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Can We Just Laugh Off ISIS?

Some critics are claiming that the recent spate of ISIS-mockery in the West and Arab world may not only be insulting to those whose lives ISIS has upended, but may actually help the group.

Screen still from SNL's ISIS sketch, via YouTube

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In his famous 1940 film The Great Dictator, Charlie Chapin struts, twitches, and screams in a thinly-veiled portrayal of an unintentionally-hilarious Hitler surrogate, Abenoid Hynkel. Chaplin's intent was to turn the fear and awe of the Nazi's stridency and militarism on its head, turning the Third Reich into an object of ridicule and thereby diminishing its power.


This spring, Saturday Night Live took the same tack in satirizing the militant group ISIS. In a skit, Dakota Johnston plays a young girl saying goodbye to her father before what would seem to be a semester at college. But instead of campus, the camera pans out to show a truckload of crazed, automatic rifle-toting Islamists with a version of the ISIS flag (this one reading "I love cats" in Arabic) speeding up to spirit a willing Johnston away.

This mockery of a brutal reality is a mainstay of counter-propaganda. But is it effective? Some critics are now claiming that the spate of ISIS-mockery which has proliferated in the year since the Islamic State seized control over large swathes of Iraq and Syria may not only be insulting to those whose lives ISIS has upended, but may actually help the group. "I'm not sure about tweets that mock [ISIS]'s reality," the RAND Corporation's Kim Cragin told VICE. "I personally love them, but wonder if they serve to reinforce the us-versus-them mentality of potential recruits."

The idea of shame can play a key role both in recruiting to ISIS, and in fashioning successful counter-ISIS appeals.

To begin with, it is helpful to understand the power of ISIS's propaganda machine. Under the auspices of its "media center" Al Hayat, ISIS produces slick recruitment videos in multiple languages (including English), frequent and often-gory social media posts, reports on its successes on and off the battlefield, and an English-language magazine, Dabiq.

My name is is George Agdgdgwango you have won one million Ugandan dollars.Pls can I have your account number and sort code — Michael (@banterino)August 22, 2014


To Kill A Mocking Kurd — Josh Saari (@Im_Saari)August 31, 2014

— Luay لؤي الخطيب (@AL_Khatteeb)July 13, 2014

In contrast to al-Qaeda, whose recruiters still rely on videos of aging firebrands' rambling sermons, ISIS's hashtag-heavy propaganda is a firebrand in itself. (See: #WorldCup2014). There was even, at one point, an app for that—the now-defunct Dawn of Glad Tidings, which requested permission to post from users' Twitter accounts in exchange for "news from Iraq, Syria, and the Islamic World."

In the West and the Arab world alike, sardonic counter-messaging has begun to pop up in surprising places. The Financial Times' Roula Khalaf wrote recently that "anti-ISIS satirical TV series, songs, plays, and sketches are proliferating [online]… with everyone from Pokémon to Spongebob and Peppa the Pug deployed to poke fun at jihadi beliefs."

Crucially, this main source of this mockery is not the West. A show called Dawlat al-Kkurafa (translation: "State of Myths") is the most popular program on Iraqi state television. The popular Saudi comedian Nasser al-Qasabi's new television show, Selfie also satirizes ISIS's pretensions of religious authority, and has garnered both accolades from fans at home and death threats from ISIS supporters.

What purpose do these programs serve? Are they comic relief for people who have to live with ISIS as neighbors? Or are they meant to make joining ISIS a less appealing prospect? If they latter is the goal, all "comic" anti-ISIS material would do well to keep in mind what actually motivates people to join ISIS, and what might actually motivate them not to. As it turns out, the idea of shame can play a key role both in recruiting to ISIS, and in fashioning successful counter-ISIS appeals.

"Shame is the opposite of honor, which is a powerful attribute and value in Islamic communities and countries," said counter-terrorism expert Farhana Qazi in an interview with VICE. And shame doesn't have to come from a personal failing. University of Kent senior lecturer in criminology Simon Cottee has spent the past year documenting the social media activities of western female migrants to ISIS, and said cultural shame was a major theme in their messages. "Shame can be experienced just by living in a society that is felt to be spiritually corrupt or dirty," he told VICE. But beyond offering redemption for that kind of shame, there is another strain in ISIS propaganda worth consideration. ISIS pitches itself as made up of a bunch of jihadi James Bonds: Alpha males comfortable with and enthused by weaponry and violence, soigné, polished, and commanding. Separate from its atrocities, ISIS exudes control and dominance. And why wouldn't that be appealing?

"[ISIS fighters] are not stupid, with long beards and dirty clothes, as many people anticipate," Editor-in-Chief of Rai al-Youm (the Arab world's Huffington Post) Abdel Bari Atwan said recently. "Many people think those people are the camel herders, foot soldiers. No. The hard-core of the Islamic State is the ex-Republican Guards for Saddam Hussein."

To mock the belief that ISIS might make life better might mean mocking someone's only remaining avenue of hope.

Cottee highlighted the group's recent focus on civic construction in its recent communiqués, a focus on what it is building rather than simply what it is tearing down. "Big, new, shiny buildings, slick cars, opulent markets, newly opened hospitals and schools." (Even, recently, a "five-star" hotel in Mosul). "It's not all shock and gore, but bricks and mortar, too."

And the most cutting of cartoons cannot diminish this appeal. To mock ISIS in a way that diminishes its appeal would require mocking not the group itself, but the delusion that joining it will actually lead to living in those shiny buildings and driving those slick cars. As Khalaf says, "the idealistic world the fanatical organization claims to offer its young recruits is a real life of misery and horrific violence." We are less comfortable targeting the vulnerable than the already converted, but if prevention is our aim, perhaps we should grow comfortable with this discomfort.

It is an understandable and human impulse to look for control, meaning, and stability when life seems to offer little of it. To mock the belief that ISIS might make life better might mean mocking someone's only remaining avenue of hope. Whether that is a reasonable belief doesn't matter—what matters is presenting and furthering better alternatives. Humor is far less valuable here.

Farce often pushes someone's behavior a bit beyond what it has been in reality to expose its absurdity or hypocrisy. But it's hard to find a line that ISIS hasn't or wouldn't cross. "You can imagine a comedy sketch in which they dangle some orange jump-suited dude over a shark tank, but this stops being funny when they start doing that," Cottee said. "And who knows with ISIS? If they could get sharks, they probably would."

In his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin wrote that he would not have made The Great Dictator had he known in 1940 what the extent of Hitler's crimes against humanity would be. It is up to us to decide whether the entertainment value of anti-ISIS comedy sketches might diminish the group's power enough to prevent us from the same regrets.

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