Crazy, blood-curdling, infidel-hating, bearded dudes are clearly very funny, as anyone who has watched the film “Four Lions” knows. Released in 2010, Chris Morris’ dark satire follows five wannabe jihadists on their quest to strike a blow against the unbelievers of Britain. In the tradition of Chaplin sending up Hitler, Morris portrays these characters as more clueless idiots than fearsome fanatics, more morons than masterminds.
But what about crazy, blood-curdling, infidel-hating, burkaed-up young women recruited to the jihadi cause? Are they funny, too? The makers of a new BBC comedy show, which features a sketch in the form of a video trailer for “The Real Housewives of ISIS,” obviously think so. The central conceit behind the lampoon is that the supposedly pious and puritanical Western sisters of Islamic State are just as shallow and catty and materialistic as their secular counterparts on TV in the West. Raqqa, the stronghold of the so-called “caliphate,” is a world away from New York, Beverly Hills and Atlanta, where the real “Real Housewives” TV shows are set, but whatever: A girl still needs to look good.
One ISIS housewife exclaims: “It’s only three days until the beheading, and I’ve got no idea what I’m gonna wear!”
A few moments later, two of the wives are modeling the same suicide vest. “What a complete bitch, she knew I had that jacket, [she] copies everything,” complains one to the camera in a “confession” shot.
Coming next week: “Ali bought me a new chain, which is eight foot long. So I can almost get outside, which is great.” The speaker is shown chained to her stove.
The video, which is just under two minutes long, has attracted more than 14 million views on Facebook and a raft of undeserved outrage.
As many as 850 British citizens have traveled to support or fight for jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, including at least 56 women and girls. Many left with great fanfare and exuberance, loudly advertising their defections on social media, as well as subsequently using Twitter and personal blogs to record their everyday activities in the newly formed caliphate.
Aqsa Mahmood (who has taken the name Umm Layth) left Scotland at 19 for Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria. On her blog she advised those thinking of following her lead: Bring good quality bras and underwear. “The shoes here are also bad quality,” she added in one post. “They only seem to have 3 sizes here lol so maybe bring a pair of trainers with you.”
Other Western women in Islamic State have posted tweets extolling the virtues of covering, sharia punishment and Islamic schooling along with supposedly enticing pictures of pizzas, kittens and Nutella. In April 2015, just two months after arriving in Syria with two other east London schoolgirls, Amira Abase tweeted a photo of Western-style takeout: a picnic in the caliphate.
This, as “The Real Housewives of ISIS” testifies, is rich comedic terrain. But it’s also elaborately booby-trapped. Can you really joke about terrorism? More to the point: Can you joke about British women and girls “groomed” — as the media narrative goes — to leave home and marry terrorists?
ISIS, incontestably, is a moral abomination. And its murderous rampage through Iraq and Syria is no laughing matter. But the men and women who actively signed up to its cause often are a joke, and the only sane response to them is derisive laughter.
However, many people have evidently taken grave offense at “The Real Housewives of ISIS.” Their comments tend toward exaggerated and incoherent nonsense — about “gendered Islamophobia” and how the sketch mocks Islam, which it plainly doesn’t. But the outrage nonetheless raises some important questions about what is fair game. According to the writer Will Self, true satire “afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted,” and when it’s directed at religiously motivated extremists “it’s not clear who it’s afflicting, or who it’s comforting.” A lot of the anger about “The Real Housewives of ISIS” seems to concur with this: The real real housewives of ISIS, and even Muslim women in general — because of the stigma they’re often subjected to — simply aren’t funny.
The problem with this view is that it’s radically at odds with how the Western women of ISIS view themselves, which is not as oppressed victims but as spiritually redeemed martyrs to their faith. The other problem is that it infantilizes minorities by assuming that they’re unable to handle the critique satire delivers. Such an assumption, as the intellectual historian Stefan Collini has rightly observed, is “ultimately corrosive of genuine respect and equality.”
“In a democracy,” wrote the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, “no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended.” This applies not just to the bearded oppressors of the Islamic State but even to the women who risk everything to live under their dominion.
Simon Cottee is a visiting senior fellow at the Freedom Project, Wellesley College. He is the author of “The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam.”