Fighting ISIS With the Sword of Ridicule

In a recent post on the fiery death of the Jordanian pilot immolated by ISIS , I argued that we should all see the video of this execution. But I also argued that we should control our outrage over it: that we should resist the impulse to chain ourselves once more to the wheel of violent revenge. And I ended by saying that in several Middle East nations, Arabs themselves have already launched a fascinating alternative to this kind of retaliation.

Now I'll explain myself. Even as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert lay down the weapons of satire, even as they cease and desist from slashing away at the monstrous inanities of American politics, Arab TV producers have begun to attack ISIS with something its militants fear even more than airstrikes: ridicule.

We all know about the cartoons of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, whose caricatures of the prophet Mohammed provoked the murder of four cartoonists. But we've heard almost nothing about the cartoons and satirical videos produced by TV stations in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq and aimed straight at ISIS, or rather DAESH, the insulting term that Arabs use to mock the group. (As an acronym for the Arabic words for Islamic Nation of Iraq and Greater Syria, DAESH has no meaning in Arabic, but it sounds like the Arabic verb for "crush" or "trample down." If, for instance, there were something called the Southwest Heartland Information Directorate, it might be mockingly called SHID.)

It's high time we recognized the power of such mockery. Though satirical attacks on ISIS were first reported last September by Vivian Salama in World Post/ Huffpost,
I learned about them just a few days ago from Eamonn Gearon, a friend and Middle East specialist who sent me links to various examples. In one of them, broadcast by a Palestinian TV channel, two militants shoot two Muslim civilians for not knowing exactly how many times to kneel during prayers, then fall to arguing over which of them will get the "blessings" for shooting a Jordanian Christian. When the Christian dies of a heart attack in the midst of their quarrel, they are both shattered.

Mockery frightens DAESH far more than bombs and bullets do, for ridicule undermines its credibility, its appeal to new recruits, and above all its claim to nationhood. All of these are targets of satire produced by Arabs themselves. According to the Economist, the Iraqi TV channel Al Iraqiya has spent $600,000 -- an amazing sum for this channel -- on a new show called Dawlat al-Khurafa (the Superstitous State). In the promotional video for this show, broadcast last September, the marriage of Satan and a Jewish woman begets an "ISIS-ling" in the form of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (the leader of ISIS/DAESH), hatched from an egg. In another episode, ISIS takes over a fictional village in Iraq and puts the town drunk in charge of the alcohol ban. Could even Charlie Hebdo do better?

Which brings me to my final point. Since Charlie's satirical caricatures of the prophet Mohammed enraged many Muslims (not just the murderous pair), it may surprise us to learn just how satirical Muslims themselves can be. But as Eamonn Gearon noted last Friday on Fox News, the new wave of Middle Eastern satire targets not the prophet himself but rather the militants of ISIS, who have twisted his teachings into a recipe for tyranny, torment, and murder.

All this suggests that against all odds, the Arabs themselves may have found the best way to exterminate DAESH.