Can Good Television Beat the Islamic State?
How a Saudi television network — with a hand from Hollywood showrunners — is countering the narrative of terrorist propaganda.
While U.S. President Donald Trump bans Muslims at home and bombs them abroad, an innovative partnership between the leading private media group in the Middle East — MBC — and top television writers and showrunners from the United States is taking a different approach: tackling the war of narratives.
It might sound strange, or even frivolous, in the midst of an all-out war against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq. But, in fact, it makes perfect sense, given the cultural, ideological nature of the larger battle against extremism. Indeed, as the Islamic State loses territory, it increases its vitriolic propaganda, with catastrophic results — most recently, the London attack perpetrated by Khalid Masood. Not only did Islamic State online propaganda urge targeting London, but now new videos have emerged leveraging the London attack as a recruiting tool.
Targeting Muslims at home or abroad will do nothing to thwart online recruitment; in fact, the opposite may be true. Fighting extremist narratives with compelling stories that embed what the Islamic State opposes — tolerance, plurality, meritocratic systems, participative democracy, human rights — and that expose the group’s hypocrisy and inhumanity is a much more effective strategy.
And the first steps are taking place right now on the small screen.
“Creating compelling TV is a craft, and what we look to Hollywood for is to teach us the craft of storytelling, not to produce for us ideas of their own,” explained Ali Jaber, the director of TV programming for MBC Group and a key driver of the project.
Leveraging local voices in Arab media seems infinitely more promising than soliciting ideas to counter extremist narratives from middle-aged, white, mostly male studio executives as Richard Stengel, the then-undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, and then-Secretary of State John Kerry did a year ago.
The State Department deserves credit for changing failed counterextremism strategies and for developing over time a collaborative approach that applies Hollywood’s ability to make good television to powerful stories from the Arab- and Muslim-majority world. After the “Think Again Turn Away” slogan that Stengel first promoted was roundly condemned as ineffective, State partnered with the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, then led by media-savvy Geoffrey Cowan, to organize a series of meetings with content providers from the Arab world to strategize on how best to develop effective narratives to counter Islamic State propaganda.
The breakthrough came when the Sunnylands meetings moved from California to Dubai and brought with them more than 20 top writers and showrunners, including the masterminds behind hit shows such as Black-ish, Silicon Valley, and King of the Hill. Jaber, who funded the meeting, described the seismic shift, using an acronym for the Islamic State: “For the first time, we sensed that the heart of Hollywood was opening up to the Arab world; for the first time, Arabs and the U.S. have an enemy in common in ISIS.”
Both Hollywood creatives and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recognize the importance of fighting the Islamic State “online as aggressively as we would on the ground” to prevent a “digital caliphate” from replacing the group’s territorial domain. New administrations don’t always continue their predecessors’ programs, but to his credit Tillerson signaled his support for the U.S.-Arab media project by inviting Jaber to keynote the Ministerial Plenary for the Global Coalition Working to Defeat ISIS, held last month at the State Department.
Jaber succinctly explained the key role of media in the fight against the Islamic State: “For us at MBC, we look at ISIS as an idea, a narrative — a dangerous one. We believe that the only way to beat that idea is to create another one that is better, more appealing, and progressive.” He spoke about the wildly popular satire Selfie, which critiques not only the Islamic State but also Saudi Arabia’s arcane religious rules and regulations (even as it airs on MBC, a Saudi-owned network), and the much soberer Black Crows, about women in the Islamic State, which will be featured this year during Ramadan. Recognizing the challenge of creating “another, more appealing narrative” to beat the Islamic State on the psychological, emotional battlefield populated by vulnerable, often dissatisfied Muslims and Arabs around the world, Jaber has turned to Hollywood’s master storytellers.
“Great Arab productions done in the American way. That will be a coup,” he told me. And with control of MBC, the largest media platform in the Arab world, reaching 150 million viewers every 15 minutes, Jaber stands ready to deliver the fruits of its collaborations.
The first step involved embedding Shereen el-Meligi, who oversees dramatic programming for MBC, for five weeks with The Last Tycoon, a series in development for Amazon. If F. Scott Fitzgerald seems an odd choice for an Arab programmer, Christopher Keyser, the showrunner, is not. Keyser oversaw the third and final season of Tyrant, the first U.S. television series based in the Middle East. Having advised Tyrant through MOST (Muslims on Screen and Television), which I co-direct, I witnessed Keyser’s deep interest in the contemporary Arab world and his desire to portray it authentically. When Jaber called for showrunners to host Arab counterparts on their Los Angeles-based shows, Keyser volunteered.
Noting that Meligi’s stay was a “really good first step,” Keyser explained that he and the show’s staff — which includes several Tyrant alumni — gave Meligi open access to the complete process, with the strong support of Sony and TriStar Television. He hopes that she will come away with a sense of how to construct a season, and how to employ writers to get the best story, as well as other “tricks of the trade.”
But the biggest trick of all may be in making sure the United States stays committed to programs like this. On the one hand, Secretary Tillerson and even President Trump, with their private sector background, would seem likely to recognize the value of enlisting Hollywood’s talent in crafting the best stories to counter Islamic State propaganda. But will these State Department-funded programs survive Trump’s budget cuts?
As more and more individuals are incited to violence by the Islamic State, much more than quality television is at stake. To quote Ali Jaber, “This is the only solution.”
Photo credit: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images