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Laughing Under the Bombs

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Despite ongoing conflict and an ever narrowing media environment, satire is flourishing across the Middle East.

An Iraqi sports star is pulled up at a checkpoint in Baghdad and accused of having a bomb in his car. The soldiers scatter and raise their weapons as the man starts to panic. The tension suddenly vanishes as it turns out the whole thing is a prank and actually part of the TV show Put Him in Bucca, a quasi-terrifying Iraqi version of You've Been Framed.

In Afghanistan President Karzai turns to the US Ambassador and starts to strangle him, but these are actors in the daily prime time show Zang-e-Khatar. President Obama answers a series of questions about the Middle East by saying "George Mitchell will sort it out," -- this isn't the White House but rather last year's runaway Ramadan success, the Palestinian show Watan ala Watar that lampooned the continuing failure of the peace process.

The failings of Middle East politicians to delivery on the democratic openings from Baghdad to Kabul have been exploited by the satirists who have flourished in the greater media space that was created by 2001 and 2003 invasions.

Yet this space is being pushed shut by violent actors that don't see the funny side. More than 230 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

Comedian Walid Hassan was gunned down in 2006, the same year in which legislation was passed criminalizing the ridicule of public officials, who often file suits when journalists report on corruption allegations. In Afghanistan a growing number of journalists have been arrested, threatened, or harassed by politicians, security services, and others in positions of power as a result of their coverage. Freedom of the press is a relatively new concept in Iraq. At the moment, it is a freedom that comes at a terrible cost.

The emergence, mass popularity and dangers faced by satirists in Iraq and Afghanistan needs to be better understood and protected.

By exposing the failure of politics and lampooning violent radicals, the satirists and their large audiences are evidence of the continued existence of moderate sections of society that reject the status quo.

Satire is both a barometer of media freedom and a coping mechanism by which countries wracked by violence can deal with the horrors of everyday life. The importance and prominence of its stars is such that many are being pressured to stand for actual office. As Shakespeare once wrote "I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad."