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.

Photo:Getty
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.