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Exit ISIS, Stage Left: Fighting for laughs in Mosul and beyond

Nathaniel Greenberg, Sunday 24 Apr 2016
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The State of Myth has lowered its curtains. The state-sponsored Iraqi television series, which introduced itself to the world with a musical trailer featuring the marriage of the devil to an Israeli bride whose offspring hatched in the form of a miniature Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took audiences by storm when it launched its first episode in the fall of 2014. Its theme song went viral. Actors received death threats.

In the communicative battle to counter the message of the Islamic State, few efforts went so far as Dawlat al-Khurafa.  

Measuring the efficacy of cultural production, though, is an imperfect task. More difficult still is determining which types of communication are most effective in countering existent narrative strategies, like the one employed by the Islamic State.

At a recent meeting in Washington, Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management, Monika Bickertt, said the company was tracking the number of “shares” anti-ISIS Facebook pages received as a way of identifying best-practice strategies in countering extremist messages.

By this measure, Dawlat al-Khurafa would seem to pale in comparison to the popularity of other parody shows mocking extremism. The Iraqi comedy Wilayat al-Battikh, which has featured skits parodying ISIS, for example, had almost a million people “talking about it” on Facebook less than a year into its broadcast, in the spring of 2016.

But Dawlat al-Khurafa, which aired on al-‘Iraqiyya, the largest network in the country reaching some ninety percent of the population, was unique in that it attempted to reimagine “ISIS-land” from the ground up. For an entire year, some of the best known actors in the country donned fake beards, wielded medieval weapons, and performed elaborate sketches on virtually everything—from Bollywood cinema to gay marriage.

Ali al-Qassim, the director of Dawlat al-Khurafa, claimed the show’s theme music could be heard echoing through the coffee shops in Baghdad and that kids could be seen playing “Daoushy” in the street. When the show first aired in September, al-Qassim claimed ISIS thugs had smashed televisions in Mosul in response.

Counter-communications in the West have become a major part of the effort to defeat ISIS. Dawlat al-Khurafa, it could be said, like much ISIS satire in the Arab world, was created less as an attempt to undermine ideology than to preserve a degree of sanity. As al-Qassim said, “you cannot fear something that makes you laugh." 

As social satire, it should be noted, Dawlat al-Khurafa is part of a genre in Arabic as old as the shadow play. The comedic depiction of “terrorists,” writ broadly, has been a cinema staple for decades. (One thinks of Adel Emam’s 1994 classic Terrorism and Kebab).

ISIS satire, however, was born of the same chemistry that helped establish the digital caliphate to begin with—creative entrepreneurs with access to a computer, a global stage, and the unrivalled prospect of complete autonomy.

Witness the viral remix to the terror organization’s signature soundtrack “Ṣalīl al-ṣawārim” (“The Clanking of the Swords”). Linked from online chatrooms and blog collectives, the original version could be heard accompanying bizarre orgies of violence, convoys of white pick-up trucks, and galloping lions.

Then, in 2014, a new phenomenon emerged on YouTube with small groups of friends or individuals wielding plastic swords and performing the inevitable “beheading” before breaking into a dance routine set to a blood-racing pastiche, a sort of ISIS Gangnam Style, in their living room or bedroom.

I first heard about this particular trend in March 2014 while lecturing at the University of Minya, in Egypt. Just a month prior to my visit a group of twenty-one Coptic men from Minya had been killed by the Islamic State in Libya. A disturbing video appearing to depict their decapitations had circulated through the international press. In Minya, though, far more people were talking about the execution remixes. Soon after the Libya event, prominent celebrities could be seen getting in on the act as well.

Dancing over the devil, laughing in the face of fear: satirical treatments of ISIS spread like wildfire.

In 2015, the Saudi Arabian creator of the MBC show Selfie, Nasser al-Qasbi, faced death threats following his mockery of the terror organization’s “sex jihad” in Iraq and Syria. Shows like the Lebanese production Ktir Salbe and Daiy'a al-Taseh grabbed the attention of foreign journalists and ISIS alike. 

Waṭan 3 Watar, a Palestinian comedy troop based in the West Bank, was one of the earliest groups to produce ISIS-specific parody. In the summer of 2014, they released a series of sketches depicting belligerent Salafists operating a checkpoint in the wilderness. Drivers are stopped and interrogated about their religion before being shot and robbed. Meanwhile the heavily bearded interrogators smoke and make lude passes at women. Israelis pass freely. 

The trend became global. Saturday Night Live even produced a mock car commercial featuring a teary-eyed father dropping off his college-bound daughter at a bus terminal where she is met by armed thugs in a pick-up truck. “Dad,” she says, “it's just ISIS." The punchline is ultimately about US naïveté, a focus similar to that of most anti-ISIS messaging campaigns in the West.

From the Quilliam Foundation’s glossy short video “Not Another Brother” featuring a regretful British fighter sitting on a dirty mattress and lamenting his fate in a letter to his “bro” (“I wish I could take back every time I sent you a tweet or got all gassed up saying how the West has turned its back on us”), to the State Department’s video Think Again, Turn Away, the French Government’s Stop-Djihadisme.gouv.fr, or  "Madison Valleywood," anti-ISIS campaigns outside the Arab world overwhelmingly take ISIS propaganda at face value. The subsequent objective being, thereby, to discourage potential recruits from falling prey to ideological “brainwashing." 

