The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)—in January 2014 when it overran Fallujah and Ramadi and then most dramatically in June when it seized Mosul—caught not only the U.S. government by surprise, but also most Iraqis and other denizens of the broader Middle East. Far from simply staging hit-and-run attacks like an ordinary terrorist group, ISIS proved itself militarily, staging complex campaigns, fighting on two fronts simultaneously, holding on to territory comparable in size to the United Kingdom, and transporting thousands of fighters in secret over hundreds of miles.
What has really shocked both the United States and its allies in the Islamic world, however, is the Islamic State’s theatrical brutality. This was no easy feat: Westerners have long since become inured to outrages from this region. They have weathered the 1997 slaughter of tourists at Luxor, Egypt, the Taliban’s war on women and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, countless Jerusalem bus bombings, and of course 9/11. But the sexual enslavement of Yazidi women and the constant stream of YouTube videos showing crucifixions, beheadings, and homosexuals thrown off tall buildings took outrage to a new level.
Officials outlined a number of strategies to respond to the ISIS challenge: On September 10, 2014, President Barack Obama announced a strategy of limited air strikes augmented by Special Force advisers to help buffer Iraqi forces and train moderate Syrian rebels. A bit more than a month later, David S. Cohen, Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, unveiled a strategy to starve ISIS of its resources. Missing, however, was any strategy to counter and roll back ISIS’s ideology, a goal handicapped by the Administration’s refusal to acknowledge the group’s religious roots and motivation. Secretary of State John Kerry, for example, echoing remarks the President made on September 10 asserted that “the group calling itself the Islamic State is, in fact, neither a state nor truly Islamic.”1
The President and the Secretary are twice wrong. ISIS is in some ways a premodern, and in other ways a postmodern, state-building effort. It certainly employs terrorist methods from time to time, but no terrorist group in modern times has ever sought and been able to hold state-scale territory. It governs places like Raqqa and Mosul badly, but it does govern—again, something a typical terrorist group generally does not.
As for Islam, there is simply no question that the creed shapes and influences at many levels what Islamist terrorists think and do. Certainly, the principals of the U.S. government know this, but for tactical reasons both the Bush Administration and particularly the Obama Administration have been reluctant to admit publicly that there is any connection between Islam and “violent extremism”, the anodyne term often used to say what U.S. officials dare not say in public. That perhaps explains why, when the White House released its National Strategy for Counterterrorism in June 2011, it acknowledged an ideological component to terrorism, but refused to define it.
Honest people differ about the tactical wisdom of naming Islam as a source of terrorism. Some prefer to call it like it is, their argument being that to evade this point is to signal weakness to the enemy. Besides, we have clear ways of doing so; it has been well understood for almost thirty years in intellectual and policy circles that “Islamic” and “Islamist” mean different things. The problem, however, is that this distinction in English does not translate well, or at all, into Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages. So the concern is that naming Islamist terrorism for what it is will play into and strengthen the jihadi narrative that the Christian West wants to destroy Islam. Even pro-Western, anti-jihadi Muslims often warn against explicit rhetoric linking Islam with terrorism, not just the opportunistic, fundraising purveyors of “Islamophobia.” The irony of Western policymakers shying away from public discussion of the religious roots of Islamist extremism is that both extremists and their opponents in the Middle East recognize full well the Islamic religious component of extremism and, within Arabic debate on satellite stations like Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya, do not mince words—either in support or in opposition.
The upshot is that, whatever is said in public, it is crucial to acknowledge the religious basis of Islamist terrorism when officials seek to devise strategy. Only then can both moderate Muslims and Western policymakers craft strategies to ensure that moderates win the battle of interpretation. That being the case, is there a way to complement military and economic pressures on ISIS with an information strategy? Indeed there is.
While some Western officials and journalists saw the Muhammad cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons a decade later as provocative (perhaps irresponsibly so), the rage militant Islamists expressed also revealed their Achilles’ heel. Satire strikes deep at the core of Islamism or, for that matter, any totalitarian ideology. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini never read Salman Rushdie’s work, but he understood the danger of satire and so, sight unseen, banned Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and ordered the British-Indian author’s death. For all the talk of reform in Iran, the death sentence still hangs over Rushdie today. Iranian officials understand that if the public can lampoon one sacred idol, then no religious official can demand automatic respect based on his position in the religious hierarchy. There can be no arguments from authority, in other words, and when logic is of no avail, authority is often the only thing left.
