Music superstar and humanitarian Bono testified on Capitol Hill this week, offering an unconventional suggestion on how to combat extremism from groups like the Islamic State: comedy.
The U2 front-man and co-founder of the anti-poverty ONE Campaign joined the Senate subcommittee that deals with foreign aid programs. Bono was invited by subcommittee chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham after the singer and the South Carolina Republican traveled together in the Middle East focusing on ways to combat extremism. During his testimony, Bono discussed how that issue is tied to the Syrian refugee crisis and other refugee crises occurring in Africa.
“Don’t laugh, but I think comedy should be deployed,” Bono said. “You speak violence, you speak their language. But you laugh at them, when they’re goose stepping down the street? And it takes away their power.” The singer concluded, “So, I’m suggesting that the Senate send in Amy Schumer, and Chris Rock, and Sacha Baron Cohen.”
While the proposal was met with some light-hearted laughs from many in the meeting room, committee members seemed to be listening. “Actually, that’s not the first time I’ve heard experts on… counter[ing] violent extremism talk about that,” replied Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
Bono replied saying he was in fact serious about the possibility of using comedy as an anti-ISIS propaganda tool.
“It’s one of the things that I know we’re looking at,” Shaheen continued.
The Obama administration has tried a number of unconventional tactics in recent years to stop Islamic State recruitment. The U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications created Twitter handles (like the since-retired @ThinkAgain_DOS) to counteract the flood of ISIS-linked social media accounts. Experts have estimated there could be as many as 50,000 such accounts.
The CSCC even produced grim parodies repurposing ISIS footage in an attempt to undermine the terrorist group’s recruitment videos. These kinds of controversial tactics have so far produced both limited and mixed results. They have also been on the receiving end of a barrage of criticism. Seeking more effective strategies, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Hollywood executives in February to discuss the global perception of the United States and to brainstorm ways to combat the Islamic State’s PR campaign.
NBC News counterterrorism analyst Laith Alkhouri, of the global security firm Flashpoint, warned against Bono’s proposed tactics. “ISIS does not do comedy and will likely not take well to comedy as a form of combating its activities or as a counter-message.” Alkhouri cautioned that comedians who make ISIS a punchline could end up being targeted by the terrorist organization.
Despite his reservations about using humor to fight ISIS, Alkhouri believes that celebrities can and should play an active role in reshaping the narrative. “They have the money, the followers, the power, and the networking,” he told MSNBC. “Funding grassroots program to counter ISIS's ideology, in cahoots with security experts, might be worth their money and time.” He also suggested that funding programs for impoverished Syrians and Syrian refugees, like Bono does through his ONE Campaign, could be more effective at countering the ISIS narrative than jokes.
“Aid in 2016 is not charity. It is national security.”'
Bono’s testimony on Tuesday was part of a hearing entitled “The Causes and Consequences of Violent Extremism and the Role of Foreign Assistance.” The singer stressed the critical importance of funding peace to counteract the destabilizing effects of extremism in the Middle East and solve the Syrian refugee crisis. While giving his prepared remarks before taking questions, Bono told the bipartisan group of senators, “Aid in 2016 is not charity. It is national security.”