Sean Foley writes for EA:
While Americans consider the possibility that the Islamic State has staged a terrorist attack in Texas, they would be wise to also look at the message of “Screw Infidels”, a Saudi comedic video in Arabic with English subtitles that went viral after it was released on May 1.
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Set in southern California, the video features the Saudi comedian Meshal al-Jaser as an Arab Muslim youth living in America who forces everyone he encounters to adhere to his strict vision of Islam. Repeatedly al-Jaser asserts that he has a pure heart, with a desire to remain strong and not “melty like ice cream”.
Among the victims of al-Jaser’s reign of terror are a young man and woman in love, a bare-chested male jogger, a man walking his dog in a park, and a boy giving a teacher an apple. (Al-Jaser tells him not to be generous.) He slaps an Arab Muslim who challenges him to treat non-Muslims with manners and respect. He also burns the toilet paper of a man using the bathroom, noting that infidels are gross because they don’t use bidets. When al-Jaser finds a group of young revelers at a rooftop party, he declares that they are “Mufṣḵeen”, a Saudi colloquial term for “naked”, and urinates in their pool.
Further adding to the absurdity of al-Jaser’s reign of terror is his clothing. He and his friend wear sneakers, multicolored shorts, sunglasses, black hats akin to rasta caps, beads, and tie-die T-shirts emblazoned with the word “LoLaby” in Arabic script, parodying the names taken on by rappers.
Of course, al-Jaser’s actions and clothing are mocking the videos produced by the Islamic State. These videos target Muslims yearning to live in a community which upholds a strict vision of Islam and to demonstrate their manhood by practicing extreme violence, especially against Westerners and non-Muslims.
This is a sensitive area for Saudi comedy to tread. Only Tunisia has sent more people to fight for the Islamic State than Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, with Americans fearing attack or imposition of extreme Islam, there are more than 100,000 Saudis studying in the US. Indeed, while many Saudis find the video funny, others have wondered what message it sends to the outside world.
However, the Saudi company that produced the video, Telfaz11, has used comedy to re-frame how Saudis talk about difficult issues at home and abroad, “starting a conversation with society”. On the same day of a protest in 2013 against the Saudi ban on women driving, Telfaz11 released “No Woman, No Drive”, winning global attention and almost 13 million views on YouTube.
The videos use techniques pioneered by members of the Saudi artistic movement, one of the most vibrant in the Arab World. During the last 15 years, Saudi men and women have used cartoons, comedy, film, poetry, and the visual arts to bring fresh perspectives to critical social issues, including extremism and terrorism.
What “Screw Infidels” exemplifies is the freedom of the artistic imagination: it is shocking, stunning, hilarious, and wild. Discussing the film with me, a friend in Riyadh observed that one cannot kill an idea no matter how horrific it is. However, by bringing the Islamic State’s extremism and other complex matters into the spotlight of comedy, Telfaz11 provides both Americans and Saudis with a new way to confront some of their darkest fears and address one of the most important issues facing the Middle East and the contemporary world.
Sean Foley is an Associate Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University and specializes in the Middle East and Islamic world. He has published widely and been a Fulbright scholar in Malaysia, Syria, and Turkey. From April 2013 through January 2014, he lived and traveled in Saudi Arabia. He is finishing a book on the kingdom that features an extensive discussion of the Saudi arts movement, including the rise of the video production company Telfaz11. His website is www.seanfoley.org.