Extremism of any kind is always ripe for satire. This is perhaps why The Al-Basheer Show - essentially Iraq's version of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show – is doing so well in a country plagued by sectarian violence, government corruption and the rise of a little-known Islamist group called ISIS.
The programme, shown on YouTube and Iraqi TV channels, aims to build a better and stronger Iraq by exposing and lambasting everything currently dragging it down. With a viewership of 19 million, over half of Iraq's population have been tuning in to watch the weekly show, and unsurprisingly it's become one of the most popular programmes among Iraqi youth.
I met the men who founded the television series, host Ahmad Al-Basheer and executive producer Hussam Hadi, at their office in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Ahmad, a household name in Iraq, was dressed in a flannel shirt, his thicket of chest hair poking through – a slightly different look to his dapper onscreen persona. A former news correspondent and political TV show host, Ahmad switched to comedy after realising that traditional news wasn't the best way to engage an audience. Greased hair and a cigarette constantly on his lip, Hussam has worked his way up to owning a successful production company that makes cartoons and children's shows for Iraqi television.
The pair met over Facebook, and similar ideologies and a drive to make a better Iraq brought them together professionally. "Ahmad is a comedian, but he had borders around him and couldn't talk freely," said Hussam. "I'm a producer with my own production company, so we both complete each other."
Although the idea for the show had been floating around for two years, the pair launched the first episode at the end of August last year, soon after ISIS had effortlessly snatched Mosul away from the Iraqi army. While the circumstances were a blow to the country, the timing was ideal for Ahmad and Hussam; it provided them and their team ample ammunition against ISIS and enabled them to address the many mistakes made by ousted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"We made ISIS into normal human beings," said Hussam. "We showed people that yes they can fight, but they can also cry and get hungry. We put the reality back into them. When people started to see ISIS as a joke, they felt that they could then fight them. "I think it's that humour we need to hold onto if Iraq is to fight her enemies," added Ahmad.
Most generations in Iraq have witnessed at least two wars. Suicide bombers and terrorist attacks have become a daily occurrence. "What happened in France with Charlie Hebdohappens all the time in Iraq," said Hussam. "You can literally find dead bodies once or twice a week." It was a suicide bomber exploding himself near Ahmad that finally forced the presenter to leave Iraq and join the 700,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan. "Wrong place, wrong time, but it was my final straw. I couldn't keep living like that," said Ahmad.
Constantly fretting about death has changed the Iraqi mentality. Both Ahmad and Hussam point out that, understandably, people would much rather just get on with their lives than continually worry about being blown up. "I can be dead by an explosion or an assassination any second, so why not just live life to the full and not give a shit about anything else?" said Ahmad. "Eighty percent of Iraqis feel the same way as I do, and you can see that from our show's popularity. We say out loud what people are thinking in their heads."
Ahmad is Sunni and Hussam is Shia. Like most Iraqis living in exile, the pair have suffered greatly from the sectarian violence that has ravaged their country. Hussam was held hostage at his office in Baghdad for five hours by armed extremists, while Ahmad lost his 15-year-old brother and father to Shia militia groups. He himself was kidnapped for 40 days, until his family managed to pay his ransom. "I am Sunni, and my ID says I am from Ramadi [a city in the Sunni Triangle]. For the Shiite militia, it's a death sentence," Ahmad told me.
Addressing the sectarian crisis in Iraqi society has been an important focus for the duo. "We were run by dictatorship for 35 years, so after Saddam left we had no experience in democracy – we weren't even able to define what democracy was," said Hussam. "Now the problem is that the politicians are related to religious parties, so in Iraq the people took democracy to mean religion."
Throughout the first season of the show, Ahmad explicitly mocked the religious clerics and politicians who incite sectarianism in Iraq. His sarcastic wit and sexual innuendoes were revolutionary. "We were the first in Iraq to criticise the government and religious leaders with satire," Ahmad declared proudly.
The content remained neutral and openly lampooned all of the different militias and religious extremists that afflict Iraq. A novelty for Iraqi television, where the powerful control the news and the agenda is dictated through pro Sunni, Shia or Christian channels. "Unfortunately in Iraq we do not have independent or moderate media that give messages in the truthful way," said Hussam.
When you Google Ahmad's name followed by the Arabic letter of " shin" (equivalent to the English "S") the first thing that pops up on the suggested searches is whether he is actually Sunni or Shiite. "It's an achievement to our show, as until now they can't recognise what religious sect I am, as our content is Iraqi and not religiously orientated," he laughed. "But it also makes me sad, as a lot of people have searched this. And why do they care what religion I am? The things I'm saying are the right things, so why should it matter if I am Sunni, Shia, or Christian?"
The crew of 19 – a mix of Sunni, Shia, Christian and Kurdish Iraqis – film the show in Amman out of fear of being attacked, and to ensure their freedom of speech is not jeopardised. Both Ahmad and Hussam have had numerous death threats from armed militias and terrorist groups, and although the pair dream of returning to Iraq, they believe the reality is far from possible. "I will never be able to go back to Iraq at this time," Ahmad said sullenly. "I dream of the day when I can return to my country and present my show in Baghdad with the same peace and freedoms we have here."
At the end of the first season, an Iraqi TV network offered The Al-Basheer Show a million dollars to produce the second season, but the team chose to stay independent. "You can imagine how hard it was for us to turn down a million dollars, but it's not about making a profit," said Hussam. "It's about making something true."
Royalties from channels broadcasting the series in Iraq helped to finance the first season of the show, but Hussam and his production company predominantly picked up the tab. Season two is scheduled to start at the beginning of this month, but Hussam is struggling to find funding. He's optimistic that earnings from advertisements, YouTube views (from the beginning of May, YouTube will start paying for Iraq's viewership) and SMS services will keep The Al-Basheer Show afloat. Last year, the program's SMS connections were cut off for not toeing the government's line, an action the pair deems to be testament to the show's success. "For us, it's a victory when you find out that the Iraqi Prime Minister and Iraqi President are watching every episode and are scared of what you are going to say that week," said Ahmad.
As the war against ISIS rages on across the border and Iraq breaks down into civil war, Ahmad and Hussam are busy preparing the content for season two. "We get told on our Facebook page all the time that as much as we make the people laugh, we make them sad," Hussam admitted. "Because people begin to recognise how many problems Iraq really has and who is actually controlling or responsible for them."