Fighting terrorism with satire
Satire has long been a friend to those wishing to expose the absurdities inherent in extremist ideologies. During the 1930s, British fascists were lampooned by the literary satire of P.G. Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford and Joseph O’Neill. KKK and Nazi ideologues have proven a rich seam for mockery.
Long before any of these, Joseph Conrad was deploying his gifts to deride anarchists in Victorian London. Why not use the same techniques to burst the bubble of religious fundamentalism and its would-be terrorist adherents?
The BBC’s new sketch ‘The Real Housewives of ISIS’ sets out to do just that, using comedy to tarnish an organisation whose propaganda and dedicated recruiters have tempted thousands of young Muslim women around the world to join its ranks. Naturally, the show’s received mixed reviews, with some criticizing it for making light of an organisation that abuses and tortures women, champions mass murders and televises the violent executions of its prisoners.
But satire of this kind always has its critics who mistake such depictions for glamorization or trivialization. The objective of satire isn’t to trivialize this issue but to shine a light on its fundamental crassness, stupidity or inhumanity. In the case of contemporary Islamist terrorism, it’s hoped such efforts can undermine the appeal of violent extremist propaganda by challenging and subverting the warped glamour it seeks to trade off. Satirizing Islamic State is a powerful way to disrobe the organisation, stripping it of the power and status it has awarded itself.
What really hits hard in this short sketch is how casually the women depicted talk about slavery and beheadings alongside alleged fashion faux pas and the trivia of their lives and relationships. Their regional British accents and run-of-the-mill chit-chat are juxtaposed with bombed-out houses and their suicide vests. As with so much successful satire, the overall effect is to highlight the deeply bathetic reality behind the romantic and celestial fantasies of IS propaganda. Life under IS rule is depicted to be just as mundane and banal as life in Birmingham can be, not the transcendent experience conveyed by the carefully constructed propaganda from the organisation.
The British movie, Four Lions, is another wonderful example of how nuanced satire can cleverly bring terrorist organisations back down to earth; al-Qaeda wannabe jihadists are controversially parodied to illustrate the incongruous motivations behind their actions and to demonstrate the banality of the task at hand.
On the one hand, terrorist propaganda elevates the mujaheddin to a saintly hero when the reality is that he’s bulk-buying bleach from the local chemist to make bombs. Demoting the mythical hero figure’s status to that of a blundering fool is effective and bring some perspective.
The sheer normality of the situations depicted cause the horror of IS and al-Qaeda to recede immediately, diluting their credibility as organisations. Terrorist groups depend on generating sentiments of fear in their enemies and allies to sustain their mask of grandeur and valiance. Satirizing and mocking them demonstrates that we’re not afraid. It’s also an influential tool to deny such organisations of the status they crave and need to continue recruiting young people.
There have been many attempts to bare the “truth about ISIS” in the form of reports and videos documenting the nature of the atrocities committed. That type of content is, of course, necessary and useful, but as the head of the Muslim Women’s Network in the UK has argued, ‘teenagers are more likely to share humorous videos than didactic messages.’ That sort of bold, challenging comedy can be a good inoculation for those who may be flirting with the idea of joining a violent extremist organisation.
There have been countless grassroots satirical depictions of IS and other terrorist organisations which have been shared internationally, especially from the Middle East. A group of Syrian refugees mocked IS in a series of videos back in 2015, depicting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi drinking wine and trading selfies with girls in “Laughing at ISIS”.
A song by the Lebanese band The Great Departed told a yarn about Baghdadi plunging Islam into an abyss; it generated a huge following in the region. Such examples need to be disseminated more widely, so that the messages can reach a wider target audience. Social media can be effectively used to achieve this.
However, this all isn’t to advise governments and policy experts to jump at the prospect of developing satirical counter narratives. Just as IS’s credibility rests on their desire to be feared, the credibility of artistic and comedic creations rests on their ability to create original and independent material (Anti-establishment is cool, after all).
It’s for this reason terrorist propaganda resonates with a younger demographic—the brazen and provocative sentiments that fuel it are powerful and persuasive. Turn that on its head by satirizing the same propaganda, and you have a self-made, powerful counter narrative that’s may well spark similar sentiments within the same demographic. The further from sanctioned government protocol, the more effective these messages will be.