So by now everyone’s seen the two minute clip called “The Real Housewives of ISIS” meant to promote the BBC’s new comedy sketch show, “Revolting”. And it’s caused controversy, as it was undoubtedly designed to do, with some saying that ISIS and its ilk must be mocked and laughed at, others saying that it is racist or somehow mocking Islam rather than the terrorist group itself.
I have watched the clip several times and found it funny the first time I watched it. It’s not as funny on subsequent viewings, but I’m trying hard to be offended and it’s not working. What I see is a clever take on the reality tv show format and applying it to a situation that has been treated as a very serious problem, in order to see its ludicrous side. It provides a few minutes of light relief and a few laughs.
I reject the contention that this is somehow insulting Islam or Muslims. There’s no need to treat ISIS or its fans with breathless sanctity. Nor does it make any sense to act as if they represent Islam or Muslims in any way. If these were members of Charles Manson’s Family or any other psychopathic cult, we wouldn’t be afraid to offend them. Their beliefs and actions deserve our unequivocal scorn.
But it is also a case of “punching down”; “to make a joke at the expense of the less powerful or more oppressed group.” Muslim teenaged girls and young women raised in conservative Muslim communities, torn between modernity and tradition, are not the powerholders in the equation. The ones who decide to run away to Syria and become jihadi brides are trying to exercise control over themselves after a lifetime of being told what to do, how to live, who to be friends with, who to marry (Never mind that their agency is a sham; if you want them to take responsibility for their actions, then you have to admit they have agency to choose between joining ISIS and staying away from it).
What I don’t see is this clip convincing a young, vulnerable teenager in the UK not to join ISIS. This clip an in-joke for those of us who claim to know better about ISIS and the trap that it lays for the women who choose to join them. Either we’re immune to ISIS propaganda, never a target of it in the first place, or we hold the women strictly responsible for their choices and think “they deserve it.”
Someone already convinced that ISIS is the right choice, alienated from their own society, someone who totally believes that the West is wronging Muslims and that ISIS is the right answer, will dismiss this clip as more propaganda. Teenagers will feel even more misunderstood, adult women will feel insulted that their agency and their right to choose is being denigrated. No matter how misguided it looks to us on the outside, we cannot understand the appeal.
It’s true that we need to use comedy and art to battle ideology. But a clip like this only serves as confirmation bias: presenting us with information that supports what we already believe: that ISIS is evil, that people who join them are stupid and crazy and deserve mockery. Perhaps they do. If you can laugh at them, they seem less frightening to us. This clip, then, was made for people who need reassurance that they aren’t crazy or wrong for disliking ISIS and its adherents.
Yet undoing the damage done to teenage girls and women affected by years of growing up in a society they feel alienated from, or who are desperate to join as mainstream members but are prevented from doing so by strict parents and relatives, requires more than our mockery. That is why a more nuanced look at the issue of girls and women who run away to join ISIS is needed, in our art.
The best example of this is Tabish Khair’s new novel Just Another Jihadi Jane (published as Jihadi Jane in India), which tells the story of two schoolgirl friends, Ameena and Jamilla, who are raised in the North of England, and end up going to Syria to become brides of ISIS fighters. There’s humor in the book, but Khair documents two lives in their entirety, with all the pain, confusion, hope, and teenaged dreams that girls always go through when they’re growing into women. He never demonizes the girls; he inhabits their hearts and minds in order to show us their mindset and beliefs.
We don’t want to think of jihadi brides as human beings with full, complex lives. We want to think of them either as brainwashed victims or evil bitches. Humor turns them into figures of fun, but true art portrays them as actual people. I know which one I’d rather look to for understanding of their all too human condition.