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Humour in Jihadi Rhetoric: A Comparative Analysis of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, TTP, and the Taliban

Humour in Jihadi Rhetoric: A Comparative Analysis of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, TTP, and the Taliban
25th August 2022 Weeda Mehran
In Insights

Humour in Jihadi magazines plays a significant role in the formation of collective identity and “creates a sense of internal cohesion” based on shared experiences. A study of 82 English magazines published by the Taliban, ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Tahrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) finds significant differences amongst these groups in the type of humour they utilise.  Unlike the common perception, militancy is not just about operations, objectives, and strategic thinking. It is also about rituals, costumes and dress codes, music, film and storytelling; “It is about sports, jokes, and food.” However, this “soft dimension of military life” has not received due attention from scholars. Looking inside any radical group, we can observe a range of daily social practices that have no obvious strategic purpose. Jihadis use poetry, they speak about dreams, weep openly and value personal humility, artistic sensitivity, and displays of emotion; jihadi militants do not spend all their time on their bomb-making skills. The downtimes and the soft dimensions of militants’ lives are depicted in the media produced by the groups, which in fact have a strategic purpose. When a jihadi militant about to go on a ‘jihadi mission’—a suicide mission—is shown laughing and playing football with village children in a Taliban video, or militants are described to be laughing, smiling and joking in Al-Qaeda magazines, the question remains: what is the strategic purpose of depicting laughter, humour, jokes, and smiling militants in jihadi rhetoric? After all, jihad is a serious business, and the pages of magazines and minutes of videos are finite. Why spend time showing smiling militants or writing about their jokes?

When it comes to politics, humour has been studied and explored in various contexts and across different cultures. As a means of popular communication, humour has the potential to enhance common-sense views on political issues.  Political criticism is often encoded in humorous terms, softening the serious subject matter with playfulness and wit. Nonetheless, as observed by Tsakona and Popa, “politics can be represented in a humorous manner and humour can have a serious intent”. In fact, humour takes many different forms, is extremely context-dependent, and performs varied functions. One of the most significant functions of humour within politics and social movements is its power to strengthen social identities. Understanding the contexts of jokes alongside their targets and purposes often clarify who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’, thereby fostering a sense of cohesion for the group ‘in on the joke’. Furthermore, adherence to the understood social dynamics of a group is a source of mutual solidarity and community reinforcement, particularly when the humour is more aggressive.

Humour is often associated with, if not confused with, laughter. However, humour and laughter are two separate phenomena. Laughter is certainly not a ubiquitous concept. A joyous laugh, for instance, is different from that of a dark realisation that would “leave one without any breath at all”. As such, humour does not necessarily to lead to laughter.  It can have a subversive function and foster political change by offering different perspectives on political issues that lead audiences to question political decisions, representing a form of resistance. 

This study utilises 82 English magazines published by the Taliban, ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Tahrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The data is analysed both qualitatively and quantitatively to investigate the use of humour in jihadi rhetoric. 

Findings

Boundaries of Humour

Boundaries of humour refer to the language employed to distinguish what is and is not allowed to be discussed in a funny or comedic fashion. Due to the inescapable subjectivity of humour, there are no unanimous rules for what can be considered comedic. Instead, what is deemed humorous is predominantly determined by the social context in which it is being used. The boundaries set in jihadi humour are far wider than what many would deem acceptable; for example, topics such as murder are frequently mocked and ridiculed. Instead, boundaries for these jihadi groups are most frequently centred around religious freedom, specifically what constitutes appropriate humour for a ‘good Muslim’ and how the West is particularly disrespectful.

Each individual group implements boundaries of humour that delineate what is unacceptable. For example, in the Taliban publications:

“If a claimant of Islam worships anything or anyone besides Allah, mocks Allah, or completely abandons submission to Him, then he cannot be considered a Muslim.”

While it is evidently unacceptable for Muslims to mock Islamic figures, humorous content deriving from enemies, particularly Western nations and their citizens, is presented as among the gravest of offences.  For example: 

“I do not see what happened at Charlie Hebdo as a tragedy. Rather the tragedy is that people think it is OK to demean the sacred and belittle that which is more beloved to we Muslims than their own souls.” (Inspire Magazine, Issue 14)

This statement suggests that partaking in overtly humorous behaviour is unacceptable for a principled Muslim who respects Allah. However, this sentiment is juxtaposed alongside a density of references to these very actions. Particularly, this is evident in situational humour wherein regular references are made to members making jokes and laughing among themselves or at others.  Situational humour is discussed in detail later on in this paper.

