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BOOKS Dying for a laugh

There are no laugh-out-loud gags in Joking about Jihad, says JAN WOOLF, but that does not detract from a unique study of how the existential threat of jihadist terror is increasingly the butt of satire in the Arab world

Joking About Jihad: Comedy and Terror in the Arab World
by Gilbert Ramsay and Moutaz Alkheder
(Hurst, £25)

IT’S a funny one, humour. Where it comes from. What it releases. Is it cruel?  

And it’s hard to nail down, too. A scientific study could be like analysing poetry or pulling a flower apart by its petals.  

Yet in politics, satire and comedy are powerful tools, not just to cut through crap and hypocrisy but to mock and therefore render impotent — Mel Brookes ridiculed the Nazis in The Producers and Monty Python the crucifixion in The Life of Brian.

In this book, Gilbert Ramsay and Moutaz Alkheder claim that global jihadism is no exception.

But whereas those films are works of art, Joking About Jihad is an academic study about humour and jokes.

And like most jokes, explaining them diffuses them. But no matter. The book is fascinating, even though the funnies don’t explode.

As Chris Morris has shown elsewhere, nothing is beyond the pale for satire, even paedophilia, if it’s well done.

Whereas satire illuminates, jokes can humiliate and, as shame is the modern stocks, mockery is the contemporary stockery.

I once heard a splendid put-down that a show fared as well with the audience as the Vagina Monologues at the Taliban Glee Club.  

Ramsay and Alkheder, of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews, ask what role humour can play in undermining the conditioned young men and women who believe that killing themselves and others is a calling.

In what is an academic rather than psychological study they trace the roots of humour, isolating “four ideal-type mechanisms that are relevant to the intersection of humour and conflict, which we term: pillory, travesty, raillery and coxcombry.”

This parsing out of the types of humour engages the intellect but not the funny bone but then that’s not the book’s intention.

It does, however, contain a fascinating study of home-grown Middle Eastern comedy aimed at jihadists, from Lebanon and Egypt to Syria and Iraq.

Risky stuff, but they keep it coming like machine-gun fire, and only they know the nuances.

There is also, apparently, a “jihadist sense of humour,” though it is diffused as it leaves the mouth.

The complex place of laughter within the utopianism of the movement is explored, showing how jihadists make use of jokes, “tara’if,” to increase the pull of their cause for bored youths looking for adventure.

The authors also unveil the ambiguous position of this humour in the official propaganda of jihadist groups, maintaining that it plays a role in their recruitment process.

Chris Morris’s movie Four Lions does this superbly, yet doesn’t get a mention.

It’s fascinating to learn that Arab comedians are now using more inclusive language to unite people with different perspectives and that this is paving the way for less polarised societies.

The emergence of humour in formerly Islamist places is also opening up critiques of religious extremism, yet many comedians walk a thin line in trying not to make fun of Islam itself.

The chapter Bono Loses the Plot explains how the rock star was mocked by po-faced politicians for suggesting that humour be deployed as an undermining device against terrorism.

But then the Establishment got it and the authors examine “how humour is used as a counter-narrative by global counter-extremism practitioners.”

This and other phrases are presented without irony but if delivered straight in a comedy club would bring the house down.

So, nearly 20 years since the start of the so-called war on terror, the war of ideas has opened up a new front: comedy combat against terrorism, with focus-group debates on the role of humour in counter-extremism in specialist government think tanks.

Oh to be a fly on the wall. What a great TV series that would make.

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