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TV Show Mocking Islamic State Is Runaway Hit in Saudi Arabia

"Selfie" doesn't hesitate to poke fun at beheadings, clerics, and the Shiite-Sunni divide—and its star and writer have received online death threats from IS supporters.
This undated TV grab made available by MBC television, shows Saudi comedian Naser Al-Qasabi, center, in a scene from his recent TV show titled "Selfie". Photo via MBC Television/AP

Beheadings, violence, and the so-called Islamic State (IS) may seem unlikely subjects for a comedy show, but Saudi Arabia's satirical Selfie series, which looks at the militant group's violent activities through a humorous lens, has proven a runaway hit with viewers.

Selfie has garnered top ratings since it began airing on Saudi network MBC for its brand of dark humor that perforates the blanket of death and tragedy that has accompanied IS's bloodied land grab across the region, the series' writer Khalaf al-Harbi told the Associated Press.


"What's coming is darker," he said of the situation in the Middle East. "Maybe I am a bit pessimistic, and I hope that I am wrong, but I don't think I am."

The group's supporters, on the other hand, are not fans of the new show, and have responded with online death threats against the show's leading actor and writer.

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Each episode of the series is based on a different character played by the same actor, Naser al-Qasabi, who is the star of the show.

In one skit, an aspiring "caliph" brings together a ragtag band of fighters to start his own militant group, squired by his "mufti," or top religious cleric, who never graduated from school. In another, al-Qasabi plays the bumbling father of a Saudi boy who left to join the Islamic State. The father must go undercover as a militant in Syria to bring his son home, all the time trying to dodge partaking in violence himself.

The show also doesn't hesitate to mock the Sunni-Shiite divide. In one skit, two Saudi men meet in an airport in Europe, and it turns out they both are quite keen on women, alcohol, and parties. But when they discover one is Shiite, the other Sunni, their arguing grows so intense that airport security becomes involved, and the police cart them off to a mental institution when they discover the men are arguing over something that happened 1,400 years ago.


Selfie has no qualms satirizing ultra-conservative religious attitudes in Saudi Arabia, for which it has been slammed by mainstream clerics as heretic, particularly as it airs during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

One of the episodes in particular, which derides Saudi Arabia's religious establishment over its disapproval of types of music, recently led Saudi cleric Saeed bin Mohammed bin Farwa to accuse al-Qasabi and MBC of heresy.

But al-Harbi said that Selfie aims to emphasize how the militants have misappropriated and perverted Islam for their own purposes. The show's success, he claims, proves that satire can sometimes be more compelling and a better vehicle to remind the public of this fact than traditional or government-run media.

"I felt this is a weapon that will reach the audience," he said. "If it was just something comical, we would have focused on easy societal issues that aren't dangerous and are guaranteed safe."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.