To understand jihadists, read their poetry. Photo: Getty
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Reading poetry written by jihadists could shed new light on extremism

The "extracurriculur" activities of terrorist groups can reveal how extremists think and behave.

What do jihadists do when they’re not plotting or perpetrating acts of terror? Should we care? It’s a question that has been raised recently by various scholars studying extremist movements; and the consensus appears to be that yes, we should.

As the Norwegian political scientist Thomas Hegghammer put it in a lecture earlier this year, “the non-military activities of terrorist groups can shed important new light on how extremists think and behave”. The nature of these non-military activities are surprising. Heghammer continued: “Look inside jihadi groups and you’ll see bearded men with kalashnikovs reciting poetry, discussing dreams, and weeping on a regular basis.”

Jihadi poetry in particular has come under scrutiny recently, with an article in the New Yorker by Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel and literary critic Robyn Cresswell. Taking as its starting point a book of verse called The Blaze of Truth by Islamic State poetess Ahlam al-Nasr, circulated online last summer, the article notes that through the poems, we see that “the culture of jihad is a culture of romance”; it “promises adventure and asserts that the codes of medieval heroism and chivalry are still relevant”. The authors agree with Hegghammer, noting that:

Analysts have generally ignored these texts, as if poetry were a colourful but ultimately distracting by-product of jihad. But this is a mistake. It is impossible to understand jihadism – its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability – without examining its culture . . . Unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself.

Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and other Islamist movements produce a huge amount of verse. Osama Bin Laden was a prolific poet; like other jihadists, he prided himself on his thorough knowledge of Arabic poetic tradition and the technicalities of cadence and metre. Reportedly his works were read out to large audiences as part of a recruitment drive for militants to come to Afghanistan after 2003. Clearly, understanding this phenomena is crucial to understanding what attracts people to these movements, and what makes them stay.

Afghanistan’s local Islamist militant group, the Taliban, also has a strong poetic tradition. Some of these poems have been collected in English, in Poetry of the Taliban edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn. Scholars draw a distinction between jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State and more locally focused militias, like the Taliban or Boko Haram. There is sometimes interplay between these groups (local insurgencies may coordinate with global movements) but there are also clear differences. “The Taliban’s poetry is thoroughly embedded in their cultural heritage, we find specific styles and references,” says Kuehn. “So is the poetry of other groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. Poetry is a personal endeavor, an individuals heritage and culture determine much of what he or she will write.”

Jihadist poetry is frequently explicitly political. One of Bin Laden’s criticizes Arab leaders: “Zionists kill our brothers and the Arabs hold a conference”, continuing “Why do they send no troops to protect the little ones from harm?” More recently Al-Nasr’s verse describes Islamic State’s recent battles: “Ask Mosul, city of Islam, about the lions.” The Taliban verse also includes references to crimes by foreign countries and the suffering of Muslims the world over. This is sometimes humourous; one poem imagines a dialogue between George W Bush and Hamid Karzai as if they were lovers parting. (“Karzai: Life is tough without you my darling/I share in your grief; I am coming to you.”) But it remains closely focused on Afghanistan. In the preface to the book, Faisal Devji writes:

“Though Taliban verse owes something to the poetry and song associated with globalised Islamic militancy, as seen, for instance, in the description of coalition forces as Crusaders, or in references to Muslim suffering the world over, it is overwhelmingly Afghan in its emphasis, and dispenses with the desert scenes, tents, charging horses and other themes popular with such militants. Also absent from this corpus of verse is the purely religious element, with prayer, pilgrimage or even sharia law seen as being part of a broader cultural landscape and in any case linked to Afghanistan in particular.”

The verse is particularly fascinating for the contexts in which most of it was produced; these are hunted, violent men and women taking time out to craft poetry. As you might expect, the verse is predominantly concerned with war. But the sheer fact of militants’ fixation on verse is reflective of the importance of poetry in the wider cultures they are drawn from. “The function of poetry is less determined by the individual group, the Taliban or other militant Islamic groups, and more depends on what wider society or culture the group is grounded in,” explains Kuehn. “Poetry plays an important role in many societies in the Middle East and central Asia.”

Studying this poetry gives us a window into the world of these individuals. It has value as a propaganda too, certainly, but it is also a tool of communication, reflection, and storytelling.  Why does this matter? Because the only way to tackle something if is you understand it. As Hegghammer said in his lecture, “it may shed new light on why people join and stay in extremist groups, and why some groups and movements survive longer than others. This can in turn generate ideas on how to dissuade recruits and weaken groups.”

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times