The Long View: The significance of verse in Islamist militant life

Poetry is a peculiar art in that it has always — since its very origins — been used as a device for articulating self and other, nationhood and foreignness. And it always been, in some capacity or other, related to conflict. The verse Epic of Gilgamesh, considered to be the earliest written work of literature, is primarily concerned with war (epos); so are the Iliad, the Odyssey, or Beowulf. Skaldic poetry, an important part of the literary output of Old Norse, consists of verse with virtuosic ornamentation designed to praise an aristocratic figure, usually with reference to their feats of arms.  The mediaeval practice of flyting (a public exchange of insults, in verse, between two adversaries) has at its core the same urge from which rap music and slam poetry originated. In no culture, however, is poetry used for acting out conflict as much as is in the Arab world: in the early twentieth century, for instance, the Yemeni tensions between conservatives and social reformers often materialised in the form of performance verse. The tradition of two speakers taking turns to deliver their side of the argument is ancient practice, rooted in pre-Islamist times, but now seems to find a radicalized application in jihadist tactics of recruitment and propaganda. But in order to understand the efficiency and success of such tactics, it is essential to appreciate the vast extent to which the culture of Classical Arabic poetry befits extremist rhetorics, as well as the various methods used by jihadists to broadcast it.

One major consideration is that, by any account, the practice of reading, hearing, and writing verse, bears a much greater importance in the Arab world than in the West. In the recent article, ‘Yemen’s al-Qa’ida and Poetry as a Weapon of Jihad’, Oxford academic Elizabeth Kendall refers to a randomized 2012 survey taken among Yemeni of both genders regarding, among other issues, the significance of poetry in their lives. 74% of the takers stated that poetry is either ‘important’ or ‘very important’ to them. Such statistics, of course, would be highly improbable in any non-academic, non-artistic subsection of the Western world. According to Kendall, these numbers have to do with the country’s low Internet rate, to which only 3% of Yemenis have access. In such regions, the medium of poetry, with its oral-formulaic traditions of being passed on communally across generations, is particularly prone to making an audience of the population it reaches.

Yet verse-making also flourishes in parts of the Arab world with greater access to entertainment technologies. The Abu Dhabi-based reality TV show Million’s Poet (or Poet of the People; a Middle Eastern response to Pop Idol), gathers an audience of close to 17 million — perhaps astonishingly for a 3-hour programme dedicated to making pop idols of emerging poets. It is worth mentioning that some of the most successful contenders are women: Ayda al-Jahani and Hissa Hidal have competed for the top prize in the past. This is something which the programme’s producer Nashwa Al Ruwaini considered “unheard of” but acknowledged that Million’s Poethas helped create social change”.

On the other end of the cultural spectrum, however, this public outreach is particularly beneficial to jihadists, particularly because poetry has long been considered a fitting medium for the pursuit of jihad — in other words, poets are profoundly valued as actors of the Holy War. Ibn Rachik, an eleventh-century poet and historian, reports the Prophet’s praising attitude towards poets committed to the fight against unbelievers: ‘Indeed this group inflicts more damage on the people of Mecca than a hail of arrows could do!’ The Quran itself does sometimes cast poets in a negative light: “Do you not see that they roam confusedly through all the valleys of falsehoods, thoughts, and currents?” reads the Surah Ash-Shu’ara. Nonetheless Muhammad, who by many accounts was a poet himself before his revelation, seems to have found the practice of verse to be a considerable asset to his strategy, and welcomed the poets willing to convert. (It is also worth noting that his own account of his revelations is written in the form of saj, or rhymed prose, which, when recited orally, is reminiscent of verse.) Carole Hillenbrand, a scholar of Islamic History, has also pointed out the proliferation of jihadist poetry “scattered through Muslim chronicles”, especially during the Crusades: the application of poetry to militant purposes, it appears, is over a thousand years old.

More recently, this embedded status of poetry in the jihadist corpus and the loosening response to verse written by women have made it relatively easy for ISIS to adopt a leading poetic figure in Ahlam al-Nasr, who has come to be dubbed as “the Poetess of the Islamic State”. Her 2014 marriage to Abu Usama al-Gharib, a prominent propagandist within the movement, has afforded her the stature and outreach required of such a position. ISIS has been particularly successful in recruiting women, and poets are numerous among them. Although there is no clear-cut opposition between female and male jihadist poetic idiom, they tend to differ in tone and rhetoric. Poetry written by women thrives within ISIS because it articulates a role for itself: the poems are typically centered around a husband or son figure, and are concerned with emotions of anguish, grief, or loss. Remarkably, al-Nasr both embodies those concerns and acts them out on a global, rather than personal, scale. Her online collection The Blaze of Truth comprises one hundred and seven poems, typically odes to ISIS warriors, laments for the fallen, or eulogies to the city of Mosul:

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

Her output also notoriously includes an essay in defense of the decision made by ISIS to burn the Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasasbeh alive after his fighter plane broke down and crashed on Syrian territory. More surprising, however, is the extensive series of notes appended to The Blaze of Truth and explaining its syntax and rhyme scheme. There is something didactic about al-Nasr’s approach, and the notes also seem be guidelines for the reader as to how they might deepen their own poetic practice.

