There’s rarely a good reason to use the word “controversial,” a slippery term that implies outrage without attributing the outrage to anyone or anything. Yet in the backlash to a sketch from this week’s Chris Rock-hosted Saturday Night Live, in which hopeful entrepreneurs pitch ISIS to the judges of Shark Tank, the word keeps popping up. Mashable calls the sketch “controversial.” CNN says Rock delivered on his “reputation for controversy.” People deemed the sketch “shocking,” a first cousin of “controversial” that also signifies nothing. Watch it for yourself:
The sketch is tonally off for a number of reasons: it reads like the real butt of the joke is not ISIS but Shark Tank, an interesting choice of target, all things considered. And what starts as a sort of game show spoof veers into political satire and then, at the end, takes a sharp turn into seriousness, with the bad guys getting captured by Homeland Security.
Besides, the SNL sketch is late to the parody party. In the Middle East, spoofs of ISIS have been going viral since at least the beginning of September. There are Twitter jokes — complete with accidental cat memes! — and parody videos mocking, among other things, the way ISIS uses Toyota trucks in advertisements.
But the one thing the sketch gets right is the distinctly modern nature of ISIS. The narrative — that running a terrorist organization with big hopes and dreams of world domination is more like a Silicon Valley start-up than the average person might expect — holds up. ISIS, like any other mega corporation, requires sophisticated financing and coherent, snazzy PR. (“The Uber of Terrorism!” …just spitballing here)
Last week, NPR ran a story on the funding of the Islamic State, “How Much Does It Cost To Run A Caliphate?” In the segment, Dina Temple-Raston, NPR’s counterterrorism correspondent, reported that “the Islamic State could be spending hundreds of millions of dollars a month to govern the area it has taken; and that’s new.”
ISIS’s mission is theoretically simple; as SNL puts it, they want to know, “How do you rid the world of the filthy western pig and the vile Jew?” This line did not really get a lot of laughs from the audience; I would say, more laughter than Chris Rock got for his Boston Marathon jokes in the monologue, but not much more.
But in its own tasteless, awkward way, SNL does get at a kernel of truth: ISIS has growth-management issues. Its reputation is rising, but its branding is sloppy. (The SNL sketch demonstrates this by putting “ISIS” on the posters but “ISIL” on the brochures.) Territorial expansion means increased costs. Temple-Raston cited the U.S. Treasury’s word that “oil sales, highway taxes and extortion, among other things, are allowing the so-called Islamic State to bring in as much as $30 million a month.” Sounds like plenty of cash for terrorism purposes, and according to the experts, it is. But empire-building is a pricier matter. Governance “is an expensive enterprise. And that means the Islamic State’s money goes out about as fast as it comes in.”