A bearded man wearing sunglasses and a flak jacket sits on the ground beside a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a pro-Assad song plays on the radio. He lifts up the lid of a cooking pot, and a genie emerges.
“I feel very bad,” the man tells the spirit. “I support the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, and I have killed hundreds of thousands of people … but I have one problem. I want to kill Syrians without feeling guilty. I don’t want to feel the torment of my conscience.”
“I have your solution,” the genie replies. With a clap of his hands, he transforms the man into an ISIS fighter. “You can kill now in the name of religion, without any torment of your conscience,” he says, and then covers Assad’s image with a photo of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The video is one in a shockingly brave YouTube series by the Syrian video collective Daya Altaseh. Its members — Maen Watfe, Youssef Helali, Aya Brown, Mohammed Damlakhy, and Joe Asmar — are all refugees from Aleppo who now live in Gaziantep, Turkey, just 40 miles from the Syrian border.
The group began making the videos in 2013, when Watfe fled Syria after spending six months in jail for documenting human rights abuses by Assad’s forces. Their first videos focused on mocking Assad, though they’ve since shifted their focus to ISIS.
“The entire world seems to be terrified of ISIS, so we want to laugh at them, expose their hypocrisy and show that their interpretation of Islam does not represent the overwhelming majority of Muslims,” 27-year-old Watfe recently told the Guardian.
Laughing in the face of evil is easier said than done, and the activists have risked everything to do so. After receiving threats that forced them to leave their apartment, their former landlord told them that Arabic-speaking men had shown up searching for them and were keeping the place under surveillance. “We are very lucky that we were not in the apartment when the ISIS men came,” Helali told the newspaper. “Not even our friends know where we live now.”
Though only a couple of the pieces have been translated into English, it feels strange to laugh from afar knowing of the potential consequences of the videos, as well as ISIS’s continuing atrocities. And some Americans might have reservations about doing so. Last year, in an article for The New Republic that criticized The Interview, Claire Groden and Elaine Teng expressed their difficulty in imagining a comedy about ISIS. Just last month, Saturday Night Live suffered a backlash for creating just that. In their skit, actress Dakota Johnson pretends to join ISIS; critics thought it trivialized the problem by making fun of it.
But even as we’ve hesitated to laugh at ISIS, some Western media outlets have shared its grisly videos — propaganda meant to show ISIS fighters as an organized and powerful force to be reckoned with on an international stage. The video artists told the Guardian that they hope to counter this perspective. Their skits — which depict the fighters as hypocritical and brainlessly brutal fools — make a clear case for mocking them.
“We believe that media can have an important impact,” said Helali. “ISIS’s own media strategy proves that. They are very professional, and they get all the attention. It is time to deflate them, to expose their lies and laugh at them. When people laugh, they lose their fear.”