Why jihadis write poetry: For one thing, it’s an effective recruitment tool

by 1389 on June 5, 2015

in 1389 (blog admin), books, enemy propaganda, Islamic State (of Iraq and ash-Sham/Levant/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh), jihad recruitment

“The culture of jihad is a culture of romance. It promises adventure, chivalry, and heroism. Just read the poetry of ISIS…” (h/t: Arts and Letters Daily)

The New Yorker has the story:

Battle Lines: Want to understand the jihadis? Read their poetry.

BY ROBYN CRESWELL AND BERNARD HAYKEL

October 11, 2014, according to Islamic State-affiliated Twitter accounts a woman going by the name Ahlam al-Nasr was married in the courthouse of Raqqa, Syria, to Abu Usama al-Gharib, a Vienna-born jihadi close to the movement’s leadership. ISIS social media rarely make marriage announcements, but al-Nasr and al-Gharib are a jihadi power couple. Al-Gharib is a veteran propagandist, initially for Al Qaeda and now for ISIS. His bride is a burgeoning literary celebrity, better known as “the Poetess of the Islamic State.” Her first book of verse, “The Blaze of Truth,” was published online last summer and quickly circulated among militant networks. Sung recitations of her work, performed a cappella, in accordance with ISIS’s prohibition on instrumental music, are easy to find on YouTube. “The Blaze of Truth” consists of a hundred and seven poems in Arabic—elegies to mujahideen, laments for prisoners, victory odes, and short poems that were originally tweets. Almost all the poems are written in monorhyme—one rhyme for what is sometimes many dozens of lines of verse—and classical Arabic metres.

Little is known about Ahlam al-Nasr, but it seems that she comes from Damascus and is now in her early twenties. Her mother, a former law professor, has written that al-Nasr “was born with a dictionary in her mouth.” She began writing poems in her teens, often in support of Palestine. When, in the spring of 2011, protests in Syria broke out against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, al-Nasr took the side of the demonstrators. Several poems suggest that she witnessed the regime’s crackdown at first hand and may have been radicalized by what she saw:

Their bullets shattered our brains like an earthquake,
even strong bones cracked then broke.
They drilled our throats and scattered our limbs—
it was like an anatomy lesson!
They hosed the streets as blood still ran
like streams crashing down from the clouds.

Al-Nasr fled to one of the Gulf states but returned to Syria last year, arriving in Raqqa, the de-facto capital of ISIS, in early fall. She soon became a kind of court poet, and an official propagandist for the Islamic State. She has written poems in praise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled Caliph of ISIS, and, in February, she wrote a thirty-page essay defending the leadership’s decision to burn the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh alive. In a written account of her emigration, al-Nasr describes the caliphate as an Islamist paradise, a state whose rulers are uncorrupted and whose subjects behave according to pious norms. “In the caliphate, I saw women wearing the veil, everyone treating each other with virtue, and people closing up their shops at prayer times,” she writes. The movement’s victories in Mosul and western Iraq were fresh in the militants’ memory. In the city streets, “children played with sticks, pretending these were weapons they would use to fight heretics and unbelievers.” Al-Nasr celebrated ISIS’s military triumphs as a new dawn for Iraq:

Ask Mosul, city of Islam, about the lions—
how their fierce struggle brought liberation.
The land of glory has shed its humiliation and defeat
and put on the raiment of splendor.

ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other Islamist movements produce a huge amount of verse. The vast majority of it circulates online, in a clandestine network of social-media accounts, mirror sites, and proxies, which appear and disappear with bewildering speed, thanks to surveillance and hacking. On militant Web sites, poetry-discussion forums feature couplets on current events, competitions among duelling poets, who try to outdo one another in virtuosic feats, and downloadable collections with scholarly accoutrements. (“The Blaze of Truth” includes footnotes that explain tricky syntax and unusual rhyme schemes.)

A look at the poems written and performed by jihadi militants fighting for ISIS.VIDEO: A look at the poems written and performed by jihadi militants fighting for ISIS.
Analysts have generally ignored these texts, as if poetry were a colorful 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. This culture finds expression in a number of forms, including anthems and documentary videos, but poetry is its heart. And, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.