Outrage at the Danish cartoons was not simply about the religious prohibition of depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. After all, that prohibition has not been consistently applied across Islamic history, as various medieval Islamic manuscript collections attest. The late 19th- and early 20th-century Egyptian theologian Muhammad ‘Abduh explicitly permitted depictions of the prophets. Interpretations change over time, however. The spread of more radical, Salafi interpretations of Islam against the backdrop of Saudi oil wealth has pushed more conservative interpretations of Islam into the mainstream. The Danish cartoon riots, however, were calculated in order to achieve specific political and diplomatic aims. Hence, they began weeks after their publication not only in Denmark, but also in Egypt and Jordan.2
Simply insulting Muslim sensibilities will neither win hearts and minds nor win the battle of interpretation. That said, highlighting the hypocrisy of those who claim the mantle of religion can be effective. Between 1992 and 1998, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (“The Islamic Group”), a violent offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, waged an insurgency and terror campaign against the Egyptian government, security forces, and tourism industry. The terror claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers and police, as well as several dozen foreigners.
While the Egyptian military and security services led a counterinsurgency that imprisoned thousands, the Egyptian government also moved to lampoon and delegitimize the religious radicals fanning the insurgency. In 1994, in what the New York Times called “the celluloid front”, the government-friendly Egyptian film industry produced Al-Irhabi, “The Terrorist”, a film starring Adel Emam, the Egyptian version of Leslie Nielsen of Airplane! and The Naked Gun fame.3 The plot was simple: Emam’s character Brother Ali is a naive young Islamist being groomed for terrorism. Struck by a car while fleeing an attack, he is taken in and nursed back to health by a middle-class family. He learns tolerance, generosity of spirit, and platonic friendship with women. Meanwhile, his Islamist controllers are depicted drinking and engaging in all sorts of behaviors in private that they condemn publicly.
The story does not have a happy ending: When Brother Ali returns to the cell and confronts the Islamists about their hypocrisy and false depiction of Egyptian society, they kill him. Subtlety was not the Egyptian government’s goal. As Minister of Information Safwat al-Sherif explained in the New York Times, “It illustrates that whenever anyone is allowed to see society clearly, they give up extremism.” The film struck a nerve when it came out, and helped the Mubarak regime turn public opinion against an increasingly virulent Islamist insurgency.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s reaction to Al-Irhabi and other films like Al-Irhab w’al Kabab (“Terrorism and Kabab”), in which Emam lampooned religious conservatives (alongside the unresponsive and corrupt Egyptian bureaucracy), attests both to their effectiveness and to the Islamist aversion to humor. One of the first actions the Muslim Brotherhood took upon winning power in Egypt was to target Emam, charging and eventually convicting him of “defaming Islam” for his various film roles and sentencing him, in absentia, to three months in prison with hard labor. The Muslim Brotherhood sought to make an example out of him for another reason as well: When it comes to Egyptian cinema, what happens in Egypt doesn’t stay in Egypt. Cairo is the Hollywood of the Arabic-speaking Middle East; its films and television serials have audiences from Marrakech to Mosul.
Nor was Emam alone. Egyptian medical doctor Bassem Youssef became a television sensation in Cairo when, in the wake of Egypt’s 2011 upheavals, he launched a satirical program on YouTube that went viral, gaining more than five million views in its first three months. Egyptian television channel ONTV, perhaps Egypt’s only independent channel, offered Youssef his own show, Al-Birnamig (“The Program”), which garnered him fame as Egypt’s answer to Jon Stewart. While he targeted and lampooned Egyptian figures from across the political spectrum, it was too much for Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President. In 2013, Egyptian prosecutors launched a case against him for “circulating false news likely to disturb public peace and public security and affect the administration”, and for denigrating Islam.
If Egypt represents a largely secular government pitted against an Islamist opposition, the opposite is true for Iran, Saudi Arabia, and, increasingly, Turkey, where religiously conservative governments rule over populations who often do not match their leaders’ conservatism. Against the backdrop of repression by a religious regime, satire and ridicule of clerical and devout figures often becomes part of the social phalanx of passive resistance.
In Iran, jokes disparaging senior clerics and even the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini regularly circulate. This is an affront that the regime cannot tolerate, for it breeds disrespect for leaders and strips them of their religious legitimacy. Hence, in September 2014, Hossein Ashtari, chief of Iran’s national police, announced that Iran’s cyber police had launched a major operation against Iranians circulating jokes about Khomeini on Viber, an instant messaging and voice-over-IP application designed for smartphones.4 Given rising property crime and endemic drug abuse in Iran, the fact that the police made investigating and punishing online jokes about ayatollahs a priority underscores their sensitivity to satire.
