Hurting the Islamic State group with comedy

Hurting the Islamic State group with comedy
Comment: While the devastation wrought by the Islamic State group is no laughing matter, the only antidote to terror is humour, argues James Denselow
4 min read
08 Sep, 2015
More than a year of international coalition airstrikes have failed to contain IS [Getty]
The world watches on with impotent frustration as the historic ruins of Palmyra are blasted to smithereens.

This week we said farewell to the Temple of Bel, whose gravestone will now read AD32-2015.

One by one the sites are being destroyed, the agony being drawn out by IS as if the buildings were in orange jumpsuits waiting to have their throats slit. As Colonel Kurtz from Conrad's Heart of Darkness said: "The horror, the horror."

The fear that strikes the hearts of those history lovers around the world in the face of such actions is, of course, nothing like the fear felt by those refugees who are throwing themselves into the mercy of the deadly Mediterranean to get away from both IS and the Syrian regime's killing machines.
     The world seems unable to deal with either the cause or the consequence of Syria's descent into madness

Half the population have been forced from their homes. The world seems unable to deal with either the cause or the consequence of Syria's descent into madness.

Serious thought needs to be given to all these urgent matters - how to deal with the immediacy of the humanitarian catastrophe that continues to bleed out of the broken country that once was Syria?

What to do about Assad? How to establish a coherent short and long term strategy to win the fight on the ground and in the airwaves against IS?

For too long in its short but dizzying ascent to global enemy number one, it has been able to set the agenda. There is still no agreement even as to what to refer to them as. Al Qaeda in Iraq suddenly mutated, as if the result of a branding meeting following expansion in Syria, into a self-declared Caliphate whose own "Islamic State" referral brought recruits and further "legitimacy".

IS are myth makers - slick propaganda and social media efforts are designed as distractions from the brutal reality on the ground. They seek to be feared and therefore respected - something with which young vulnerable adults travelling to join them can sympathise.

Initially when "the Caliphate" was announced, the chutzpah of its ambition was dismissed. As with the Taliban - initially a strange group with bizarre adherence to fundamental laws and practices and not taken as a serious political actor until 9/11 - IS was see as a mutant flash in the pan whose capture of Mosul was more down to Iraq's military incompetence rather than its own efforts.

Yet Mosul, Iraq's second city, continues to live under the IS black flag more than a year later.

The scale of the firepower of the coalition lined up against IS is not in dispute - but when it comes to the wider narrative, the group's networked messaging appears more flexible and adaptable than the traditional state player's responses - just have a look at the UK Foreign Office anti-IS Twitter account to understand how far they have to go to catch up.
     Humour is the antidote to terror

One tactic that needs to be explored, not just by governments, but by creative types around the free world, is the use of humour against IS.

Humour is the antidote to terror. This has been seen in some clips already - such as Dakota Johnson's It's only Isis to a wider number of regional efforts. A coalition of civil society - with state, academic and policy support where appropriate - can challenge religious arguments, expose realities of life in Syria and shed light on the hypocrisy of claimed piety against a backdrop of Rolex watches, fast SUVs, sex slaves and the spoils of war.

An umbrella of constant mini-campaigns can undermine the apparent appeal of the IS "Caliphate" as a serious entity worth travelling to, fighting and dying for.  

We know that IS is very successful at getting messages into global press but what about vice versa - challenging their dominance of social media and the local zones in which they exert physical control.  

Instead of lazy demonisation that often fails to cut through - more sustained and tactical identification of IS fighters is needed, exposing their backgrounds, which are often less-than-pious tales of petty criminality.

Witness how "Jihadi John" disappeared from IS messaging once he'd been revealed as Mohammed Emwazi. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin took on Hitler through a thinly veiled surrogate of the seemingly all-powerful Nazi. More creative attacks on the IS brand will help turn the war for hearts and minds.  

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.