Two Islamic State Fighters Walk Into a Bar…
How Arabs are mocking the self-proclaimed Caliphate.
The scene has become harrowingly familiar. A man dressed head to toe in black, armed with a knife, is standing behind a row of crouching prisoners. A jihadi anthem is playing in the background. The camera goes to slow motion as the Islamic State fighter approaches the prisoners.
“So, what color is it?” the executioner demands, showing the prisoners the notorious picture of the dress that recently sparked a viral debate around the world.
“White and gold,” says the first man. As the black-clad man walks down the line, the next terrified prisoner parrots the same answer. The third one, however, breaks the script: “Black and blue,” he says, and is taken away to be beheaded — only to find his executioner having a change of heart about the color of the dress.
What looks like a professional video that could have been produced by the Islamic State is in reality a satire created by three young Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The video was a success, quickly receiving over 2 million views.
One of its creators, Mohammad Hamad, was initially heartened by the reception. But it soon reached an audience that didn’t appreciate the joke: Hamad said that threats started to reach him and his friends and family from Islamic State (IS) supporters, some claiming to be in Gaza.
“I knew there were Islamic State supporters here in Gaza but I didn’t think that they would go as far as direct threats,” Hamad said, confessing that he has now started to fear for his family and to look for a way out of the Gaza Strip.
Fear is one of IS’s most important weapons. In Syria and Iraq, its carefully orchestrated brutality has been breaking the morale of its opponents, leading many to feel that their only choice is between jumping on the bandwagon or being crushed by it. The group’s mass murder of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya in February shocked Egypt, while coordinated suicide attacks on two Shiite mosques in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in March, for which an affiliate of IS claimed responsibility, killed over 140 people and quickened that country’s descent into chaos.
But Arabs are hitting back, with laughter. With the shadow of the Islamic State looming over country after country, a seemingly endless list of Arab satirists from all over the region are now aiming their sharp tongues and pens against the group.
Fighting death through dance
The Egyptians have long been known as the Arab world’s masters of comedy. True to form, they’ve now managed to turn even the Islamic State’s most powerful anthem against the group.
“Saleel al-Sawarim” (“The clanging of the swords”) is a nasheed, a purely vocal chant, since music with instruments is forbidden according to the Islamic State’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. It is just as slick and professional as IS’s other media products, and has been a key factor in strengthening the group’s appeal. Its haunting message of martyrdom and apocalyptic struggle has helped the group recruit young people from all over the world at an unprecedented pace.
However, in the hands of 18-year-old Egyptian computer geek and amateur musician Karem Farok, the jihadi nasheed has now been remixed into a dance pop hit.
“‘Saleel al-Sawarim’ was getting very popular and it stuck in my head too, since it is a good tune,” Farok admitted. “So I wanted to transform it into a tool for mocking the Islamic State. And I managed to turn it around completely, from death and violence to dance.”
This way, listening to the remix becomes an act of defiance in what Farok sees as a psychological war.
The remix has spurred a trend in which young Arabs create their own Islamic State parodies by using Farok’s and similar “Saleel al-Sawarim” remixes. The nasheed has been dubbed over dance scenes from Egyptian films and homemade videos of goofy dancing — and even the South Korean pop song “Gangnam Style.” Videos combining the anthem with belly dancing have gone viral, with hundreds of thousands of views. Another homemade video shows three veiled women, two of them dressed in black and preparing to behead the third — at the first cry of “Allahu akbar,” the shake-your-hips drums kick in and the women break into wild dance.
The need to laugh at the Islamic State is universal, and parodies are made all around the world. Given the Internet’s love of cats, it should also come as no surprise that some anonymous figure compiled videos of cats failing miserably to jump from one place to another, all set to “Saleel al-Sawarim.”
Rock the Caliph
Satire made by Muslims is particularly powerful, since it rips apart the Islamic State’s claim to speak for the entire religion. A prime example of that is Khaled Soubeih, the lead songwriter in the Lebanese satire band Al-Rahel Al-Kabir (“The Great Departed”). When not playing music, Soubeih is pursuing a master’s degree in Islamic studies at Lebanon’s branch of Al-Azhar University, the most prominent Islamic institution of learning in the world.
When the Islamic State and al Qaeda fighters temporarily took control of a Lebanese border town last summer, creating what Khaled called a “national trauma,” the Great Departed had its breakthrough in Beirut thanks to Soubeih’s catchy song of mocking praise for IS’s self-proclaimed “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In the song, Soubeih uses Islamic references and traditional music to lampoon the jihadi group: “Since Islam is mercy, we will butcher [people] and distribute the meat,” the band chants, alluding to the Islamic tradition of slaughtering sheep and distributing meat to the poor on religious holidays.
Soubeih sees Islamic extremism as a product of political oppression that must be fought with freedom and reform. “In our satire we are not targeting Muslims as a whole but extremism, and this has enabled us to reach many people,” he said. “I even had messages from Syrian rebel fighters, including Islamists, who liked the song.”
It is sometimes said that satire is the weapon of the powerless. For artists like Soubeih, that message rings uncomfortably true: He believes that avenues for genuine political participation in the Arab world are limited, and was finally pushed into satire when he realized that earnest arguments about how to heal his region had failed him.
“With all the madness and the surreal state of things, I can no longer approach political issues in a serious way,” he said. “I mean, how can we possibly discuss seriously when someone like Muammar al-Qaddafi can rule a country?”