Nov 8th 2014
“IF I were a cow, I would be wearing a bra,” goes a lyric in a popular song about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State (IS). This reference to bovine lingerie—a poke at Mr Baghdadi’s supposed umbrage at the sight of naked udders—gets cheers from the audience in Metro al-Madina, a theatre in Beirut. The tune about Mr Baghdadi leading Islam into the abyss has proven such a hit that the Lebanese band performing it, The Great Departed, has extended its show.
As America and allied forces carry out air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq, artists from Beirut to Baghdad are combating the group in their own way. A popular target is the incompatibility between the group’s claim to adhere to strict teachings of the time of the Prophet Muhammad and its savvy use of modern technology such as Twitter. “Ktir Salbe” (“Very Bad”), a weekly sketch show on LBC International, a private television station in Lebanon, recently featured a scene in which a jihadist hails a taxi but objects to modern inventions such as the radio. Exasperated, the taxi driver kicks the jihadist out and tells him to wait for the next passing camel.
Meanwhile Al Iraqiya, a state television channel in Iraq, has devoted $600,000—a record amount for the broadcaster—to produce “Dawlat al-Khurafa” (“The Mythical State”), which mockingly recreates the IS takeover and rule of a fictional village in Iraq. In it the militant group puts the village drunk in charge of enforcing an alcohol ban, despite him sneaking drinks on the sly. The show’s offensive opening, in which Mr Baghdadi hatches as the offspring of the devil and his bride Israel, has had more than 750,000 hits on YouTube.
Inside parts of Syria and Iraq where none can mock the group openly without punishment, cartoons have proliferated. In the Syrian village of Kafr Nabl, which has gained a reputation for its satirical signs, activists portrayed IS members as aliens. Its cartoons have also made fun of the West’s military response to IS while Assad and his allies go unpunished. An animated series “Dashawi” (“A member of IS”), also by Al Iraqiya, mocks the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam (pictured).
The region’s comics have long used subtle satire to criticise their authoritarian regimes, yet with little success in effecting change. Some artists reckon their satire could have more effect with IS, providing a counter to its propaganda including its slick recruitment videos, Tweets about life in the “caliphate” and articles detailing its interpretation of Islam. “We have to show them [IS] that we are not afraid,” says Ali al-Qassem, the director of “Dawlat al-Khurafa”.
But Khaled Sobeih, who wrote and sings The Great Departed’s Baghdadi song, says satire needs to address more than just IS’s excesses. “People should evoke the real problems such as why [the Arab world] is a fertile environment for this movement,” he says, pointing to dictatorship and injustice as two such features of the region. That may yield less to laugh about.