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.”