With doleful predictability, the Islamic State (ISIS), the brutal extremist group, called for a wave of attacks to “paralyse” Europe just days after Britain voted to leave the European Union. Separately, however, jihadists transmitted a less dark post-Brexit note via Telegram, the cloud-based instant messaging service. It read: “The mujahideen will keep their cells in UK separate from EU in respect of #Brexit”.
Got it? The joke is on Britain and the message is almost funny enough to make one forget that its senders are not jolly types. Assorted jihadists, but ISIS fighters especially, are prone to decapitate their enemies, burn them alive in a cage and teach young children how to hunt and kill prisoners in a gruesome version of hide-and-seek. ISIS has been known to turn its victims’ painful death into a cross between a perverted propaganda film and spectator sport for social media networks.
And yet, “the mujahideen” seem to have a decided sense of humour. Admittedly, it is gallows humour of the sort that sees the comic side only in the misfortune of others but it betrays a sardonic sophistication about how fast the world changes. It could be argued that by satirising Britain’s attempt to be separate from the European Union, those “mujahideen” were puncturing the West’s inflated bubble of pomposity about liberal international cooperation.
Satire is a powerful tool. It banishes fear by making the high and mighty seem puny and ridiculous. When you laugh, you are no longer afraid. That is the message Egypt’s most famous contemporary satirist Bassem Youssef recently took to Tunisia.
On stage, Youssef lampooned the conspiracy theorists of three separate Egyptian governments — Hosni Mubarak, Muhammad Morsi and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. All peddled ludicrous, practically identical paranoia, he said. He hailed Tunisia as the birthplace of the “Arab spring”, “otherwise known as the Arab Disappointment”.
He laughingly rejected the idea that the 2011 Egyptian uprising was “inspired” by Tunisia’s revolution. It was actually a form of competitive attention-seeking, he dead-panned. And he extolled the Arab world’s extraordinary mastery of the dictator “brand”. There’s simply no other part of the planet that has acquired quite so much expertise with dictators, he told Tunisians straight-faced. It might even be a core strength that deserves to be trademarked.
If there is any measure of Youssef’s effectiveness, it is this: He has millions of fans across the Arab world but can no longer live and work there. Instead, he is based in the United States.
Youssef is hardly the first Arab with a funny bone to be harried in his homeland for poking fun at vainglorious strongmen, radically perverted Islamists and immoral guardians of purity.
Authoritarian regimes fear satire — stand-up comedy and cartoons — because, unlike sarcasm, it roots for positive change by exposing follies and weaknesses with humour. Both sarcasm and satire draw attention to weaknesses — in people, societies, whole pathologies — but sarcasm seeks to belittle and bring down; satire to raise up.
This imbues it with a purity that can serve as a psychedelic for the young and idealistic.
The tragedy of the Arab world is that there is not enough satire, that matchless weapon in the fight against political injustice, societal inequity and systemic decay.
A mocking portrayal of Morocco’s king can be grounds for imprisonment. Rulers of the Gulf states are rarely caricatured by cartoonists on location, so to speak. There is Youssef, of course, who is often described as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, and is safely in exile. And there is Fahad Albutairi, who is dubbed the Jerry Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia, and strictly stays away from satirising royalty and religion.
Syria’s Ali Farzat had to flee to Kuwait after the Syrian uprising because he started to draw Syrian President Bashar Assad as his people saw him. For example, he portrayed Assad awkwardly perched on a broken chair as things increasingly became a pain in the backside. More humiliatingly, he depicted the president as a small figure in front of a mirror, which reflects him back as the stereotypical political strongman. The cartoon that really got him into trouble, however, was Assad trying to thumb a lift from Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
Some say that the best way to be a popular satirist in the Arab world is to be like Egypt’s Lenin el- Ramly, who is famous throughout the region but takes great care not to stamp too hard on the political bunions of various regimes.
Funnily, for satire, that is rather sad.