Being on the wrong side of regime censors, Iranian cinematographers cannot be as blunt as their Egyptian counterparts were in Al-Irhabi, but they can nonetheless lampoon the regime’s religious interpretations with subtlety. This was the case with the 1998 thriller Ghermez (“Crimson”), the story of an abused wife who is unjustly denied a divorce in the Islamic Republic’s court from her paranoid husband, who justifies his abuse by means of religious precepts. Director Fereydoun Jeyrani ensures that Hasti, the wife, wins the audience’s sympathy as she embarks on a murderous rampage against those who stood in the way of justice. His depiction of the insensitivity and ignorance of religious judges is withering.
Deep internet and social media penetration has enabled satire to spread into the most cloistered religious societies. With its online satire lampooning Saudi Arabia’s conservative, religious society, the Jeddah-based UTURN Entertainment became an overnight sensation against the backdrop of the Kingdom’s otherwise austere media environment.
Former Turkish Prime Minister-turned-President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who often depicts himself as a religious scholar and guide, has shown himself particularly intolerant to any satire directed toward himself or his fellow conservatives. In 2002, the same year that Erdoğan’s religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power, four Turkish cartoonists started Penguen (“Penguin”). The magazine came to international notice in 2005 after Erdoğan successfully sued one of its cartoonists for depicting him as a cat tangled in a ball of string, an innocuous cartoon criticizing Erdoğan’s tussles with bureaucracy. Rather than self-censor in the wake of the court judgment, however, the magazine doubled down. In 2011, it published a cartoon showing a man talking on a cell phone in a mosque. Hidden in calligraphy in the background was the statement, “There is no God; Religion is a Lie”, an episode that likely motivated an arson attack against its offices the following year and led the government to threaten Bahadır Baruter with a year’s imprisonment. In 2014, Turkish Islamist Adnan Oktar sued a popular online satirical website Ekşi Sözlük (“Sour Dictionary”) for entries allegedly disrespectful to Islamic prophets and figures. State prosecutors demanded between six months and one year in prison for forty contributing writers.
Humor can often be spontaneous. In the wake of the 2013 Gezi Square protests in Istanbul, Turkish liberals, businessmen, and intellectuals delighted in witty, satirical graffiti, as Erdoğan’s security forces intimidated journalists and shuttered other outlets. “You banned alcohol, the people sobered up”, one slogan read. Humor and satire might not always target religious icons, but religious figures who depend on blind acceptance or, in the case of Islam, submission to their legitimacy seem to have a more difficult time tolerating it. Tarnishing the image of those who claim the mantle of religion—or mocking the radical interpretations of Islam that they espouse—could be the basis for an effective media strategy conducted as part of a coherent strategy.
If the United States, its Western allies, and moderate Arab states seek to counter Islamist extremist propaganda, they must adopt a strategy that targets not only those living under ISIS’s control, but those within its media reach. Western officials should not underestimate the Islamic State’s media operation. While they usually focus on extremist chat forums and social media, the Islamic State also employs more traditional methods. It runs radio stations in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq. AM and FM radio signals from Islamic State-controlled territory reach a hundred miles into Turkey, sixty miles into Iran, and fifty miles into Jordan. This is in addition to the 48 percent of Syrians and 71 percent of Iraqis living outside ISIS control. This translates into a potential audience of 42 million.5
Against this media penetration, the U.S. government and moderate Arab forces rely on traditional methods: Arabic satellite channels and radio. Penetrating ISIS areas with satellite media messaging, however, can be difficult. It is not known to what degree those living under ISIS control can still access satellite and other outside sources of entertainment and news. Even if personal satellite receivers remain, their use can be dangerous. In January 2015, ISIS reportedly executed 13 boys in Mosul for the sin of watching a soccer game. It is important to compete on the same technological platform that ISIS uses. Regardless, it is far easier to hide the use of a small radio receiver.
That said, U.S.-sponsored radio does not necessarily penetrate. Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for example, continue to transmit shortwave into the Middle East even though shortwave radios have become both rare and obsolete in the age of the internet. This is a waste of time and money, and the opportunity costs of continuing are not insignificant.
Once the technical hurdles are overcome, new programing that ridicules and diminishes the adversary is essential. There is a tendency within American-influenced operations to shy away from humor. Mid-level information operations operatives in Baghdad, for example, often complained that their superiors were so afraid of doing anything wrong that they ended up doing nothing right, ceding the informational battlespace. Religion is simply treated as a minefield best avoided. This might make sense when the adversary organizes around national ideologies that do not touch upon religion, but when a group’s organizing principle is its religious ideology, it is a self-defeating policy. Simply denying the sincerity with which an opponent embraces religion or rejecting its theological correctness does not make the problem go away.
