then, either, responds by kicking them out.
In Syria, comedic news programs target the Islamic state, though here the show’s presenters, no doubt due to the clear presence of Islamic State operatives in Syria, disguise themselves to prevent any identification or retaliation from occurring.
In Iraq, an animated program on the state television channel also mocks the Islamic State, depicting their militants on the run from the Iraqi military. Alaa al-Majedi of the state-run al-Iraqiya channel has recently emphasized the power of satire in an interview, saying on this matter, “We are all against these terrorist organizations… Comedy is one way to raise awareness.”
Thus, as no doubt more and more countries direct their military resources toward this brutal militant group, with bombs and bullets raining down on their heads in an ever increasing frequency, a very different war is being fought in living rooms across the Middle East. Here, the group’s public perception is challenged and subverted daily as bumbling cartoon militants drop and misfire their rocket launchers much to the mirth of those watching.
– Albert Cavallaro