Underpinning the comedy in Dawlat al-Khurafa is a more visceral distain for takfir and takfirriyyun—those who level the charge of kufr, or disbelief. A sharply pejorative label, the term has been virtually synonymous with terrorism in the Arab world for centuries. (Take the recent execution in Saudi Arabia of the Shi‘i cleric Nimr al-Nimr. He and forty-six others were found guilty, first and foremost, for embracing the “takfīrī method and the doctrine of Kharijites").  

Responding, not simply, to the rise of ISIS, such satire reflects a deeper sense of revulsion toward hypocrisy in the constitution of power. In Dawlat al-Khurafa, a faux Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his miscreant henchmen—including military generals in Ba‘thist uniform and a belligerent dwarf—regularly covet and promote the same behavior they suppress.

In one episode the “Khalifa” watches on television as his “Da‘ishiyyin” compete in an Olympic games, though not before they have eliminated the other contestants. The Da‘ishiyyin shudder coffee shops but open their own. They ban television and then create a broadcasting agency, “Dam Bī Shī (homonymous with MBC), where they make shows like “Who Wants to Slay a Million” and commercials selling implements of death and “da‘ishi shampoo.”

More than just a critique of takfir, though, Dawlat al-Khurafa represented a culminating aesthetic of distrust, a richly imaginative world in which decades of deceit, conspiracy, and fatalism culminate into a singular state of absurdity. At the very least, it should be said, The State of Myth did not take ISIS at face value.

The show’s controversial trailer captured this impulse succinctly. There the marriage between the devil and his Israeli bride is arranged by a Shaykha Mozah bint Nasser (of Qatar) look-alike and a whiskey-drinking cowboy who carries a revolver and rides a horse. 

This myth of origin had spread widely in the region by the time the show’s creators aestheticized it. Already by August 2014, fairly major Arab news outlets like Youm7 were quoting right-wing US conspiracy blogs like Veteran’s Today and circulating “reports” that Edward Snowden had disclosed the true identity of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “Elliot Shimon,” an Israeli Mossad agent, and that the United States and Israel had conspired to create ISIS.

The rumor—which appeared in early July with online sites like Arabesque (8 July 2014) falsely citing Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept, or, RT (17 July 2014) citing Gulf Daily News—would become entrenched in Iranian state-news services, a phenomenon Ayn Baker reported on from Tehran for Time Magazine.  

According to Baker, on 18 June, Fars News Agency quoted Iran’s Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Major General Hassan Firoozabadi, as saying “ISIS ‘is an Israel[i] and America[n] movement for the creation of a secure border for the Zionists against the forces of resistance in the region.’” Effectively locating the interview at the origin of the rumor, Baker’s report largely quelled any serious inquiry among major news outlets in the West.

In Iraq and much of the Middle East, the theory never lost its luster. Iranian state-news outlets continued to promulgate the narrative broadly. The Middle East Research Institute reported that the office of Khamenei had released a statement blaming the United States and Israel for the Paris attacks. 

The best examples of ISIS satire attempt to illustrate the logical extremes of conspiracy theory mongering. In Dawlat al-Khurafa and elsewhere, ISIS is not simply a Western creation they are bona fide capitalists. 

Nothing is what it seems in The State of Myth. From the fantasy of Shar‘ia stems lawlessness. Sex jihad becomes oedipal.

Where The State of Myth veers sharply from anti-ISIS narratives in the West is that at no point do its creators accept the basic premise that ISIS is a messianic jihadist organization gathering to summon the apocalypse. In Dawlat al-khurafa there are no “mujahidin” fighting in the name of Allah. There are only “da‘ishiyeen,” fighting in the name of DA'ISH.

Such cynicism towards ISIS in Iraq is understandable, particularly when the group’s most famous song—“Salam ‘ala al-dawla”— reads like an ode to nationalism and includes lines that could have come straight from Iraq’s ex-Minister of Information. “The infidels' ('uluj) blood will flow"  said Mohammed Sahhaf in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq—a prophecy he ascribed to the Caliph ‘Umar bin Khattab.

Common across the veritable industry of anti-ISIS communication in the West is a singular belief in the propensity of individuals to be swayed by the beck and call of ideology, which, in turn, can presumably be molded and manipulated by a few pictures and a story.

But to draw a connection between ideology and identity is to glide across the burdensome hurdle of human complexity—the material dimensions of emotion and circumstance—to arrive, full-circle, at the same conclusion Samuel Huntington discovered in The Clash of Civilizations: we are what we believe, or, at least, what we say we believe.

As The State of Myth sought to illuminate, however, in Iraq, identity discourse and the rhetoric of civilizations has long been duplicitous; the flowery, often poetic smokescreen of otherwise nakedly political objectives. 

*This article was first published in Jadaliyya. 

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