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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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.