The poems are written, for the most part, in the traditional monorhyme, and in the ancient idiom of the Quran. Elizabeth Kendall, on the subject of the “jihadist predilection for classical Arab” over dialect, argues that “to understand this seeming mismatch, one must appreciate the sacred nature and beauty of classical Arabic and its effect on the listener or reader.” While these attributes no doubt have a profound effect on its radical practitioners, one must also take into consideration a more practical factor: that of intercommunication between followers of ISIS. Part of al-Nasr’s project, in fact, is to gather and unite an audience from various (and oftentimes far-flung) regions and to promulgate, as Bernard Haykel and Robyn Creswell have it, “a new political geography” that  “rejects the boundaries set by foreign powers and is, instead, organized around sites of militancy and Muslim suffering”:

My homeland is the land of truth,
the sons of Islam are my brothers. . .
I do not love the Arab of the South
any more than the Arab of the North.
My brother in India, you are my brother,
as are you, my brothers in the Balkans,
In Ahwaz and Aqsa,
in Arabia and Chechnya.
If Palestine cries out,
or if Afghanistan calls out,
If Kosovo is wronged,
or Assam or Pattani is wronged,
My heart stretches out to them,
longing to help those in need.
There is no difference among them,
this is the teaching of Islam.
We are all one body,
this is our happy creed. . . .
We differ by language and color,
but we share the very same vein.

If the rhetoric of jihadist poetry uniformises and amalgamates its enemies (the USA, Infidels, the West), it also acknowledges the geographical disparity of its followers. In this respect, Classical Arabic is the optimal mode of articulation both for outreach and for cultural resonance. A diasporic community can be united by a common language. The monorhyme functions simultaneously as a link to ancient religious texts and as a mnemonic device, enabling its readers to learn and recite entire stanzas by rote. It is equally suited for the delivery of propaganda material: rhyme, as contemporary poet Don Paterson suggests, elevates an utterance to the status of universal law. Classical Arabic also affords a near endless supply of thematic and lexical material: jihadist poets are known to borrow generously from religious texts and use them as stock pieces in their own writing.

This appropriation of the ancient into the contemporary militant discourse is typical of jihadist poetry. Consider the following piece, prophesising the downfall of the USA:

I will fasten my explosive belt,
I will shudder like a lightning bolt
and rush by like a torrential stream
and resound like stormy thunder.
In my heart is the heart of a volcano.
I will sweep through the land like a flood.
For I live by the Qur’an
as I remember the Merciful.
My steadfastness lies in faith
so let the day of the Qur’an come.
For I live by the Qur’an as I remember the Merciful.
My steadfastness lies in faith
so let the day of the Holy Book come
to demolish the thrones of the tyrant.
My voice is the loudest voice
for I do not fear false clerics.
I will live and die for Allah.

I announced there would be no more rest
until our arrows smote the enemy.
I strapped on my machine gun
with a mujahid’s resolve
and pursued my course
with a passionate heart.
I want one of two good things:
or deliverance from despotic power.

The main stylistic particularity of such excerpts is the juxtaposition of traditional material (formulaic stock epithets, archaic phrasing, elemental imagery, praise and fervour) with the specifics of modern-day warfare (the explosive belts and machine guns). As Kendall points out, these anachronisms find echoes in other militant modes of articulation, such as the as the calligraphy on flags or the sword-waving on horseback. This opposition grounds jihadist poetry. This kind of discourse is ideal for ISIS’ recruitment tactics because it mirrors extremist methods: drawing for galvanisation on idealised sources, but ultimately relying on contemporarily relevant terminology and technology.

Part of the pervasiveness and popularity of poetry in jihadist culture lies in its dual status both as an egalitarian, communal medium, and a testament to individual skill. On the one hand, as propaganda videos show, group performance is a natural occurrence in the day-to-day life of militant fighters. Conversely, the skill required to write an original poem becomes an exercise in self-valorisation: if one is to be taken seriously, the heroic actions “performed” by the speaker of a poem must go along with poetic virtuosity. Osama Bin Laden, himself a dedicated practitioner, was one of the most respected jihadist poets, and owed much of his charisma to his rhetorical abilities. It is not uncommon, in propaganda videos, to find a fighter making a boast in an eloquently rhythmic and patterned speech, articulating military bravado with verbal skill.

As Joanna Paraszczuk suggests, in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the jihadi world is a culture in which a nom de plume may very well also be a nom de guerre: especially for males who physically take part in terrorist action, a jihadist’s identity as a poet is fully woven into their identity as a combatant. In poems replete with the primordial and eschatological register of Classical tradition, a self-projecting, self-dramatising poet becomes a new incarnation of the ancient hero warring against the Infidels. As Creswell and Haykel have it, “it in in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad”.

Lastly, it is important to consider whom the poetic discourse of jihad is directed at. The texts and videos from which this information was gathered constitute the sort of propaganda which is not aimed at the opponents of jihad, but at the islamist world itself. Unlike videos of threats or executions, these documents are not meant for broadcast outside terrorist organisations, but for circulation within them. This is a crucial point: their examination affords us what Creswell and Haykel call a “window to the movement talking to itself”. Jihadist poetry employs a different rhetoric from that which we typically encounter or tend to expect. It helps us delineate its motivations and goals (as Crewell and Haykel have) and define the very tactics used by islamists. For this reason, as Kendall herself argues, this information could be used not only to understand extremist movements, but also to fight them. The study of poetry may prove essential to counterpropaganda efforts.

Pierre Antoine Zahnd

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