The Best Medicine

10.29.14 9:45 AM ET

Middle East Goes Monty Python on ISIS

Arab standup comics, and even an Iraqi TV show, regularly mock ISIS mercilessly. It might get them killed, but it might be worth it.

Have you heard the joke by Iraqi Kurds about ISIS fighters milking male goats? The comedy comes from fact that you can’t milk a male goat but you can perform a sexual act on the goat using a similar motion. Enough said.

Well, many in the Middle East have heard that one and many others as Muslim and Arab comedians are on the front lines in fighting ISIS.  However, these satirists’ weapon of choice isn’t airstrikes, but rather comedy, which they are employing to ridicule ISIS on TV shows and in YouTube videos.  And nothing is off limits as they mock ISIS on everything from being hypocrites when it comes to Islam to being bumbling idiots to simply smelling like crap.

A view shows actors during the filming of the set of the television series, whose title is loosely translated as "State of Myths", in Baghdad October 10, 2014. Humour and silly puns are being used as the latest weapons in the fight against extreme militants who now control large swathes of Iraqi territories. Playing on the words Kalifa (Caliphate) and Kurafa (myths or superstitions), the new Iraqi comedy show 'Dawlat al-Khurafa' (State of Myths), began airing on Iraqi state television early this month. Picture taken October 10, 2014. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani (IRAQ - Tags: SOCIETY CIVIL UNREST MEDIA POLITICS) ) - RTR4A69C

Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

A view shows actors during the filming of the set of the television series, whose title is loosely translated as "State of Myths", in Baghdad October 10, 2014.

What’s truly remarkable is that some of these comedic performers are waging their comedy battle in countries were ISIS is fighting them, such as those involved in the new Iraqi TV show that began airing Saturday that lampoons ISIS.  Unlike us, they don’t need to watch ISIS on TV; they can see ISIS from their front window. 

No one doubts that these comedians will be killed if ISIS captures them. ISIS doesn’t want to be laughed at, they want to be feared.  In fact, just a few months ago, ISIS threatened to cut the tongue out of anyone who referred to them as “Daesh,” which is the Arabic acronym for ISIS.  Why? Because ISIS learned that many Arabs use that term as an insult, because Daesh in Arabic also can mean “a bigot who imposes his view on others.”

And keep in mind that even pre-ISIS, an Iraqi comedian was killed in 2006 for comically mocking those in power.    Hard to find a tougher room for a comedian to play than Iraq, and it’s even more dangerous today.

I’m sure a few questions come to my mind when hearing about this comedy against ISIS. Such as, “I didn’t know Arabs or Muslims are funny!?” Well, don’t blame yourself, because it’s not something our media covers.  But as someone who has performed standup comedy across the Middle East with very funny local Arab comedians in countries ranging from Egypt to Jordan to even Saudi Arabia, humor is a staple of Arab culture. And for those in the New York City area who want to witness first-hand comics of Arab heritage telling jokes mocking ISIS, then check out the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival this week.   (Full disclosure: I co-produce the Festival so, yes, that was a shameless plug.)

Are these videos actually funny?  Well, I watched as many as I could find that were translated into English. (My Arabic is limited to a vocabulary of my favorite foods, such as “I love chicken and rice.”)  Some were funny, while some were more heavy handed slams of ISIS simply framed in comedic terms.

One of the funniest videos I watched was produced by Palestinians and is premised upon ISIS’ fighters manning a checkpoint.   The Palestinian actors depicted the ISIS soldiers as bumbling morons. They even referred to them as being “I-sissys.” 

Plus they ridiculed ISIS for claiming to be waging their war in the name of Islam while truly being hypocrites, such as mentioning they had been partying in nightclubs in Beirut.  This is a common theme in the comedy being launched at ISIS; namely, making the point that ISIS is truly not Islamic. (Of course, many on the right in the United States disagree, claiming that ISIS is truly Islamic.  You can decide if you agree with the actual Muslims in Middle East or right-wing people whose understanding of Islam is based on talking points from Islamophobes.)

One of the most recent comedic slams of ISIS is a music video starring Iraqi Kurds.

The video, which recently aired on Kurdish satellite TV and posted online, features five actors dressed as ISIS fighters complete with a huge ISIS flag behind them.  They sing over a traditional Middle Eastern-sounding musical composition with lyrics mocking ISIS’ fighters, such as “We are ISIS. We milk the goat, even its male.”  The song also features less subtle lyrics: “We are brainless with nothing in our heads. We are bearded, dirty and filthy.” 

Why are these comedians doing this?  Nabil Assaf, one of the creators of Lebanese TV’s “The Ktir Salbe Show” that also ridicules ISIS, explained to the UK’s Daily Mail that there are two reasons. One is to make to clear that “these people are not a true representation of Islam.”  And second, “It is a way to show we are against them.”

But the bigger question is: Does this comedy matter? The short answer: Yes.  As Assaf put it, “this is one way to reject extremism and make it so the people are not afraid.”

Now don’t get me wrong, all the jokes in the world won’t stop ISIS (who I think we should call Daesh because it pisses them off.)  Nor will it alleviate the life-threatening concerns of those living in the conflict zone.

But it empowers both those telling the jokes and those laughing at them, because it imbues them with a sense of defiance in standing up to ISIS.  And for the people of Iraq and Syria caught in this horrific war, the brief moments of levity offered by this comedy might provide a much needed cathartic release.  This reason alone may be why these comedians are vitally needed.