Using Comedy as a Form of Defense Against Islamic State

Some activists in Arab countries are going for the funny bone as they seek to fight back against IS, while others are adopting more direct protest methods. Whichever way they choose, someone is sure to be offended.

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While the rest of the world was going mad over the ice-bucket challenge (meant to raise awareness of ALS), Lebanon posed a different and original kind of challenge to the Arab world – the burning of Islamic State flags. This phenomenon started as the local initiative of student activists in Beirut, in response to the abduction of Lebanese soldiers in the Lebanese-Syrian border town of Arsal, followed by the murder of two of them.

The response quickly went viral on social media, mainly in Lebanon but also across the entire Arab world. People were photographed – some with their faces covered, others without – while holding a black IS flag (or its photo) and then burning it, challenging others to do the same and join the protest.

Why did some protestors hide their faces? They may have been doing so out of fear that one day, they too will fall into the hands of the murderous organization. However, in Lebanon there are some who wish to do so because of the problematic nature of this form of protest – the IS flag bears the words of the Shahada (the Muslim declaration of faith that constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam). It states that there is no God but Allah, with Mohammed being his prophet.

For many Muslims around the world, the very act of burning this holy text is sacrilegious and offensive to believers. It was not for nothing that Lebanese Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi ordered the arrest of students who had set IS flags alight.

Some of the anti-IS protestors protested these arrests as well. “Minister Rifi only saw the name of Allah go up in flames,” wrote one blogger on the online Lebanese magazine Glamroz. “He didn’t see IS murder the Muslim soldier Ali al-Sayed, or the attacked churches; nor did he see the huge threat looming over this country because of the black flag-bearing men who don’t know the meaning of the words God or Allah.”

The protestors who burned the flag object not only to the murderous character of Islamic State, but also to its use of Islam and the name of Allah for the commitment of crimes that have nothing to do with their faith.

“If IS dares approach Lebanon,” promised one Lebanese-Christian blogger, “we will all unite, Christians and Muslims, in order to protect Lebanon and support its army.” A photo was added to the blog, showing an American billboard paid for by the U.S. Marines, stating, “It’s God’s job to judge the terrorists … it’s our mission to arrange the meeting!”

Nevertheless, most of the protestors were uncomfortable with the burning of the text. So, in order not to offend millions of Muslim believers, they changed the words on the black flags: Now, instead of the words of the Shahada, the flags read, “Terror has no God.”

Naked protest

The protests against IS in the Arab world extend beyond acts of flag-burning. Prominent in such protests – not for the first time – was the Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, who posted a photo of herself sitting naked over the flag, seemingly urinating on it.

Elmahdy, a blogger and activist for human rights in the Muslim world, rose to fame in 2011, when she posted a video of herself and her partner arguing with a park attendant, who wanted to expel them from a park for publicly kissing and caressing. She later posted a nude photo of herself, eliciting stormy debates in Egypt and elsewhere, and becoming the target of threats and harassment. She ended up seeking political asylum in Sweden, where she now lives. It seems she’s managing to “disturb public order” from there as well.

Much more moderate and modest are responses from other bloggers in the Arab world. In Syria, some activists opened a Facebook page called “I’m a Muslim and I oppose IS.” Some Muslim communities in the Western world, meanwhile, launched a campaign declaring that Islamic State does not represent them. They organized an anti-hate day in Germany, a march in Norway, a Twitter campaign in England – all under the slogan “Not in my name.”

This campaign was subject to a lot of criticism. Some Muslims said they don’t feel the need to apologize to the Western world, which believes IS represents Islam or Muslim society. It’s the Western world’s problem if that’s the way it views us, they argued, not ours.

In contrast, others claimed the slogan “Not in my name” shirks responsibility. How can we avoid responsibility, asked these critics, while living in a society that enables violence against women and persecutes sexual minorities, and in which the concept of “manhood” is so twisted as to permit “honor killings” of women? The phenomenon of IS is the extension of such concepts, they claimed.

One of the most interesting recent phenomena in the Arab world is the appearance of anti-IS songs. Some of these songs, disseminated mainly on the Internet through social networks, are intended to encourage the Iraqi army in its fight against the organization.

Others, such as the song “You ho, ISIS!” performed by the Iraqi singer Walid al-Abadi, mocks the organization and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Another song, called “Dawlat al Kharafa” (“The State of Fools”), likens Baghdadi to a jihadist chick coming out of an egg and becoming a creature worse than Satan himself. The name of the song, which will be the theme song of a TV comedy series about to be launched in Iraq, is a play on the Arabic words for Islamic State – “Dawlat al Khalafa” (“The Caliphate State,” which IS wishes to establish in Syria and Iraq).

The most amusing anti-IS song emerged recently, again from Lebanon. It mocks not only Baghdadi but all extremist believers who interpret Islam so harshly. “I swear by Allah,” the lyrics say, “that if I were a cow I’d put on a bra” (so that males would not see her udders). The song, called “Madad Baghdadi,” was first performed a few weeks ago by the alternative Lebanese group The Great Departed.

Not surprisingly, it aroused intense public debate. Some of the song’s cynical words state that “since Islam means pity, let’s slaughter and hand out the meat to poor people. And since there is overcrowding, let’s blow up some people.” These lyrics were perceived by some as a humorous critique of IS extremism, but others saw them as being offensive to Islam. The song is very popular with young people in Lebanon, and can be heard every Tuesday when the popular group performs at Metro al-Madina in Beirut.

More simple and direct is a film posted on YouTube by residents of Mosul, in which they dedicate a song to their brethren in Syria and Lebanon. The song, performed in a restaurant, simply curses IS. Sometimes, it really is best to forget subtlety and get straight to the point.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters pose with an Islamic State flag, which they pulled down after capturing Mount Batnaya, near Zummar September 20, 2014. Credit: Reuters

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