Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Saudi comedian fights ISIS with 'art, not war'

Saudi comedian fights ISIS with 'art, not war'
Published 8 Jul 2015 

In the Middle East, aside from the various religious duties, one thing dominates the religious month of Ramadan: television.

Arab networks dedicate a sizeable chunk of their annual budgets to cater for the viewing demands of Ramadan, when ratings are highest. Ramadan viewing has become synonymous with high-budget historical dramas and salacious soap operas, as well as more sober religious programming.

But this year, well-known Saudi actor and comedian Nasser al-Qasabi has taken centre-stage with his comedy show Selfie, using comedy to mock the extreme views both of ISIS and fundamentalists in his own country.

Nothing is sacred in this program, and not everyone is amused.

Al-Qasabi's comedy sketches have targeted 'sex-jihad', ISIS sex slaves, beheadings and the banning of music by religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia. In one skit, al-Qasabi plays a Saudi mutawa (conservative preacher) who is outraged by the decadence of music being played during Ramadan. He smashes an oud (a traditional guitar) to the applause of a crowd of men in traditional robes. 

Another program takes aim at the Sunni-Shia split causing such upheaval in the region. [fold]

From the wars in Syria and Yemen to the seemingly unstoppable rise of ISIS, the Sunni-Shia divide is fueling clashes across the Middle East. It's a brave topic to tackle, particularly as there is no stronger adherent of Sunni Islam than Saudi Arabia, with its strict observance of austere Wahhabi beliefs. 

Al-Qasabi plays a passenger on a plane who is seen happily chatting to the traveler by his side. Frivolity ensues and the new acquaintances take selfies together to seal their new friendship. But when they tell each other their names, it becomes apparent that one man is Sunni and other is Shia.

The tone changes immediately to one of distrust and suspicion, and they begin to argue about their divergent views of Islam. They argue about the roots of the Shia-Sunni schism and the Battle of Karbala (in 680AD) in which Yazid and Hussein were pitted against each other. The Battle of Karbala sealed the split in Islam that started after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and the ensuing disagreement over who should lead the Muslim world. 

Upon arrival at their foreign destination, the scene moves to an immigration interview room. The two men are interrogated about what caused the ruckus. 

'They were fighting about two guys', the interpreter tells the official, 'One is called Yazid and one is called Hussein'.

'I need Yazid and Hussein for investigation', says the official.

'But Yazid and Hussien died 1400 years ago', comes the reply from the men.

'They died 1400 years ago and they are still fighting about this subject?' says the official with incredulity, 'Take those two to the psychiatric ward!'

Social media, using the hashtag #????? (#selfie) is buzzing with commentary on the show and the sharing of favourite clips. Most applaud the brave approach by al-Qasabi, but he has also become the target of attacks by clerics calling him an apostate, and he has received death threats from militants.

Al-Qasabi in undeterred. Supporters on Twitter are backing the show using '#I am with Nasser al-Qasabi' and '#we are all Nasser al-Qasabi'. Interviewed on Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya network, al-Qasabi explained why laughter is the best way to tackle political and religious issues: 'Warning the people about ISIS is the true jihad, because we're fighting them with art not war.'

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