Laughing at Isis: Syrian video artists go beyond fear to ridicule jihadis

Young refugees risk their lives by mocking Islamic State in a series of films, as satirising the extremists grows in popularity across the Middle East

The Guardian, UK/March 12, 2015

By  Constanze Letsch

They don’t have much to laugh about. But four young Syrian refugees from Aleppo believe humour may be the only antidote to the horrors taking place back home.

Settled in a makeshift studio in the Turkish city of Gaziantep 40 miles from the Syrian border, the film-makers decided ridicule was an effective way of responding to Islamic State and its grisly record of extreme violence.

“The entire world seems to be terrified of Isis, so we want to laugh at them, expose their hypocrisy and show that their interpretation of Islam does not represent the overwhelming majority of Muslims,” says Maen Watfe, 27. “The media, especially the western media, obsessively reproduce Isis propaganda portraying them as strong and intimidating. We want to show their weaknesses.”

The films and videos on Watfe and his three friends’ website mock the Islamist extremists and depict them as naive simpletons, hypocritical zealots and brutal thugs. It’s a high-risk undertaking. They have had to move house and keep their addresses secret from even their best friends after receiving death threats.

But the video activists – Watfe, Youssef Helali, Mohammed Damlakhy and Aya Brown – will not be deterred.

Their film The Prince shows Isis leader and self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi drinking wine, listening to pop music and exchanging selfies with girls on his smartphone. A Moroccan jihadi arrives saying he came to Syria to “liberate Jerusalem”. The leader swaps the wine for milk and switches the music to Islamic chants praising martyrdom. Then he hands the Moroccan a suicide belt and sends him off against a unit of Free Syrian Army fighters. The grenades detonate, and Baghdadi reaches for his glass of wine and turns the pop music back on.

It is pieces like this that have brought hate mail and threats via social media.

“One of them said that they would finish us off like they finished off Charlie [Hebdo],” Brown, 26, recalls. She declined to give her real name out of fear for her family, who still live in Aleppo. “In the end we decided to move from our old apartment.”

The Turkish landlord told them Arabic-speaking men had repeatedly asked for their whereabouts after they left, and kept the studio under surveillance.

“He was really scared,” says Helali. “He told us never to contact him again, and never to come back to his house. We are very lucky that we were not in the apartment when the Isis men came.”

 The group moved to a new flat and set up a new studio. “Not even our friends know where we live now,” Helali says. Many people he knows were avoiding the Facebook page of the group, called Daya al-Taseh, for fear of repercussions.

But is it possible to laugh at a group as brutal as Isis? Samir Alani, an opposition journalist from the eastern province of Deir el-Zour who spent time in an Isis jail, certainly thinks so.

“It’s so easy to make fun of them – mostly they are making fools of themselves,” he chuckles. “Many people are terrified of Daesh [Isis], but humour helps to push past that fear. A group like [Isis] can best be countered when civil society is neither afraid nor impressed by them. This is what these sketches can achieve.”

 Indeed, mocking Isis is a growing sport in the region, with satires on the extremists becoming popular internet and TV entertainment across the Middle East. There are now TV shows, cartoons and sketches seeking to expose the group’s hypocrisy, such as the popular and lavishly produced Iraqi TV show Dawlat al-Khurafa, aired on state-funded channel Al Iraqiya, which ridicules Isis as leading a dysfunctional, imaginary Islamic state.

But the Syrian video activists caution that the Iraqi show, produced by Shia Iraqis, might be seen as a sectarian attack on Sunnis, and hence offensive, in the same way that mockery by western shows such as Saturday Night Live has backfired.

“Western, non-Muslim media portray Muslims as terrorists with very little nuance,” says Brown. “It looks like they make no difference between Isis and all other Muslims, which is why when they make fun of Isis, it is easily misunderstood here and might drive even more people to join them, out of spite and anger.”

The group avoids all Islamic symbols, such as the black Shahada flag or the seal of the prophet Muhammad, both of which are often associated with Isis in the west.

“We are angry that Isis uses these symbols,” Brown said. “And it is not right that this is so unquestioningly accepted by non-Muslims. In order to portray an Isis fighter, you don’t need to use [this flag]. Isis does not stand for Islam. We want to show that Islam is a religion of peace, and does not stand for terror and violence.”

It is also the reason the group discuss each idea and sketch in detail before releasing them on their website.

“We don’t want to make fun of people’s beliefs and alienate them,” says Brown, recalling criticism over the use of a headscarf in one sketch. “Sometimes we make mistakes, too, but we try to take people’s reactions into account.”
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Isis is the main target of their scorn and humour, but the quartet started out poking fun at Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus.

Watfe studied electrical engineering and spent six months in a regime jail for documenting atrocities and human rights abuses by Assad forces in Aleppo. With extremist Islamist groups increasingly dominating the conflict, Watfe finally left Syria in 2013. In Turkey he started making satirical videos mocking the Assad regime.

“Our main aim was to support the revolution against Assad,” he explains. “But then the entire world’s attention shifted to Isis. Suddenly they were all the media talked about, making everyone blind to Assad’s crimes.”

“We believe that media can have an important impact,” says Helali. “Isis’s own media strategy proves that. They are very professional, and they get all the attention. It is time to deflate them, to expose their lies and laugh at them. When people laugh, they lose their fear.”

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