In a recent comedy skit on Palestine’s Al-Falastiniya TV station, three men dressed as Islamic State soldiers lean against their jeep in the countryside and tell a passing car to pull over. After reminiscing with the Lebanese driver about their time in Beirut listening to pop music and hanging out with local girls, they shoot the driver dead for misremembering how many times to bow when entering a mosque.
In Lebanon, the popular, satiric Ktir Salbe Show recently released a sketch where a taxi driver picks up a jihadi and offers to turn off the air conditioning because it wasn’t available in the early days of Islam. The jihadi declines and then takes a call on a cell phone, prompting the driver to kick him out and tell him to wait for a camel ride instead.
In Iraq, a cartoon series airing on state-run television showed a young Islamist militant dropping a rocket launcher on his boss’s toe. He then fires the weapon while holding it backwards, killing his boss.
With radical Islamist militants seizing territory in Iraq and Syria, the Middle East has turned toward a black brand of humor to satirize and cope with a band of fighters advocating a medieval interpretation of Islam and a sadistic system of justice. Last week, Islamic State fighters released a video allegedly showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist Steve Sotloff. Coming on the heels of the James Foley execution video, the extensive video evidence of Islamic State atrocities has refocused attention on a conflict marked by its extreme violence, including public executions, torture, and mass killings.
For artists and entertainers in the region, that kind of violence can pose a daunting challenge. Beheadings don’t make for great comedic material, but gallows humor captures both the inhumanity and humorlessness of Islamic State militants.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Nabil Assaf, a producer and writer of the Ktir Salbe Show, said these skits are small acts of resistance that remind Arabs they are still safe enough to laugh. "These people are not a true representation of Islam and so by mocking them, it is a way to show that we are against them," Assaf said. "Of course it’s a sensitive issue, but this is one way to reject extremism and make it so the people are not afraid."
In the Middle East and North Africa, black humor and political satire have a long history as sources of resistance against authoritarian states. During the four-decade rule of the Assad family in Syria, the government has often looked the other way when newspapers published political cartoons mocking citizens’ lack of privacy or leaders’ excessive wealth. In the 1990s, when access to satellite television exploded in the Arab world, satirical commentary dealing with sociopolitical issues everywhere from Morocco to Saudi Arabia to Iraq streamed into households across the region. In Saudi Arabia, one of the most popular contemporary TV series is Tash ma Tash, a satirical comedy that criticizes strict Saudi laws.
Today, with expanded access to YouTube channels and blogs, comedians now have more outlets than ever before. In the same way Americans rely on the Onion or "The Colbert Report" to laugh across party lines, comedy serves as an effective lens for interpreting extreme — if more violent — politics.
In another clip from al Falastinaya, a man is stopped and asked how many times the letter "A" appears in a passage from the Quran. He suggests they just shoot him instead. The ISIS militants shrug and comply.