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Using humour to defuse the ISIS bomb

Using humour to defuse the ISIS bomb
By Thomas Seymat
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Could jokes be as effective as bombs and bullets when fighting ISIS? Following its rise to power in large swathes of Iraq and Syria, a flurry of satirical video skits, pictures and tweets have been poking fun at the Jihadi group.

A recent parody of ISIS, shot in Gaza in the end of February, mixes a mock execution and #thedress, the viral phenomenon of a white/gold or black/blue dress which has recently taken the Internet by storm. It ridicules the group’s ultra-rigorous interpretation of religious texts and its fickleness. The video itself has gone viral as well, with almost 780 shares and 1600 likes.

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The use of humour to fight terror groups in not new. In 2010, the Britain-based think-tank Demos, in a report titled “The Edge of Violence: a radical approach to extremism” wrote that the media can help strip the glamour and mystique of radical organisations such as ISIS, or Al-Qaeda.

“Messaging, from a range of organisations, should stress that most al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists are in fact incompetent, narcissistic, irreligious,” it said.

There are historical precedents according to the authors: “satire has long been recognised as a powerful tool to undermine the popularity of social movements: both the Ku Klux Klan and the British Fascist party in the 1930s were seriously harmed by sustained satire.” The idea is, in short, to damage ISIS’ appeal to foreign would-be fighters with ridicule.

However, the report notes that “governments cannot be seen to satirise terrorist movements, but can offer support and information to those who might. This aspect therefore needs to come from non-government organisations and agencies.”

American comedy TV show SNL, an institution which has just celebrated its 40th year on air, has on several occasions poked fun at the Jihadi group, most recently in a skit parodying a car commercial.

If the skit’s goal was to ridicule the group’s prospective members, some of whom include teenage girls, it proved controversial for some

Media in Israel, which often finds itself a joint-target alongside ISIS in many videos originating from the Middle East, also takes a comic path with regards to the militant group. A video procuded by Israelis depicts the ski mask-wearing jihadi militants as a bunch of incompetent doofuses in a skit reminiscent of Monty Python and Borat.

ISIS, the butt of jokes on Twitter

On February 15, ISIS released a video of the execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya. The video finished with a warning to Europe, just across the Meditteranean Sea: “We will conquer Rome”.

Italians and Europeans quickly answered to the threat with tongue-in-cheek tweets, including travel tips for the Jihadis.

#We_Are_Coming_O_Rome When in Rome do as the romans do, so please buy some fashionable clothes & swap the jeeps for vespas!

— Valeria (@ValeriaSxox) 21 Février 2015

#We_Are_Coming_O_Rome - don't let #Schettino steer your ships. He has a tendency to get too close to islands...

— Sara (@EthicalRobot) 20 Février 2015

For more on the hashtag #We_Are_Coming_O_Rome, look here

Japan, too, joked about ISIS when on January 19, the jihadi group released a video threatening to kill two Japanese hostages, Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa.

Japanese Twitter users jumped on the occasion and posted pictures and messages ridiculing ISIS and their members with the #ISISクソコラグランプリ hashtag, which means “ISIS crappy collage grand prix”.

Hope I'm not too late the memefest everynyan #ISISクソコラグランプリ

— 黒人 C O L D 黒人 (@immoraldigital) 21 Janvier 2015

Read a full analysis of this satirical Twitter campaign, courtesy of here

Gallows humour as a coping mechanism

There is more to joking about ISIS than destroying the Jihadis’ reputation. Dark, or ‘gallows’ humour is also a way for populations who are the most exposed to the group’s violence to cope with the situation.

In “Humor: An Antidote for Terrorism”, a 2003 research article, Elaine Anne Pasquali, a nurse and cultural anthropologist, writes that “Freud (1928) described gallows humor as a type of purposeful humor that unconsciously meets one’s psychic needs by attempting to deal with morbid or tragic situations. One thereby gains a sense of mastery over them.”


In Iraq, state-run Al Iraqiya TV produced a whole show called “State of Superstition”, the whole purpose of which was to make fun of ISIS. The name of the series is a play on the words “khilafa” (“caliphate”) and “khirafa” (“superstition”) according to the Middle East Media Research Institute.

The teaser for the series pokes fun at the conspiracy theories around the origin of ISIS: an “ISIS-ling” looking like ISIS leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi, emerges from an egg laid by a women wearing a star of David around her neck, after she wed the devil, in a ceremony organised by a drunk cowboy, and attended by the Batman’s Joker, Dracula and the former first lady of Qatar. The rest of the video shows Baghdadi conducting with whips instead of a baton, a choir of millitants singing lyrics such as “Bomb to your heart’s content, you will lunch with the Prophet Muhammad.”

At the end of the video, the self-proclaim Caliph shoots everybody and then detonates his explosives belt.

“Making a comedy about [ISIS] is like trying to defuse a bomb,” said Thair Chiad, the show’s urbane writer and creator to the LA Times. “One mistake and you die.”

Coming from another region at war with ISIS, KurdSat TV broadcast last October another music video in which black-clad bearded men representing ISIS fighters are ridiculed.


They play air guitar on their kalashnikovs and sing gaudy lyrics such as “We are ISIS, were are ISIS, We milk the goat even if it is male,” according to the translation provided by the (controversial ) NEMRI.

Quoting previous works on the topic, Pasquali, who taught at New York state’s Adelphi University, adds that “laughing at death and tragedy helps people cope with the underlying psychological pain associated with the tragedy.” ISIS satire does not have to deal only with ISIS’ crimes, as the Middle East is rich in tragic situations.

This become clear in this Palestinian skit broadcast on June 29, 2014, making it one of the earlier examples of ISIS satire. The video manages to mock ISIS, neighbouring Arab countries and Israel.

In the video, three ISIS gunmen arrest various people at a checkpoint and demand if they are true Muslims. If not, they execute them off camera.

At one point, the video, to lampoon ISIS’ zealotry and obsession with holy texts, shows one of the gunmen asking one of the passers-by: “How many times does the letter “a” appear in the Al-Bukhari Hadith Compilation?”. And the passer-by to answer: “Ummm… Just shoot me.”

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