Middle East comedians are using ISIS to make jokes

America Abroad
Dean Obeidallah

One song that’s been gaining popularity in Egypt is titled “Prince of Criminals,” by pop singer Shaben Abdel Rahim. He mocks ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with lyrics like:

“Oh Abu Bakr al Baghdadi - oh prince of the criminals It seems that you are a nut surrounded by crazy people…”

Arab-American comedian Dean Obeidallah has been keeping an eye on many of these parodies, which he says have been catching fire on social media.  He says not only are these parodies “remarkable” but also “daring and courageous” — noting some are coming from humorists living and operating inside Iraq and Syria, where ISIS is actively operating.

He says these comedians are taking great risks. “I’ve performed across the US and the Middle East and I’ve had some tough shows in my life, but never did I think, perhaps, I will be killed after the show for making a certain joke.”  

Qatar-based Northwestern University associate professor Joe Khalil says, though risky, mocking authority has a rich history in the Middle East. “Fighting extremism with comedy has been something that's entrenched in the Arab culture. Whether comedy in the form of jokes that are whispered from one person to another against rulers, or whether it is in film and in television.”

Khalil’s work focuses on researching alternative media in the Arab world. Still, he says the power of parodies may be limited in actually combatting ISIS — but that’s not to say they don’t play a crucial role.

“What is important to pay attention to also is the fact that these types of parodies may not be able to get people on the streets to fight against ISIS and to attack them. [But], at least I think, they would be able to demystify any type of appeal that such ideologies may have just people are able to laugh at them,” he says.

Both Khalil and Obeidallah agree that, at the very least, these parodies are offering some much needed catharsis for a region that lately has had little to laugh about.

Will you keep The World spinning?

Donations from listeners like you are absolutely crucial in funding the great music and human-centered global news you hear on The World. Recurring gifts provide predictable, sustainable support — letting our team focus on telling the stories you don’t hear anywhere else. If you make a gift of $100 or pledge $10/month we’ll send you a curated playlist highlighting some of the team's favorite music from the show Donate today to keep The World spinning.