“What’s the shape of Paradise? Is it as beautiful as they say?” a child asks a black-robbed, long-bearded and smiling soldier relaxing under a tree.
“How do we go to Paradise?” echoes another, sitting in a circle with a group of young boys in a countryside in the middle of nowhere.
“By car? By boat?” the children suggest. The soldier smiles and patiently repeats, several times: “No … no.”
“I know,” a triumphant boy finally shouts. “They’re gonna take us there by plane, as Paradise is up in the sky, isn’t it like that?”
“No,” the soldier reiterates, this time showing them the answer, which has materialised right in his hands.
“This is how you will enter Paradise,” he concludes, closing his eyes and presenting them with a suicide belt, as if to emphasise the inner lyricism of “martyrdom”.
This is not the latest ISIL release, although it resembles a thousand propaganda videos featuring child soldiers that the group has uploaded on the internet in recent years.
This is a TV series, or “musalsal” in Arabic – the main course of the Ramadan media diet consumed daily by million of Muslims after sunset, when the fast is broken and hundreds of free-to-air TV channels provide them brand new primetime entertainment.
Yet “Gharabeeb Soud” (Black Crows) – whose final episode was surprisingly broadcast on MBC a week before the end of the holy month that traditionally also puts an end to the series – is far from the usual family entertainment joyfully consumed with and after the iftar meal. A sign in the opening credits of the TV series openly states it is “not suitable for children”.
Yet why would MBC, one of the top family-oriented Arab networks, fight the Ramadan TV viewership war with such a gloomy product, which seems to go against the channel’s own audience base? Why inflict on Arab viewers visions of women beaten and raped, of children sexually abused and prepared to “die for jihad”, or of men slaughtering other men in the most unimaginable and inhuman ways?
Does the Arab world not already have its daily dose of violence and death?
“We believe that this is an epidemic, this is a disease that we have to muster the courage to address and fight,” Ali Jaber, Director of Television at the MBC Group, told the New York Times with regards to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS), the series’ protagonist.
Jaber, is well-known to Arab viewers as a celebrity judge on the show, Arabs Got Talent, and was named Media and Industry Leader by the crown prince of Dubai, Sheikh al-Maktoum.
Last March, he was invited to a top-level meeting in Washington hosted by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The meeting, which featured high-ranking diplomats, politicians, “terrorism” experts, and media professionals such as himself, was part of the “global coalition working to defeat ISIL”.
In his opening remarks to the meeting, Tillerson underlined that “our Muslim partners, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have important roles to play in combating the message of ISIL.” He then stressed the importance of media counter-propaganda to fight “terror” groups, and called upon Jaber to “speak in great details on how to achieve victory in this arena”.
We see now on the screen the result of this alliance between pan-Arab capital – MBC is a Saudi-funded network – and US foreign policy.
Trying to learn the lesson from the embarrassing failure of a previous (and unilateral) anti-ISIL campaign – “Think Again Turn Away” – the US State Department then decided, under the blessings of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, to team up with Arab media makers in order to build a less unilateral media effort.
To celebrate the partnership, the city of Dubai, where MBC is based, was symbolically chosen as a venue for the talks. Jaber proudly declared that “for the first time, we sensed that the heart of Hollywood was opening up to the Arab world; for the first time, Arabs and the US have an enemy in common in ISIL.”
Yet there is nothing new or unprecedented in the way in which Gharabeeb Soud portrays armed groups, pointing the finger at how their interpretation of religion is misleading.
MBC has collected a long history of these morally edifying TV series aimed at fighting media propaganda from “extremist” groups.
In Ramadan 2005, “Hur al Ayn” (The Maidens of Paradise), directed by Najdat Anzour, a Syrian filmmaker specialised in “anti-terrorism” TV fiction, premiered on the channel amid controversies generated not only by the show’s taboo topic, but also because of the arrogantly pedagogical tone that the series adopted vis-a-vis Islam.
The pan-Arab channel has sponsored several “anti-terrorism” shows over the years, spanning from Anzour’s Ramadan musalsal to the satirical show “Irhab Academy” (Terrorist Academy) to factual programs like “Sina’at al mawt” (Death Industry) – the latter on Al Arabiya, which is part of the MBC Group.
All these shows – including Gharabeeb Soud – have been crafted under the advice of Abdullah Bjiad al-Otibi, a prominent Saudi writer who was once close to “extremist” groups’ political thinking, but has later repented and started engaging in the mission of showing the right path to Islam.
Gharabeeb Soud is the latest addition to this anti-extremist media collection MBC began promoting a long time ago. Yet, after the March meetings, this one seems to enjoy the blessings of US diplomacy and the endorsement of a long list of Western publications that have already praised the show, probably having just watched the English-subtitled trailer.
Adding “Jihad al-Nikah” (sexual jihad) as a central topic in the storyline, and presenting several women-centred stories (including Yazidi slaves), make for extra appealing features of a TV series that seems to be mostly crafted for Western press and diplomacy.
Gharabeeb Soud does not reflect on or analyse the causes that lead people (from around the world, not only Arabs) to join ISIL. It generically accuses the latter of misunderstanding Islam and naively refuses to acknowledge that ISIL has succeeded in crafting an ideology that is tempting to many, one that anthropologist Scott Atran calls a “world-altering revolution”.
Instead, Gharabeeb Soud features women willing to join ISIL because they have been cheated on by their husbands, or whose children have been accidentally killed by cold and famine in UNHCR refugee camps.
But what about those who embrace ISIL for financial reasons, or the European youths looking for a vision of the future that promises something other than just austerity and sacrifice, even if through the use of violence and “self-martyrdom”?
These issues, that for political Islam experts such as Olivier Roy and Alain Bertho, are at the core of ISIL’s recruiting machine, remain largely uncovered by Gharabeeb Soud, which looks like yet another failure of the US-led anti-terrorism PR campaign, this time seemingly legitimised by having included Arab capital and media professionals in the creation process.
However, ignoring ISIL’s ideological machine will not result in its elimination. And from the perspective of a communication strategy, engaging would-be supporters in a peer-to-peer process that results in co-authoring media propaganda seems much more cutting edge than building edifying fictions.