Types of Humour 

Dehumanising Humour

All groups in the study employ dehumanising humour to varying degrees. By applying dehumanisation techniques to a person or group, the targets will no longer be seen to have hopes, feelings, and concerns in the way a sentient human has. Instead, they will be considered subhuman entities. Research shows that the dehumanising humour deployed by extremist groups indicates mindlessness or an insentience within the targeted opposition. As such, when utilising dehumanisation within the framework of humour, terrorist organisations are able to contrast the more graphic imagery dehumanisation elicits with the softer aspect of humour as “the communication vehicle that legitimises the derogation”, thereby strengthening the development of in/out-group dynamics through the use of othering.

In terms of types of dehumanisation, humour using animalistic dehumanisation is the most prevalent form implemented by all four groups, involving the denial of uniquely human characteristics such as refinement, civility and morality. By attributing bestial qualities to the target through animalistic labellings such as vermin, pig, donkey or ape, the subject is perceived and mocked as being primitive. Rhetoric which attributes animalistic qualities relates to the development of class structure as well as in and out-group dynamics. The following extract from ISIS’s Dabiq magazine (Issue 10) serves to mock the target by reinforcing the boundary between in- and outgroup, but in this instance does it by highlighting their sub-human stupidity:

“I found out that she was the wife of the donkey that was coming to me almost every day to rebuke me and to ‘teach’ me my religion, or so he claimed!”

A different form of dehumanisation, mechanical dehumanisation, was also observed to use humour within our study:

“The governments are like a robot that is stuck on a loop, continually performing the wrong sequence despite repeated instructions by its master to the contrary. Master to robot: You have to find a different way of addressing the danger the mujāhidīn pose to the west. “Cannot… compute…” Military action does not work, what about negotiations? “Must… obey… programming…” Everything you’ve done since 9/11 has put us in more danger, not less. “Zzzzz… syntax… error…” Of course, Robo-Obama doesn’t listen to voices of reason and thus programs himself with the same corrupted old data, making the same mistakes over and over again…” (Dabiq magazine, Issue 5)

Ironic and Sarcastic Humour

This is defined as language that conveys a distinction between what is literally said and the intended meaning of the statement. Sarcastic humour aims to unveil and divulge using clever or subtle language. Subtlety distinguishes sarcastic humour from other more overt forms such as mocking humour and it often invites a new perspective which challenges the status quo.  The findings show that TTP is more likely than ISIS, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to resort to ironic and sarcastic humour. In comparison, Al-Qaeda is less likely than any group to use sarcastic humour.  When Al-Qaeda uses sarcastic humour it is aimed at ridiculing enemies, as shown by them lambasting Donald Trump in the following example in Ummah magazine (Issue 2):

“Trump and many of his aides vehemently opposed the military option. They prefer to rely on economic sanctions, besides of course ‘Presidential’ tweets, which might force Tehran to bend to American demands or, after another forty years, somehow bring about the collapse of the regime!”

Herein, Trump is the target, with the suggestion that his tweets might bring the collapse of the Iranian regime representing a sly mockery of the former president’s intellect and policies.  In general, the use of sarcastic humour is employed as criticism of enemy politicians and their policies. By highlighting visibly hypocritical or thoughtless Western policies, an audience is left to infer the meaning of the critique within the joke and act themselves to challenge the status quo. The attempt to delegitimise and expose western systems and established authorities (such as the Nobel Peace Prize) is a recognised feature within violent political language, functioning to reinforce the in-group as the “sole holder of truth”.

Mocking Humour

In comparison to ironic and sarcastic humour, mockery is direct and aggressive in style; it converts the characteristics of its targets into accusations of incompetence. Attributes are presented in isolation or with egregious exaggeration until they become vices; an accent may become a speech impediment, or caution turned into indecision, while speed becomes recklessness. However, this requires the target audience to be receptive to the original qualities of the individual being mocked. Thus, for jihadi magazines trying to penetrate the Anglosphere, frequent targets of mockery are expected to be well-known individuals, especially internationally recognisable politicians and organisations. For example, in Voice of Hind Magazine (Issue 13) ISIS labelled Joe Biden as “the Senile Crusader” in a parody of domestic political bickering between former President Trump and President Joe Biden. Mockery easily extends to ascriptive characteristics as well, such as the corruption of the former Israeli Prime Minister’s surname “Netanyahu” into “Rottenyahu” by Al-Qaeda in Inspire magazine (Issue 9). Quantitatively, ISIS is much more likely to resort to mocking humour than Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or TTP.  Stylistically, ISIS’s mocking humour is particularly aggressive, sacrificing subtlety in favour of imagery that turns countries into individuals and people into animals, as demonstrated in Dabiq magazine (Issue 2):

“Indeed, the people today are like a hundred camels amongst which you almost can’t find any that are fit for riding.” 

To a lesser extent, other jihadi groups also use mocking humour to denigrate the enemy and create a well-demarcated in-group/out-group identity.  Mocking humour is a diverse rhetorical toolkit for the authors of jihadist magazines, although it can be used rather bluntly through simple animalisation. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in particular use mockery and parody to galvanise the curious by placing emphasis on an ‘us versus them’ mentality, permitting careful blame attribution.

Situational Humour

Situational humour is defined as the use of humour, typically nostalgic, contextualised in narratives or “first-hand accounts of event[s] experienced by jihadi militants”. It is often characterised by humour that is incorporated into narrating a situation, for example through storytelling, and describing past jihadi operations in a nostalgic way to evoke a sense of idyllic brotherhood. Situational humour is specifically used in these narratives for the strategic purpose of telling stories to motivate audiences and demonstrate privileged knowledge.

Statistically, while situational humour is rather common amongst Al-Qaeda, it appears less often in the rhetoric of ISIS, distinguishing it from the other groups. In the following example from Al Risalah magazine (Issue 1), situational humour is used to valorise a martyred Al-Qaeda leader: 

“Khattab was a very simple guy. He would make jokes, laugh a lot and form good ties and relationships with the people.”

Furthermore, situational humour is utilised to juxtapose perspectives between in- and out-groups within jihadist literature. In the example below again from Al Risalah (Issue 3), situational humour is used by the narrator to contrast his and his compatriots’ experiences with those of his captors in a wistful yet mocking tone whilst recounting their time in Guantanamo Bay: 

“‘We can’t do anything, our hands are tied’ was his reply. Months later, in Guantanamo, whilst looking back on these days, we would laugh and sing: ‘They took us to Guantanamo, and (they said) their hands were tied’.”

By framing the clearly contrasted in- and out-groups of the story within a nostalgic sentiment, the perceived injustice of the narrator’s captivity is signalled to the reader in a more strategic manner than if the same message had been stated more plainly and without using humour. ISIS magazines typically reference smiling and laughing within the context of jihad. These literary narratives further help to mobilise individuals by emphasising the delight felt by those who participate in acts in the name of jihad. Consequently, situational humour is used strategically to enrich narratives of past events and develop a religious rationale for conducting jihad, as well as motivate individuals to carry out their own operations. This humour depicts a softer side of jihad by emphasising the comradery and brotherhood of carrying out ‘istishhadi’ missions and the peaceful, even joyful, nature of martyrdom.

Conclusion

The broader implications of these findings indicate that humour plays an important role in jihadi texts as it can reinforce identity, establish group cohesion, and have an exclusive or inclusive functionality. Text containing humour, e.g. situational humour, normalises jihadi life and demonstrates a focus beyond the commonly perceived notion of militancy. This can be an effective persuasive tool to attract potential recruits who are given a vision of a romanticised jihadi life and a venue to channel their shared frustrations and anger towards the othered enemy responsible for their grievances.  As such, humour is an effective communication strategy. Our analysis also showed that jihadi groups utilise this strategy differently, for example, building identity by vilifying and dehumanising the enemy as in the case of ISIS and dehumanising humour, or by looking inwards and focusing on group cohesion, and shared experiences as in the case of situational humour used by Al Qaeda.