Fighting Salafists with YouTube satire

The state government of North Rhine-Westphalia is relying on wit and humour as an antidote to Islamist extremism. "Jihadi-Fool" is the name of a new YouTube channel targeting young people. By Louisa Wright

By Louisa Wright

The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia has launched a satirical YouTube channel in the hope of stopping young people from becoming radicalised via the video-sharing platform. The project launched by the NRW Office for the Protection of the Constitution is in two parts: "Jihadi-Fool"– a satirical YouTube channel – and an accompanying factual channel.

The comical "Jihadi-Fool" channel, launched in August at the Gamescom computer games trade fair in Cologne, is a sketch comedy format that in NRW Interior Ministry words "satirically addresses the absurdity of radicalisation, terrorism and Islamism," while the educational channel refers to the satirical videos and counters Salafist propaganda with facts. Over the course of a year, 32 satirical videos and 16 factual videos will be released through the €500,000 project.

What impact "Jihadi-Fool"?

In one of the episodes that is already online, a right-wing populist and an Islamist meet on the street. Both try to convince passers-by of their different world views, but suddenly discover that they have much in common in their homophobic and sexist views and join forces.

Another episode shows a fictional TV soap opera entitled "Goodbye Syria", in which a returned extremist tries to cope with the challenges of everyday life in Germany. He wants to open a shisha bar. When a friend expresses scepticism, he is stoned to death by the returnee – out of habit.

The channel's videos have been watched more than 11,000 times in total and have received mixed reviews: some viewers find them amusing, while others criticise the use of taxpayers' money.

Extremists in NRW 'still active'

NRW's Interior Minister Herbert Reul said in a press statement that the military defeat of the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State (IS) did not mean the 3,100 Salafist extremists living in Germany's most populous state had "vanished into thin air"."They are still active and use all channels on which they can find young people," Reul said.

He highlighted the importance of using the same online platforms to combat the radicalisation of young people. "A constitutional protection agency that takes its task of prevention seriously simply cannot opt out of being active on such platforms," Reul said. "We must go where our target group is."

Jawaneh Golesorkh, a researcher at Ufuq – an organisation active in the field of prevention of Islamist radicalisation whose Arabic name translates as "Horizon", thinks satirical videos are a great idea, but their success will depend on how they are branded. "We know that counter-speech, especially if it is branded as coming from government institutions, is not as effective as if it were from influencers," she said.

Integration a top priority

Golesorkh added that Ufuq has had success working with famous German comedians in the past and underlined initiatives such as "Say My Name", a project of the Federal Agency for Civic Education that aims to prevent extremism among young women between the ages of 14 and 25 by using videos from influencers who discuss a range of topics including identity and radicalisation.

Historian and Islamism expert Christian Osthold explained that while satirical videos can contribute to the fight against extremism, for this to succeed it is important to involve people who have authority in the Islamic community. The drawback to countering the Islamists' messages on YouTube, Osthold added, is that the platform has mainly been used by Salafist preachers who these days know very well how to effectively manipulate young Muslims.

Ufuq has observed that prevention projects can be successful if they not only warn against Islamism, but also include issues such as democracy and immigration. "It is better to act at eye level, rather than dictating to people how they should live," says Jawaneh Golesorkh. Radicalisation often arises from the feeling that one is not valued as a part of society, that one does not belong.

Christian Osthold is of the same opinion: "People are above all social beings who strive for confirmation and recognition of their environment". When people feel that they do not belong to society, they often turn away. It is then that they can become vulnerable to the influence of Salafist preachers who say: 'the problem is not you as a Muslim, but the godless, non-Islamic society in which you live'.

Length of "Jihadi-Fool" run remains open

For Golesorkh, the best way to combat radicalisation is to give young people in Germany the chance to feel part of society. This is often not the case. "Young people who see that their parents and grandparents have been living in Germany for 20 years, yet are still not allowed to vote feel excluded," says Golesorkh.

It remains to be seen how long "Jihadi-Fool" will run. Wolfgang Beus, spokesman of the Ministry of the Interior NRW, has said that his ministry will be monitoring the acceptance of the videos closely, before deciding whether to continue with the channel next year.

Louisa Wright

© Deutsche Welle 2019