The Terrorist Parody Video Is Now a Problematic Meme
"Unexpected jihad" videos make light of terrorist attacks.
The terrorist group known as the Islamic State has become infamous for its brutality as well as its ability to spread its message through online propaganda.
But now, the horrific tropes of the terrorist video—a religious a capella song in Arabic known as the nasheed, the phrase "Allahu Akbar," and an explosion—are being appropriated by online jokesters into parodies.
One of the most popular parodies, of fireworks gone wrong at a birthday party, has been viewed more than 400,000 times. Another, viewed over 200,000 times, uses a snippet from Discovery's "Through the Wormhole series."
This type of video has come to be called "unexpected jihad," and typically features some innocuous or verite footage that quickly twists into an explosion accompanied by a cry of "Allahu Akbar," or "God is greatest."
It wasn't until last summer, shortly after IS began making headlines with its horrific beheading videos, that these parody videos began explicitly mocking IS and following a rigid formula, as memes are wont to do. It is unclear if these creators grasp the full tragedy of the subject of their mirth, or if this is some sort of therapeutic response to the flood of terrorist propaganda online.
The nasheed or song used above, and in many parodies, is called "Salil al-Sawarim," meaning "Clashing of the Swords." Here it is in a Hank Hill parody from last November and in this jet ski crash version made this week. Salil al-Sawarim is featured in a number of IS propaganda films, while nasheeds in general have become the "soundtrack of jihad." IS even has its own recording company for nasheeds, the Ajnad Media Foundation (AMF), which created the Salil al-Sawarim hymn. A full version of the Salil al-Sawarim can be listened to here.
The other staple in these parody videos is the phrase "Allahu Akbar," specifically the one shouted by a Syrian rebel in February of 2013 after he downed a Russian helicopter during the siege of the Menagh Air Base. You can now hear his voice in this washing machine parody viewed more than 90,000 times:
This unidentified man's exuberant Takbir is the most popular, in part because UK street artist Banksy used it in his own 2013 parody video of Syrian rebel footage.
Parody video explosions are not specific, and can be real footage as well cheap visual effects. Sometimes, the three-year-old "I know that Feels Bro" meme appears in a corner of the clip, dressed as a rebel fighter wearing a green bandana and rocket launcher. Spot him in this Lord of the Rings parody, this Muppet Show one, and here where a bird poops on Putin's shoulder.
"Unexpected jihad" videos will also feature various IS branding, like the group's flag or other iconography in the corner of the screen. See below:
There's various compilation videos, like of one of cats failing to make jumps or this 25 minutes long version. A related subreddit, r/unexpectedjihad, created a month ago, has 20,000-plus subscribers already. A handful of these parody videos even run video ads (meaning they get a revenue check from Google), including this one of a children's cartoon viewed half a million times.
Some meme historians and message board posters will argue these "unexpected jihad" videos are a mix of the years old "Aloha Snackbar/Allahu Akbar" meme, which mocks the use of the phrase in violent jihadi videos, and the more recent "Thug Life" remixes, which add a freeze frame and a hip hop musical track. The reappropriation of IS imagery and jihadi video tropes and an established formula puts these videos in a category all their own.
Parodying enemy propaganda is a tradition during wartime, but it's usually funded by the government. "Unexpected jihad" is made by ordinary citizens, for free. One of the earliest enemy propaganda video remixes dates back to WWII, when Britain's Ministry of Information edited a Nazi propaganda film. Their short mash-up was called the " Lambeth Walk—Nazi Style" where a clip of the Nazi film "Triumph of the Will" was edited to make it look like the marching soldiers were doing the 1930's high-kick-centric "Lambeth Walk" dance. It is purported head Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels ran out of a theater in a rage after viewing Britain's remix.
By parodying IS video tropes, you could say these meme remixes have significantly diminished the power of IS propaganda. You could even say they're trolling IS the way "Lambeth Walk—Nazi Style" trolled Goebbels.
Unfortunately, "unexpected jihad" is not as clearcut as the "Lambeth Walk—Nazi Style" remix. Ibrahim Hooper, the National Communications Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) thinks most people watching these videos "wouldn't make a distinction between the fact that they mock IS, and think they're mocking all Muslims." Hooper makes it clear that while he condemns IS, he thinks more than likely, these parodies of their videos "would add to the overall rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in our society."
And if you read the YouTube comments, the level of satire is lost on the general public, who see it more as making light of an ongoing tragedy and encouraging hate.