Originally published under the title "Humor Can Be Effective Political Weapon."
Bono's counter-terrorism dream team (left to right: Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, and Sacha Baron Cohen) lacks a native touch.
When Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., invited U2 frontman Bono to speak to a Senate subcommittee hearing last month, the foreign aid impresario did not make big news stating that "Aid in 2016 is not charity; it is national security. It could be the best bulwark against violent extremism." Instead, the memorable moment came when he told senators that comedians should be enlisted to fight the Islamic State: "laugh at them when they're goose-stepping down the street, and it takes away their power. So I'm suggesting that the Senate send in Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, and Sacha Baron Cohen."
Bono is right about the power of humor to deflate bullies. But in order to work against the Islamic State, both Middle East and Western populations need to be targeted. It's doubtful that Schumer, Rock and Cohen could have much impact on the Middle East audience, primarily because they are outsiders. And on the two notable occasions when Saturday Night Live aired skits featuring the Islamic State, it made fun of Americans, not the Islamic State. Even in the skit featuring Chris Rock as an Islamic State fighter seeking funding on the TV show Shark Tank, the comedy was directed at Americans, not at the Islamic State.
Western satire is culturally inaccessible to most Middle Easterners.
For humor to be an effective weapon, it must come from within the culture, or at least appear to. And it must use modes of entertainment, if not indigenous, at least familiar to the culture. Even the wittiest romantic comedy is unlikely to work on a Middle Eastern audience. If humor has any chance to "take away their power," it will have to be accessible either to people who come into daily contact with Islamic State fighters or those recruited by the Islamic State. The most effective satirical attack would need to be delivered in a short Internet-friendly video, the likes of which the Islamic State uses.
The type of humor employed is also important; it must be caustic, exclusionary wit, not jovial or light-hearted comedy. Satirizing the Islamic State and ridiculing its Islamist ideology should attempt to make the movement and its ideas seem backward, unsophisticated, uncool. The Islamic State portrays itself as a caliphate, comprised of authentic jihadis practicing pure Islam. Effective satire could rebrand them as a collection of backward, ignorant buffoons.
Weaponized humor has a long and rich history, starting with the ancient Greek inventors of satire. But eighteenth-century England is the Golden Age of political satire: William Hogarth (1697-1764) and James Gillray (1756-1815) invented the political cartoon. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) ridiculed his enemies with a mock epic he titled The Dunciad. Henry Fielding (1707-1754) mocked a rival's novel, Pamela, with a parody titled Shamela, transforming its prim and proper heroine into a lascivious one.
Iraqi Kurdish performers lampoon ISIS in 2014.
To date, the best example of satire targeting the Islamic State came from one particularly brave Kurdish comedy group in a skit that aired on KurdSat TV in 2014.
The musical skit features five comedians with fake beards and Islamic State regalia pretending to be Islamic State fighters, singing their anthem and strumming their Kalashnikovs like guitars. The song parodies the Islamic State with acerbic wit in the tradition of Pope and Fielding, portraying its members as hypocrites who "strive for jihad and sex." The "brainless" Islamic State members sing "We are bearded, dirty and filthy," "Our leader is called qaqa," and "We hate the smell of nice mint." The group's atavism is mocked with "We bring history to the present" and "we scare women and children."
Not only does their parody make Westerners laugh but it also targets prospective Islamic State recruits.
The song's choral refrain is one of the most trenchant insults in the history of satire: "We are ISIS. We are ISIS. / We milk the goat even if it's male."
Imagine the effects of Iraqi youths mocking Islamic State fighters as the milkers of male goats.
Using humor against the Islamic State and all variants of Islamism is worth trying.
Instead of sending in Schumer, Rock and Cohen, the U.S. should send money to the Kurdish comedians of KurdSat TV. Don't send in the clowns. Fund the Kurds.
A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.