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Humour as a weapon in the fight against Daesh

Demystifying the terror group and ridiculing its deadly message creates a counter narrative on social media

Gulf News

Peppa Pig is my son’s favourite television show. I enjoy watching him laugh at the harmlessly naughty pigs. So I wasn’t amused when I came across a one-minute YouTube video of the happy family in which daddy pig shouts Allahu Akbar and blows up the computer he was asked to mend.

The video, I discovered, was part of the “unexpected jihad” idea that has spread online, with everyone from Pokemon to SpongeBob and Peppa Pig deployed to poke fun at militants’ beliefs. The internet memes conclude with either a prayer song or an Allahu Akbar and an explosion.

They are on the more offensive end of a flourishing trend of mocking Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). The group known as Isis established itself a year ago as the world’s most menacing, and merciless, terrorist force.

Anti-Daesh satirical TV series, songs, plays and sketches are proliferating, many of them produced in the Muslim world. A hit comedy show in Iraq last year was called State of Khirafa, or Mythical State — a play on khilafa, or caliphate — and it portrayed Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi as a buffoon. A Palestinian comedy video that went viral features two hapless Daesh fighters manning a checkpoint. They collect points for every driver they kill and often fight over their prey. When one of their captives dies from a heart attack, they try desperately to revive him.

There is of course something farcical about Daesh, and maybe also about the war against it. The idealistic world the fanatical organisation claims to offer its young recruits is a real life of misery and horrific violence. The notion of a madman like Al Baghdadi recreating the ideal Muslim society and teaching others about true religion is laughable.

Since Daesh captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, a coalition of dozens of countries, led by the US, has been trying to “degrade” it — but with little luck. One year on, the group is nowhere near degraded, let alone defeated.

Only last month, Daesh stunned American commanders when it seized the Iraqi town of Ramadi and went on to rout the Syrian army in the historic city of Palmyra. Western officials are still scrambling for an effective policy and are counselling patience. Daesh, meanwhile, has a clear expansion strategy and is wasting no time in implementing it.

Humour is probably helping people in the Middle East to cope with the rise of a group that everyone fears and no one fully comprehends. Demystifying Daesh and ridiculing its deadly message creates a counter narrative on social media, where the group spreads its propaganda and hunts for recruits. There are now more jokes about Daesh online then Daesh videos.

But is humour a useful tool in an anti-Daesh campaign? Can it lead to fewer recruits, and turn potential sympathisers into sceptics? Some analysts think so.

Before Daesh exploded on to the scene, experts at Demos, a British think-tank, argued that antiterrorism policies should include humour to expose a terrorist organisation (at that time they were referring to Al Qaeda) as ridiculous. Citing how humour was used as a potent weapon against the British Fascist party in the 1930s, they said Al Qadea’s image as an “tough guy” gang could be countered by showing the group’s incompetence.

Maybe so. But it’s not easy to draw the line between what is funny and what will be seen as offensive to victims of Daesh. And some of what is online, including the unexpected jihad memes, is more distasteful than comical. As Simon Cottee, a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent, wrote in The Atlantic: “We can certainly make fun of Isis [Daesh] but its very outlandishness narrows the scope of humorous material.”

I asked Karl Sharro, who writes the Karl reMarks Middle East satirical blog and often takes aim at Daesh, what he thinks of anti-Daesh humour as a weapon. “The most it can do is show irreverence towards Isis [Daesh] and become part of a general critical sense towards understanding what’s happening in the region,” he says. It has not helped, he adds, that anti-Daesh satire is being used by governments as a propaganda tool, which muddies the message. I tend to agree with him. Let there be more ridiculing of Daesh, but let’s not get carried away with its impact.

— Financial Times

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