BEIRUT, LEBANON —
Across the Middle East artists are attacking Islamic State fighters with jokes, mocking the group with music, cartoons and videos. In Beirut, the increasingly popular band "The Great Departed" draws cheers and laughter as it insults Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But band members say they are not only ridiculing the militants, but the political systems that allow them to exist in the first place.
As musicians returned to the stage for a final encore, fans shouted out the names of their favorite songs.
They played “Madad Baghdadi,” a satiric ode to the Islamic State group leader that made fun of its extremist version of Islam.
“Islam is mercy so we will butcher people and give out the meat,” they sang. “To reduce traffic let’s kill the human beings.”
The words ‘mercy,’ ‘meat’ and ‘traffic’ all rhyme in Arabic.
It is the group’s most popular song with more than 50,000 hits on Youtube, and prominent media houses around the globe have featured it.
Khaled Soubeih, the band’s composer and pianist, said when a group like the Islamic State claimed to be holy, and then used violence to control people, humor was the best way to fight back.
But Soubeih was also quick to point out that Islamic State was not the only group the band scorned. He said dictators and corruption in the Middle East created an atmosphere that allowed extremism and militancy to grow, and they were equally to blame for the current crisis.
Backstage before the show, as the band got ready, male lead singer Naim Asmar said jokes were also a coping mechanism that helped people deal with the almost unimaginable violence plaguing the region.
“Plus when you see the contradictions in that reality and the absurdity of many contradictions you cannot but be sarcastic about it. Or makes jokes about it. Well, it’s an escape in order not to get mad, not to lose it actually,” he said.
And the Great Departed’s success comes amid a rush of other media mocking the militants, who have taken over vast territories in Iraq and Syria. Videos and cartoons posted online and on television depict inept, bloodthirsty fighters using the guise of Islam to justify crimes.
One joke online refers to Kurdish fighters now battling the Islamic State in Kobani, a Syrian town near the Turkish border that has recently been overrun by militants.
“What do ISIS and Little Miss Muffet have in common?” the joke reads. “They both have curds in their whey!!! [Kurds...way...get it?]”
But at the theater, band members said their own satirical attack on the Islamic State group hasn’t exactly had the impact they expected.
Abed Kobeissy plays the Buzuq, a traditional instrument that looks a little bit like a guitar. He said politicians used fear of the Islamic State, known as Daesh in Arabic, as a way to distract people from the real issues they faced, like corruption, poverty and development.
“One of the main things that we used to discuss off the record during our rehearsals is how Lebanese and Arabic media right now is focusing on Daesh and doing a whole propaganda of fear around Daesh for the audience to be diverged of the main focus and really relevant issues,” said Kobeissy.
Their song, “Madad Baghdadi,” he said, gathered enough attention to -- in a round about way -- contribute to blanket media coverage of the Islamic State, to the exclusion of everything else.
But, he said, his audience in Beirut would not just hear a critic of the Islamic State militant group.
Other songs in their concert touched on important and recently neglected issues, Kobeissy said. Some songs criticized dictators that touted victories while neglecting the people they ruled.
One song pointed out things that din’t mix well together, like yogurt and fish, and politics and religion.
Band members said older Arabic music focused on love and relationships, and they were working to cultivate a new style that focused on what really occupied people’s minds in the Arab world.
Which was sadly these days, they said, the reality of politics and war.