LONDON — The comedy sketch opens with a hijab-wearing British woman named Afsana fretting over how to impress the Islamic State militants who recruited her. “It’s only three days to the beheading, and I’ve got no idea what I’m going to wear!” she laments.
Another woman models her new suicide vest for her fellow jihadist wives. “What do you think?” she asks. “Ahmed surprised me with it yesterday.”
A third woman reacts admiringly, typing into her phone and saying: “Hashtag OMG. Hashtag Jihadi Jane. Hashtag death to the West, ISIS emojis.”
“The Real Housewives of ISIS,” a sketch that debuted this week on the BBC Two satirical show “Revolting,” attracted millions of views on social media. But it left viewers divided over whether a dark sendup of the Islamic State, one of the world’s most fearsome terrorist networks, was appropriate, much less funny — no matter what its creators intended.
“The BBC really made a satirical show called ‘The Real Housewives of ISIS’ while the real housewives of ISIS are being raped and abused daily,” Meraj, a Londoner, wrote on Twitter.
Writing in the comments section of BBC Two’s Facebook page, a viewer named David Bill criticized the show’s attempt to turn human suffering into “light entertainment.”
Many critics said they could not countenance any effort to draw laughs out of — or even at the expense of — a group that has enslaved women and girls for sex, compelling them to use birth control; recruited other women, under false pretenses, to become wives and sex slaves for its fighters; enshrined a theology of rape in its teachings; and shot and tortured women who resisted.
Others say the show has fanned Islamophobia and crossed well past the boundaries of good taste.
Still others railed against the BBC, which is financed primarily through a television license fee, for approving such a show.
The criticism has provoked a counterbacklash, with the show’s sympathizers denouncing what they say is political correctness and arguing that freedom of expression — including pungent satire — is the best line of defense against extremism. The satire, they say, mines a rich tradition that includes Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 sendup of Hitler, “The Great Dictator.”
“I like it. It’s making fun of ISIS which is a good thing,” Irfan Mansor, a man who identified himself as Muslim, wrote on the BBC Two Facebook page. “The whole point of satire is to bring people down to a level. If you can mock something, you’re not scared of it. ISIS want to be feared. Don’t give them that.”
Several scholars of Islamist radicalism echoed that view, saying that comedy was a potent weapon because it denies the Islamic State the approval it so desperately craves.
“We think nothing when the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazis are satirized, so why not ISIS?” asked Shiraz Maher, deputy director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. “ISIS wants to be taken seriously as an actor and state, they want approbation, and comedy denies them that, and takes away their shine.”
A BBC spokeswoman, Kate Toft, said the broadcaster was not commenting on the show “other than to say that it’s satire and the BBC has a rich history of satire.”
“Revolting,” the show on which the sketch aired, is the brainchild of Jolyon Rubinstein and Heydon Prowse, who met at an elementary school in North London and relish using a mix of acerbic humor, gags and pranks to puncture the hypocrisy they see in politics, business and religion.
The two men attracted the ire of pro-Israel groups a few years ago when they appeared in a comedy sketch in which they impersonated building contractors and told London store owners their land would be taken to make way for an extension of the Israeli Embassy.
Now they are defending “Real Housewives of ISIS,” saying that religious fundamentalism is fair game for satire. “It’s important not to pull your punches in satire,” Mr. Prowse told the British newspaper i. “You have to be fearless or it undermines your credibility.”
Referring to the former prime minister, he added, “You can’t go after David Cameron for five years like we did and not go after Islamic State.”
Mr. Rubinstein said the show’s comedy pointed an uncomfortable spotlight at the grooming of young women by Islamic extremists, and to real cases, including that of a British-born woman, Samantha Lewthwaite, a convert to Islam who married a man who later blew himself up on the London subway on July 7, 2005, part of a terrorist attack that killed 52 civilians.
It also warns of subjugation by the terrorist group, including a scene in which a woman scouring a floor complains that when she met her husband, an Islamic State fighter, in a chat room, she did not realize she would end up a servant.
Previous attempts at Islamic State satire have proved similarly divisive. Four young refugees from the Syrian city of Aleppo risked their lives two years ago by making films mocking the terrorist group, including one depicting its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, downing wine, grooving to rock music and trading selfies with girls using his smartphone.
In Israel, a promoter for gay events that organizes parties around Tel Aviv drew criticism after publicizing a party using pictures of handsome young men in poses inspired by ISIS beheading videos. But others praised the ads for turning the group’s violent homophobia on its head.
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