RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's been happening for years, a steady flow of young, disaffected Muslims from Belgium traveling to Syria to join ISIS. Several of the men behind the terror attacks in Paris were from Belgium's capital, Brussels. Religious extremism in the community is a volatile subject. But one Belgian Muslim thinks the best way to open up dialogue is through comedy. Reporter Teri Schultz has this story from Brussels.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "DJIHAD")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, foreign language spoken).
TERI SHULTZ, BYLINE: Belgian playwright Ismael Saidi says he chose the title of his comedy, "Djihad," to make clear he wouldn't be shying away from controversy. One of his main characters, a Muslim guy named Ben Hamidou, gets a lot of laughs as he secretly plays out his Elvis obsession while his friends sleep.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "DJIHAD")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Ben Hamidou, singing) My baby so lonely I could die.
SHULTZ: The audience seems to forget Ben is a radicalized foreign fighter using a rifle as a microphone, standing guard over his armed friends as they sleep in the Syrian desert. Writer and director Saidi says he wants to portray the characters as real people, not stereotypical terrorists.
ISMAEL SAIDI: If you have the ability to feel something about those guys, maybe everything's not over.
SHULTZ: The story follows three hapless young men who go from a park bench in Brussels to the killing fields of Syria with little idea of how or why they got there. The plot is loosely based on the experiences of Saidi, who says extremists tried unsuccessfully to recruit him to fight in Afghanistan when he was just 14.
SAIDI: What we are doing on stage is we are laughing about us first. Us, the Muslims - you know, I'm laughing about me. And then I'm laughing about the society. I think that we can laugh about anything if you begin with yourself. That's maybe the secret.
SHULTZ: The characters discuss various interpretations of Islam before rejecting the most dogmatic. The group ends up befriending a Christian. One decides to marry a non-Muslim against his mother's wishes. "Djihad" has gone from an initial five shows to more than a hundred, with dozens more planned. The production's publicist, Lucile Poulain, contrasts the plays reception today with that of a year ago.
LUCILE POULAIN: The journalists didn't want to hear from us. And they didn't want to even write the name "Djihad" in their cultural agendas. And they thought we were a threat, actually.
SHULTZ: But once word got out that the play counters radicalization, it was sponsored by Belgium's education ministry, which paid for school pupils to come see it. Student Emma Innocente went to see "Djihad" with her school in Binche, about 50 miles south of Brussels.
EMMA INNOCENTE: It makes me more sensitive about the problem of integration. I hope that we find a way not to forget what we saw.
SHULTZ: Saidi hopes his play will also help young Muslims feel more accepted in Belgium and perhaps prevent some of them from going to fight in Syria. One of Saidi's most controversial views is that his own Muslim community needs to take more responsibility for the actions of its young people.
SAIDI: We have a problem that we as Muslims, we create the origin of what we call today a radicalization. We create it.
SHULTZ: That's a message that could spark retaliation. And Lucile Poulain says the team is aware of the risks they're taking.
POULAIN: Of course we are afraid ourselves. But the comedians are very courageous and very brave. And they want to stand for something.
SHULTZ: Although some theaters have canceled performances due to security fears, the play is expected to open in Paris this spring. For NPR News, I'm Teri Shultz in Brussels.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.