Iraqi TV comedian Ahmad Al Basheer: ‘Laughter is the best way to unify people the world over’
Defying death threats, an Iraqi television comedian is fighting ISIL with biting satire, aimed at lifting the aura of fear – the group’s strongest weapon.
In one sketch, two men with fake beards walk into a bar and ask for orange juice and halal water.
“This round is on the caliph, to mark the first anniversary of the occupation of Mosul,” the waiter says, before a bomb blast cuts short his reference to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and the capture of the northern Iraqi city.
Ahmad Al Basheer, who has been likened to renowned United States political satirist Jon Stewart, whose 16-year reign as the host of satirical news comedy The Daily Show ends this week, says he aims to “break the image” of the jihadists and their declared puritanical enforcement of Sharia.
Millions of Iraqis tune in each week to The Basheer Show and its diet of irreverence and no-holds-barred humour.
“Weapons are not the best solution for Iraq,” he says at his studio in Amman, capital of neighbouring Jordan.
“We fight ISIL with satire. After all, its members are only human. We can fight them by making fun of them.” Al Basheer says his programme shows ISIL leaders for what they are, rather than religious paragons.
“Their halos drop and they become simple human beings. That’s why it’s very dangerous for them,” he says.
“We make fun of everyone who is bad for our country, starting with government officials who make mistakes and fail to do their jobs, then corrupt and bad politicians, or those who exploit religion for political ends, and, finally extremists, sectarian stirrers and militias.”
Al Basheer is a former journalist who worked for several Iraqi television stations until 2011, when he narrowly avoided injury in a bomb attack at a festival in the western city of Ramadi that claimed the lives of seven colleagues.
He decided it was time to leave his violence-wracked homeland and moved to Jordan.
Frequent death threats are a consequence of his new business of poking fun at targets, including ISIL jihadists who have occupied large parts of Iraq and Syria, where they are accused of widespread atrocities.
“Most of the threats come from ISIL or people loyal to the militias ... through social media such as Twitter or Facebook, but also by post or SMS on our mobiles,” he says. “We’ve got used to it. New threats come in after every episode.”
The 30-year-old runs a modern studio in Amman and heads a 24-member team, mostly fellow Iraqis, including a unit that follows all the latest news from their home country. One of the latest episodes poked fun at the contradictory statements coming from Iraqi officials, about how Mosul is to be recaptured after more than a year of control under ISIL.
While prime minister Haider Al Abadi says the battle for Mosul has been underway for three months, vice president Iyad Allawi goes on air to admit he doesn’t know when Iraqi security forces backed by militia allies will finally launch the operation.
In another scene, an ISIL standup comedian tells jokes to an audience, who know they risk death unless they laugh and show their appreciation.
“We’re just trying to make Iraqis laugh so they can live a normal life and forget their troubles for a while,” Al Basheer says.
“Laughter is the best way to unify people the world over. It’s smiling that makes us all human.”
Updated: August 3, 2015 04:00 AM