One joke at a time: how the Arab world is (slowly) tickling its funny bone

Satire is a powerful tool and can make points that more dry analysis cannot but is barely visible in the region, writes HA Hellyer

Ikea Palestine illustration from Karl Sharro's new book. Courtesy Saqi Books
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This week the new television satire show This is America, created by Sacha Baron Cohen, aired its first episode, which included a fraudulent Israeli terrorism expert. Earlier this month, Karl Sharro, a Lebanese-British satirist, published his book And Then God Created the Middle East.

The two artistic adventures raise interesting questions about their own subject matter, which link very much to the Arab world and the wider region – but it also raises pertinent questions about the region and the existence – or lack of –satire therein.

It’s too early to come to much of a conclusion about the new Baron Cohen show – after all, only one episode has been broadcast so far. And there are legitimate criticisms about whether or not the first episode really showed the comedian at his best, in terms of using satire to speak truth to power.

But there was definitely one part of the episode that did accomplish that, which was widely released ahead of the show: the part where Baron Cohen poses as an Israeli terrorism expert who is drumming up support for a "kinder-guardian" programme. That programme is meant to train children between the ages of three and 16 – and according to the fake Israeli persona, has already been successful in Israel and is now bidding to recruit Americans. A number of prominent Republican and conservative figures in America are fully enamoured by his pitch and promptly advocate the programme.

It’s funny but more importantly, it is shocking. Figures like these are directly responsible for ensuring support for the appalling regulations that exist in the US at present surrounding the lack of gun control. The idea that they would push for programmes putting guns into the hands of toddlers is quite disturbing.

But the humorous element to this – while outrageous – is quite powerful. It was through satire that Baron Cohen managed to shed light on the incredible nature of the discussion around guns in the US and those same advocates are now stumbling over themselves to deny the meaning of their rather blatant comments.

And it was through satire that he showed the truly bigoted nature of some of those same appalling supporters – one of whom laughed as Baron Cohen talked about a Muslim being shot by a toddler in his programme because the former said: "Allahu Akbar" during prayer. With that one scene, Baron Cohen highlighted the immense bigotry that a certain segment of power has with regards to Muslim Arabs – and Muslims more generally – with satire.

It is a powerful tool – and the tool is used to expert effect with Sharro's new book, which, following on from his huge Twitter following as @KarlReMarks, is another example of satirical value. Satire can often make points that more dry forms of comment or analysis cannot – and with potent consequences. And yet, satire is barely present within the region.

Many defend that absence of satire in this region. And a common refrain against satire in this region is quite simply the following: that the people of this region aren’t ready for it. That, indeed, the culture of the region doesn’t provide for it; it’s contrary to existing social norms and thus, we can’t expect it to exist for the time being.

It sounds sensible enough. Except, of course, it’s utter nonsense.

Witness, for example, not so long ago, the existence of the El Bernameg (The Programme) show by Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef. For a region that supposedly rejects satire, it was one of the most watched programmes in modern Arab television history. If the culture of the region rejects satire, the culture of the people of the region certainly didn't – otherwise, the fanbase of the show wouldn't have been so overwhelming huge.

But the show did not survive. That had little to do with the absence of popularity of the show – it still had a massive audience when it went off air – and everything to do with the absence of the space that allowed such a show to continue. Therein lies the real issue with satire in the region. It isn't that the culture of the region forbids it or finds it unacceptable to social norms. It's that within some borders, there continues to be a lack of acceptance among some of those in power.

That’s not simply the case, incidentally, in this region alone. Authoritarian figures don’t like satire anywhere in the world – and if they could remove such satire from their own airwaves, they probably would. They cannot perceive that the poking of fun of powerful figures might be actually incredibly healthy for public discourse, if done well.

But no satire show has ever brought down a government or a state, despite the proclaimed fears of opponents of such shows. Instead, very often, they will introduce an element into the public arena that makes that same arena healthier, more stable and far more sustainable. That isn’t something to be afraid of but something to welcome.

Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute