Why more groups are calling on comedy to counter violent extremism

Priyank Mathur, former counterterrorism officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and CEO at Mythos Labs. Photo by: Mythos Labs

BANGKOK — One of East India Comedy’s most watched sketches features a young man who wants out of the terrorism business.

The “I Want to Quit ISIS” sketch reimagines the terrorist group as a corporation, and stars a particularly disheartened ISIS employee as he hands in his notice to “inhuman” resources: “All I’m doing is issuing press releases for attacks that are also done by other groups,” the young man laments to his boss in an office decorated with posters of bombings and strewn with “jihadi Potter” books.

Unsurprisingly for fans of India’s popular collective of stand-up comedians, the video is both shocking and clever. But perhaps more surprising is that it was funded by the U.S. government.

Comedy has long been the medium of choice for people to broach otherwise taboo or polarizing topics. Saudi Arabia’s Hatoon Kadi has become known for her satirical videos about women's and family issues in the country, and Indonesia’s Sakdiyah Ma'ruf, one of the world's first female Muslim stand-ups, regularly takes on domestic violence and arranged marriage on stage. Both have amassed major social media followings as a result.

East India Comedy, too, has emerged as a social media influencer with the kind of young audience that an increasing number of groups, including governments, want to reach with alternative narratives as a means to counter violent extremism.

But it wasn’t until Priyank Mathur, a former counterterrorism officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, founded Mythos Labs that the idea to “fight terror with comedy” took off.

“What if terror groups had an HR department?” Mythos Labs partnered with East India Comedy to create a counterterrorism sketch.

“One of the things that frustrated me, and a lot of people who work in national security, is that we’ve been trying a lot of the same things when it comes to countering violent extremism or countering terrorism … and some of them work, some don’t, but that doesn’t seem to affect what we try. We just keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Mathur said during a UN Women-organized reception on the topic in Bangkok.

After leaving the government, Mathur spent time in advertising at the marketing company Ogilvy & Mather, quickly learning the power of influencing marketing. All the while, he was moonlighting as a comedy writer for the popular satirical news site The Onion.

In the meantime, ISIS began producing increasingly sophisticated recruitment videos, featuring special effects and high-definition explosions: “They’re very different from the boring sermons that Al Qaeda used to give,” Mathur said. “They look less like those and more like a Jerry Bruckheimer action movie.”

The vast amount of violent extremist materials online has for the past few years spawned donor investment in counter-narratives as an alternative to blocking or removing extremist content. But countering ISIS’ glamorous, slick messaging, Mathur realized, would require creating equally entertaining content that told a different story.

Mathur founded Mythos Labs in hopes of partnering with the world's leading social influencers to “tell stories that matter,” he said. He began with the U.S. government-funded East India Comedy project and will continue to work with U.S. funding on future projects with comedians throughout Asia, hinting at a potential web series also focused on counterterrorism — with a female twist.

ISIS is heavily dependent on its network of female supporters to exist, and it’s time to shift focus accordingly, Mathur said, from looking not just at stopping young men from going to fight for ISIS, but also stopping young women who support their actions.

Partnering with social influences has the potential to create positive messaging in many sectors beyond counterterrorism, and it’s a trend UN Women is “trying to take note of as well,” Miwa Kato, UN Women Asia Pacific regional director, told Devex.

“We’re crying out loud to bring women’s issues to the forefront,” she said. “We need to win the hearts and minds of the people, and it’s very unlikely to happen by us just putting out our annual report.”

And comedy isn’t the only medium. In Pakistan, “Burka Avenger” has quickly become the most popular children’s television show. The animated cartoon features superheroine Jiya, a teacher by day who dons a burka for disguise in order to fight corrupt politicians and mercenaries attempting to shut down girls’ schools. Episodes of Burka Avenger depict situations where a villain has recruited young men in the village to come and fight for him. When they arrive, it’s nothing like they’ve been promised.

“‘This is dangerous water you’re treading,’ people told me,” said Burka Avenger’s creator Aaron Haroon of getting his idea off the ground. “‘You could get shot … nobody is going to run this TV show.’ But I persevered, I believed in it. And now children are having Burka Avenger-themed birthday parties.”

The safety of counter-narrative creators is a legitimate concern, and it’s something Mathur worried about when he engaged the East India Comedy group to create the ISIS comedy sketch.

“We debriefed everyone before, and said we can’t guarantee that you won’t be harassed online or worse,” Mathur said “I was encouraged by how brave they were. They said, ‘Normally we get approached by brands to help sell sneakers and potato chips — you're asking us to help fight terrorism.’”

In the end, Mathur received far more positive than negative feedback and none of the hate tweets and Facebook posts he was expecting, which he credits to the power of comedy and the way the group messaged the content.

“We didn’t want to make fun of terrorists. We wanted to show the absurdity of their ideology in a funny way,” Mathur said. “I don’t think you can be offended and be laughing at the same time. I think you have to choose one.”

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.