The Soft Power of Militant Jihad – The New York Times

An angle that has not received much coverage by Thomas Hegghammer, Director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment.:

Why have tens of thousands of people from around the world chosen to live under the Islamic State’s draconian rule and fight under its black flag? To understand this phenomenon, we must recognize that the world of radical Islam is not just death and destruction. It also encompasses fashion, music, poetry, dream interpretation. In short, jihadism offers its adherents a rich cultural universe in which they can immerse themselves.

For the past four years I have been studying what jihadis do in their spare time. The idea is simple: To really understand a community, we need to look at everything its members do. Using autobiographies, videos, blog posts, tweets and defectors’ accounts, I have sought a sense of the cultural dimensions of jihadi activism. What I have discovered is a world of art and emotions. While much of it has parallels in mainstream Muslim culture, these militants have put a radical ideological spin on it.

When jihadis aren’t fighting — which is most of the time — they enjoy storytelling and watching films, cooking and swimming. The social atmosphere (at least for those who play by the rules) is egalitarian, affectionate and even playful. Jihadi life is emotionally intense, filled with the thrill of combat, the sorrow of loss, the joy of camaraderie and the elation of religious experience. I suspect this is a key source of its attraction.

The corridors of jihadi safe houses are filled with music or, more precisely, a cappella hymns (since musical instruments are forbidden) known as anashid. There’s nothing militant about this traditional genre, which dates from pre-Islamic times. But in the 1970s, Islamists began composing their own ideological songs about their favored themes. Today there are thousands of jihadi songs in circulation, with new tunes being added every month. Jihadis can’t seem to get enough anashid. They listen to them in their dorms and in their cars, sing them in training camps and in the trenches, and discuss them on Twitter and Facebook. Some use them to mentally prepare for operations: Ayoub El Khazani, a 25-year-old Moroccan man who attempted a shooting attack on a Paris-bound train in August, listened to YouTube videos of jihadi anashid just minutes before his failed operation.

Anashid are closely related to poetry, another staple of jihadi culture. Across the Arab and Islamic world, poetry is much more widely appreciated than it is in the West. Militants, though, have used the genre to their own ends. Over the past three decades or so, jihadi poets have developed a vast body of radical verse. Leaders from the Islamic State’s spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani to Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahri often include lines of poetry in their speeches and treatises. Foot soldiers in Syria and Iraq sometimes hold impromptu poetry performances or group recitals in the field.

Perhaps more important than poems for jihadis are dreams, which they believe can contain instructions from God or premonitions of the future. Both leaders and foot soldiers say they sometimes rely on nighttime visions for decision making. Omar Hammami, the Alabama-born man who fought with the Shabab in Somalia in the late 2000s, said he thought of defecting, “but it was really a few dreams that tipped the scales and caused me to stay.” Mullah Omar, the mysterious one-eyed Taliban leader who died in 2013, reportedly made no consequential strategic decision before getting advice from his dreams.

Jihadi culture also comes with its own sartorial styles. In Europe, radicals sometimes wear a combination of sneakers, a Middle Eastern or Pakistani gown and a combat jacket on top. It’s a style that perhaps reflects their urban roots, Muslim identity and militant sympathies. The men often follow Salafi etiquette, for example by carrying a tooth-cleaning twig known as a miswak, wearing nonalcoholic perfume, and avoiding gold jewelry, as they believe the Prophet Muhammad did.

As new recruits shed their jeans and track suits for robes, as they memorize the words to the Islamic State’s anashid and learn to look for glimpses of paradise in dreams, they discover a whole new lifestyle. Music, rituals and customs may be as important to jihadi recruitment as theological treatises and political arguments. Yes, some people join radical groups because they want to escape personal problems, avenge Western foreign policy or obey a radical doctrine. But some recruits may join because they find a cultural community and a new life that is emotionally rewarding.

As the West comes to terms with a new and growing threat — horrifically evident in the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. — we are not only confronting organizations and doctrines, but also a highly seductive subculture. This is bad news. Governments are much better equipped to take on the Slaughterer than they are He Who Weeps a Lot.

Source: The Soft Power of Militant Jihad – The New York Times

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

One Response to The Soft Power of Militant Jihad – The New York Times

  1. gjreid says:

    I think this is a very important point. Usually radical “conversion” experiences, and fanatical subgroups, whether religious or not, offer a very strong communal experience, and subculture, with rituals, songs, marches, symbols, heroes and iconic figures or charismatic leaders, and shared experiences of many kinds; this sort of thing is essential if you are going to ‘restructure’ personalities and make them undertake ‘heroic’ acts, whether of a sublime or demonic kind. You can see very similar types of subculture offered by certain Christian cults, Evangelical churches, radical Orthodox Judaism, Charles Manson’s “Family”, the Jonestown Cult, the Red Brigades, Fascism, the Nazi Party, and Communism; the emphasis on youth is interesting too: ISIS in this is not alone. Adolescence and young adulthood are times when the personality is particularly vulnerable to restructuring and conversion. If your whole life, public and private, is bound up with the belief system and community, and the ecstatic experience of being part of a ‘whole’, it is very difficult to leave it. Liberal Democratic capitalist societies, because of their pluralistic laissez-faire nature, and tolerance, and debate and conflict, and continual evolution, with the churning effect of “creative destruction”, offer a plethora of subcultures – which develop and perish – but cannot in themselves offer such an all-encompassing womb-like experience of communal ecstasy. Countering such a subculture is difficult – a mix of ridicule, parody, and sympathetic understanding might help. .

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