A Ramadan TV ad by a Middle Eastern telecommunications company in which victims of terrorism confront a suicide bomber and urge society to “bomb violence with mercy” has provoked a heated debate in the region, with some praising its attempt to tackle extremism and others criticising it for using victims of bombings and a simplistic portrayal of terrorists.
The three-minute video by Zain, a commercial mobile operator based in Kuwait, went viral over the weekend with some calling for it to be withdrawn, while others praised its tagline of “we will counter their attacks of hatred with songs of love, from now until happiness”.
The video begins with images of a militant preparing a suicide vest interspersed with shots of a man and woman preparing for their wedding, a grandfather playing with a child, and children in a classroom. It opens with a voiceover by a child, saying: “I will tell God everything, that you’ve filled the cemeteries with our children and emptied our school desks.”
As the suicide bomber travels to his destination, he is confronted by victims of terrorism, covered in blood and dirt, including a child actor playing the role of Omran Daqneesh, the child from Aleppo whose bloodied image after he survived an airstrike by the Syrian government was seen around the world.
It also features a bride who survived the bombing of a wedding hall in Amman in Jordan, a man who lost his son in a massive car bombing in Baghdad, Iraq, and another who survived a suicide attack on a Shia mosque in Kuwait.
At various points in the video, victims of terror attempt to reclaim the bomber’s religious invocations – when he declares “there is no god but Allah”, a man carrying a child on a bus retorts: “You who comes in the name of death, he is the creator of life.” When the bomber says “God is greater”, a schoolteacher responds: “Than those who obey without contemplation.”
As the bomber flees, the victims are joined by Hussein al-Jasmi, an Emirati pop star, in a chorus urging people to respond to anger with kindness, and violence with mercy.
But few ads addressing the issue of extremism have stirred as much debate as the Zain video. Anti-extremism campaigns have in the past focused on Iraq in particular, and were often shorter videos with a grimmer approach, little musicality and tag lines such as “terrorism has no religion”.
The Zain spot faced criticism from social media users even as some praised its tackling of a sensitive topic, with many Syrians condemning its use of an actor to play Omran, pointing out that the boy was wounded in an airstrike by the regime of Bashar al-Assad rather than in an attack by Muslim extremists. They argued that the majority of victims of violence in Syria had suffered at the hands of the regime, rather than jihadis.
Some also felt it was inappropriate for a corporation to use the images of victims of terrorism in a commercial spot, arguing it was exploitative.
But one Facebook comment said: “It’s wonderful. We need these beautiful words these days. I wish those words are applied through actions in the Muslim world.”
One of the common critiques of the ad, however, was that extremism is a more complex phenomenon that requires a broader effort by society at large.
“Everyone loves to cry ‘extremism’ and ‘Isis’ and nobody wants to really address the political reasons behind their strength,” said Tamara al-Rifai, a Syrian communications expert. “What’s the ad saying? We are trying to criminalise these acts of violence as a society, correct? Who are we talking to? The criminals? They will laugh at us.
“Then we are talking to each other, the ones who blame some hazy dark forces for everything without really going to the crux of why they exist to start with,” she added.