From Homeland Security to hilarious comedy, meet the men behind ‘I want to quit ISIS’
Mumbai’s East India Comedy joined forces with a counterterrorism analyst to create a sketch poking fun at hate. It’s now one of their top videos.
One way to take down a terrorist? Laugh at him.
Priyank Mathur, a former Counterterrorism Officer for the US Department of Homeland Security, was chatting with his old colleagues over coffee last year, when the subject veered towards ISIS recruitment videos.
The terror outfit had been putting out increasingly sophisticated videos – slickly edited, glamorous, entertaining and targeted squarely at young males. Some videos even drew on The Matrix film trilogy and videogames such as Call of Duty.
“I asked them what they were doing to counter this,” Mathur recalls. “Their own videos left a lot to be desired. It seemed the terrorists were out-marketing us.”
Mathur, who’d also worked with the advertising firm O&M in New York, knew that influencer marketing could help take counter-terrorism messages to young people via viral videos. He’s also written for the satirical website The Onion, and understood the power of comedy.
“I wanted to create funny videos that could critique the ideology of ISIS,” he says.
Using funds from US State Department, Mathur flew to Mumbai to brainstorm with comedians and YouTubers. “It was one place where my work at The Onion gave me more credibility than Homeland Security,” he says laughing. Local collective East India Comedy suggested a sketch designed to hit terrorism where it hurt – in the funny bone.
“Terrorism affects you in ways that go beyond the attack,” says Kunal Rao, of EIC. “It creates a sense of panic among people, and comedy, in a sense, is a great counter-weapon. The one thing a terrorist does not want is to be mocked or have his work trivialised.”
EIC’s sketch presents the terror group as a business corporation, featuring a disenchanted employee at his exit interview.
“ISIS videos made the job sound glamorous, but not everyone gets to hold the gun,” says EIC comedian Sapan Verma. “As with every large organisation, there are sub-junior executives, interns, grunt work and dissatisfaction. We’d read of people returning because they’d been recruited to clean the toilets.”
The sketch points to all those dissatisfactions, with ISIS as the typical corporate employer, spewing platitudes at the quitting man. It ends in a Koran verse-off between the two, highlighting terrorists’ skewed view of Islam, and other passages that advocate peace and non-violence.
“You’ve read the whole book! You’ve been brainwashed!” mouths the boss, stumped.
In the seven months since the video’s release, I Want To Quit ISIS has become one of EIC’s most popular offerings, clocking more than 5 lakh views on YouTube. Verma points out that more than 90 % of the comments are positive, rare for a comedy video and for YouTube.
“When you do a video about the government or GST or demonetisation, there are defenders. You’ll see it in the comments,” he says. “But there’s no other side to terrorism; people responded to the idea that it can be mocked.”
Mathur hopes the video will inspire more people to laugh down the narrative of hate and violence online. The comedians do too. “We were a bit scared that criticising ISIS would put us on their radar,” Rao says. “That hasn’t happened yet.”
Watch the whole EIC video here