“Al-shi‘r diwan al-‘arab,” runs an ancient maxim: “Poetry is the record of the Arabs”—an archive of historical experience and the epitome of their literature. The authority of verse has no rival in Arabic culture. The earliest poems were composed by desert nomads in the centuries before the revelation of the Koran. The poems are in monorhyme and one of sixteen canonical metres, making them easy to memorize. The poets were tribal spokesmen, celebrating the virtues of their kin, cursing their enemies, recalling lost loves, and lamenting the dead, especially those killed in battle. The Koran has harsh words for these pre-Islamic troubadours. “Only those who have strayed follow the poets,” the Surah of the Poets reads. “Do you not see that they wander lost in every valley, and say what they do not do?” But the poets could not be written off so easily, and Muhammad often found it useful to co-opt them. A number of tribal poets converted and became his companions, praising him in life and elegizing him after his death.

Arabic culture of the classical period—roughly, the eighth to the thirteenth century—was centered in the caliphal courts of Damascus, Baghdad, and Córdoba. Although most poets now lived far from the pasture grounds of the tribal bards, and written texts had replaced oral compositions, the basic features of the art lived on. Poetic metres were essentially unchanged. The key genres—poems of praise and blame and elegies for the dead—were maintained, and new modes grew out of the old material. In the urbane atmospheres of the courts, the wine song, which had been a minor element in the old poetry, became a full-fledged genre.

Contemporary poets writing in Arabic both read and translate a wide range of verse from abroad, and for many of them free verse and prose poetry are the norm. But, though the old models have lost some of their force, there is still a remarkable continuity of poetic expression. For educated Arabic speakers, the language of the classical period is relatively easy to enjoy. The humblest bookseller in Cairo or Damascus will stock editions of medieval verse, and pre-Islamic poems are assigned to high-school students.

Furthermore, the old poetry is alive and well in the popular sphere. Among the most successful television programs in the Middle East is “Sha‘ir al-Milyoon” (“Millionaire Poet,” but also “Poet of the People”), which is modelled on “American Idol.” Every season, amateurs from across the Arab world recite their own verse in front of a large and appreciative studio audience in Abu Dhabi. Winners of the competition receive up to 1.3 million dollars—more than the Nobel Prize in Literature, as the show’s boosters are fond of pointing out. Last year, the program had seventy million viewers worldwide. The poems recited on “Sha‘ir al-Milyoon” are highly conventional in form and content. They evoke the beauties of the beloved and of the homeland, praise the generosity of local leaders, or lament social ills. According to the rules of the show, they must be metered and rhymed, and the judges’ comments often zero in on contestants’ technique. The show has produced a number of literary celebrities. In 2010, a Saudi woman named Hissa Hilal became an audience favorite after reciting a poem criticizing hard-line Saudi clerics. During the Arab Spring, an Egyptian man, Hisham Algakh, appeared on a spinoff show reciting several poems in support of the demonstrators at Tahrir. He became a media star, and soon his poems were being recited in the square itself.

The views expressed in jihadi poetry are, of course, more bloodthirsty than anything on “Sha‘ir al-Milyoon”: Shiites, Jews, Western powers, and rival factions are relentlessly vilified and threatened with destruction. Yet it is recognizably a subset of this popular art form. It is sentimental—even, at times, a little kitsch—and it is communal rather than solitary. Videos of groups of jihadis reciting poems or tossing back and forth the refrain of a song are as easy to find as videos of them blowing up enemy tanks. Poetry is understood as a social art rather than as a specialized profession, and practitioners take pleasure in showing off their technique.

Much more here.

That’s not all, folks…

The Clarion Project: Dabiq, the Islamic State’s (ISIS, ISIL) magazine:

All of the issues of the Islamic State’s glossy propaganda magazine ‘Dabiq,’ named after a key site in Muslim apocalypse mythology can be found here.

Washington Post: al-Bayan, the Islamic State’s radio station:

Islamic State has an English-language radio broadcast that sounds eerily like NPR.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Dajjal June 5, 2015 at 10:42 pm

Examples can be found in Guillaume’s “The Life Of Muhammad” and other sira. To learn of the Jihad ideology complete with cost/benefit analysis, visit archive.org, search for and download “The Book Of Jihad”.

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