When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivered his first public sermon on July 4, 2014 in Mosul, everything he did—from dressing in black to the way he picked his teeth with a reed before he began speaking—was meant to draw parallels between himself and Muhammad. That he adopted the name Abu Bakr, the same name as Muhammad’s successor, simply emphasized the point. Baghdadi was not alone in this strategy. In 1996, Taliban leader Mullah Omar entered the Shrine of the Cloak in Kandahar and ordered its caretaker to lend him the shrine’s most important icon, a cloak that the Prophet Muhammad supposedly wore. He proceeded to hold it up, his hands in its sleeves. Other Mullahs celebrated him as the commander of the faithful, in effect, assuming the mantle of the Prophet.
Religious history is filled with stories of false prophets or those who seek to assume the responsibility of God. Charismatic figures like Khomeini, Baghdadi, or perhaps even the reclusive Mullah Omar might succeed in claiming a religious aura, but countless others fail. The question for policymakers is how ridicule and satire might cloud their aura in the eyes of their recruiting pool and followers. To belittle figures such as Khomeini, Baghdadi, Omar, or anyone who claims a religious mantle does not belittle the Prophet Muhammad or denigrate Islam. There is nothing forbidden about poking fun at mere mortals who seek to assume the mantle of the Prophet.
Ultimately, the battle of interpretation within Islam must be won or lost by moderate Muslims. Non-Muslims will never attain sufficient standing to legitimize any particular exegesis, which is why the tendency of American politicians to say what true Islam is or is not is completely counterproductive. It is also why Washington-based claims that terms such as “jihadi” or “mujaheddin” should be avoided because they bestow religious legitimacy is irrelevant: No Islamist interprets Washington phraseology as a factor one way or the other in bestowing religious legitimacy.
That does not mean that targeted ridicule and de-legitimization by non-Muslims can never work. In 2002, against the backdrop of a Palestinian suicide bombing campaign, Hamas spokesman (and subsequent chief) Abdel Aziz Rantisi swore that he would have no objection to his own children becoming suicide bombers. Israeli security services then released a recording of Rantisi’s wife forbidding her son to become a suicide bomber and rudely dismissing a Hamas activist who asked why her son had not shown up at a mosque for a meeting. Her son, she explained, is “not involved in with those things, and is busy with studies.”6 Likewise, while Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh regularly dismisses any right for Israel to exist and even initiated a war against Israel in 2014, the Israeli government leaked that he had sent his own daughter to an Israeli hospital after a botched surgery in Gaza.
In 2001, the Iranian judiciary sentenced Kazem Montazeri-Moghadam, a revolutionary court judge, to prison for his role molesting and prostituting teenage girls. Alas, too often, American broadcasting seeks to build credibility not by ridiculing U.S. opponents but rather by criticizing the United States, something that only plays into its adversaries’ hands. If an Islamist government reveals hypocrisy in its ranks, it is certainly fair game for us to bring a useful echo.
Satire is like a carnival caricature; it may exaggerate, but it strikes a chord because its basis in fact resonates with a wide audience. It will not singlehandedly defeat radical Islamists, nor will it alone blunt the security challenge they pose. Still, to rely solely on military strategies, even combined with economic pressure, is to play Whac-A-Mole. To win the long campaign we must learn how to deter recruits from joining jihadi groups. It does us little good to kill five would-be terrorists if in the process we stimulate the recruitment of 15 more.
Ultimately, to defeat the threat of radical Islamism means delegitimizing it intellectually and theologically. Other Muslims must lead the way, but we can help, too. Islamists cannot handle free thinking in the best of times, but ridicule is their kryptonite, for it shows that the would-be caliphs have no clothes. Hence it should be an essential part of any strategy.
1Secretary of State John Kerry, “Remarks at Third Annual Transformational Trends Policy Forum”, Washington, DC, November 17, 2014.
2Pernille Ammitzbøll and Lorenzo Vidino, “After the Danish Cartoon Controversy,” Middle East Quarterly (Winter 2007).
3Chris Hedges, “Battling the Religious Right: The Celluloid Front”, New York Times, April 18, 1994.
4“Sarnakhha-ye Jadid az ‘Avamel Tawhin beh Moqadasat dar Vayber” (“New Clues About Viber Blasphemy”), Mehr News Agency (Tehran), September 13, 2014.
5“ISIL: TV, Radio Reach Potentially Extends Far Beyond Control, Support Zones”, Open Source Center, November 24, 2014.
6Nina Gilbert and Matthew Gutman, “Hamas Leader’s Wife Forbids Son to Become Suicide Bomber”, Jerusalem Post, August 2, 2002.