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Iraq’s ‘Jon Stewart’ on crossing ‘red lines,’ death threats

In the near future, Albasheer intends to add theatrical flourishes to a his show – a feature once employed by his Egyptian counterpart Bassem Yousef

Dina al-Shibeeb

Published: Updated:

Ahmed Albasheer, a rising Iraqi satire star seen by some as the war-torn country’s version of U.S. TV host Jon Stewart, vows to keep on breaking political taboos and crossing “red lines” through his popular online series.

But crossing Iraq’s myriad boundaries, in a political culture where heavy criticism and parodies of its suited-up leaders is commonly ill-received, takes a “step by step” process, he told Al Arabiya.

Albasheer’s eponymous show, which in its latest episode scooped up close to half-a-million views on the video-sharing site Youtube, has surged in popularity due to its perceived independent tone and nonsectarian voice.

“I get great pleasure from Iraqis saying that they’re proud of the show,” Albasheer said. “Maybe in one episode, they [our viewers] will like us because we are talking about a politician they do not like, but in the next episode if we talk [negatively] about a politician they support, they will hate us.”

The satirist made headlines earlier this year after humorously deriding Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, who overran Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul last year in a sweeping offensive.

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Poking the PMU

His “step by step” approach works by hinting at the core subject matter without being direct. For instance, when poking fun at the top military commanders of the country’s powerful Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Albasheer refrains from showing their pictures.

Backed by Iraq’s powerful neighbor Iran, the PMU was formed from Shiite armed groups and volunteers after a fatwa (an Islamic religious edict) by the influential spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who called on Iraqis across the country to fight ISIS.

While the PMU has been successful in amassing popularity in Iraq, particularly by its power base of religious Shiites, the group is not immune to criticism – particularly for its reported human rights violations.

In one episode, the Albasheer Show revealed a zany video of a man appearing to instruct a PMU fighter in how to be more authentic.

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Albasheer and his team are now based outside of Iraq, in the Jordanian capital Amman. Howevr, the Iraqi is still cautious due to fears of “losing some of our audience.”

“But when you explain to the audience the reasons why I am criticizing this person or this side before criticizing it directly, they will understand, and they will start accepting it,” he added.

This approach has so far been successful.

“There is a huge difference from the fourth series in the first season and the first episode for this season,” he said. “When we talked about the first characters [without mentioning names] in the first season, there was uproar, and we received threats - including death threats.”

Despite Albasheer’s comic on-screen persona, the 30-year-old has lost both his father and brother Iraq’s long-running plague of violence.

These days, though, his criticism of prominent Iraqi officials is no longer received with the same degree of hostility.

Telecom company boycott

The recent butt of Albasheer’s humor is Kurdish telecoms firm AsiaCell, who snubbed the satirist’s team by refusing to offer its interactive SMS services to the show’s production team.

According to Albasheer, AsiaCell’s management is scared of the show’s “sensitive” and “risky” content.

“This is because they [AsiaCell] deal with politicians and they are scared to work with us,” he said. “In Iraq… those who criticize the politicians are considered people who are outside the law, which is very wrong.”

While many businesses see a lucrative opportunity in placing adverts with the show due to its large viewership, Albasheer claimed that many potential sponsors are “scared that their products would be banned from Iraq” as a result.

‘The show must go on’

In the near future, Albasheer intends to add theatrical flourishes to a his show – a feature once employed by his Egyptian counterpart Bassem Yousef.

Yousef’s satire show, El-Bernameg (The Program) was dropped from TV networks last year due to political pressure.

And now, after rejecting hosting offers for his show from four Iraqi channels, claiming that they would tamper with his content, Albasheer is looking further afield for sponsors.

The satirist recently travelled to Dubai, where he was in talks with two television stations.

“We are trying to get a TV channel who understands the show, so we can up our act to a whole new level,” he said.

Last year, Albasheer’s show started out on Iraq’s Al-Shahed al-Mustaqil private station, which broadcasts from the UK.

Yet the channel was shut down, prompting the shift to YouTube in June this year. Since joining the video sharing giant, Albasheer’s content has racked up over 28 million views.