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Review: Jihadi Culture

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THIS book is a collection of studies about the cultural practices of jihadis and poses the important question of why these fighters spend so much time on rituals, music, films, and storytelling. Most efforts to understand violent extremists focus on how they fight or fundraise – after all, who cares what they do in their spare time? It turns out to matter a lot.

The academics who contribute to this book (Thomas Hegghammer himself is director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and a professor at the University of Oslo) focus on activities that don’t seem to have any apparent military purpose. We learn that “even in war zones ... we see jihadis spend hours ... praying, listening to hymns, telling stories, watching jihadi videos, and interpreting dreams”. Some of these activities, such as excessive fasting or a refusal to lie on one’s stomach while engaged in warfare (viewed as degrading), are even counterproductive, but they still go on. The terrorists defy expectations of “utility maximising behaviour” and instead value personal humility, artistic sensitivity, and displays of emotion. Yet, as the writers explain, these activities help the jihadis in achieving their mission. 

The book should be applauded for reaching beyond doctrine towards aesthetics and, above all, for highlighting the central role of emotions in many of these cultural practices. It seems that poetry, a cappella music (anashid) and videos about martyrs, among other forms of expression, are crucial for motivation, inspiration, developing a sense of identity, and commitment to the group. 

Poetry is arguably at the centre of the jihadi cultural world: “it is in their verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad”. Poetry reading is a communal activity among jihadis, who literally sit around the campfire reciting verse. Usama Bin Laden was considered a very good poet, and was respected for his original compositions. Nevertheless, most jihadi poets do not aim for innovation but root themselves in tradition, drawing deeply on both ancient and modern Arabic sources. “Jihadi poems are best understood not as works of propaganda or recreation, but as performances of authenticity,” we are told. In a world that has “perverted true Islamic principles”, the jihadis seek legitimacy through heritage.

The pervasive use of music in jihadi culture is another surprise. Very conservative interpretations of Islam forbid listening to music or the use of musical instruments. The 19th century governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, tortured captured Wahabis by forcing them to listen to the guitar before their execution. However, jihadis often use a cappella songs as mechanisms of outreach and to forge interpersonal bonds between recruits. The chapter on music highlights the not widely understood link between music, high emotion and violence, showing how “emotion plays a significant role in cultivating and perpetuating violence, and music is often a powerful mediator of emotion”. 

Jihadis also make extensive use of dream interpretation to make sense of the world. Unlike in the West, this is not about personal diagnosis but divination, looking into the future rather than into the self. It also helps leaders establish their authority through their special “revelatory powers”. 

The coverage of jihadi visual culture highlights the role of the martyr as a symbol of purity and emulation, as well as showing how characters from the Marvel Universe, such as The Punisher, are woven into video productions. Much of the imagery reflects modern consumer culture and is intended to attract youth, a key sector of recruitment. For all these aspects of culture are “emotional persuasion tools”. They evoke or involve emotion that reinforces and complements jihadi doctrine; many new recruits indulge in music and videos long before fighting or learning doctrine more deeply. “It is not about how they think but how about they feel,” says academic Marc Sageman. Thus recruitment, membership retention, and inspiration are all enhanced by these actions, and basic emotional needs are met and redirected towards the jihadi effort. 

Deep familiarity with poetry and anashid is time consuming, facilitates the development of trust, and demonstrates commitment to the group. It provides inspiration and a sense of belonging to a great heritage and tradition. Indeed, many new recruits have given up family bonds and friends for a high-risk environment, and the jihadi cultural complex provides them with a new sense of belonging. That world recalibrates their motivations towards destructive ends. However, they also seek new beginnings, and the pursuit of a higher order and purpose. Some of their messages may surprise: “My homeland is the land of truth; the sons of Islam are my brothers; I do not love the Arabs of the South any more than the Arabs of the North; ... we are all one body; this is our happy creed.” This is a call for a form of universalism from some of the most dangerous and violent individuals on the planet. 

What lessons can be learned? First, jihadi groups are notoriously difficult to penetrate, specifically because of their intricate culture. Understanding them better means focusing less on doctrine and more on videos and anashid. Second, alternatives to radicalism will need to target emotions rather than economic interests, such as the need for employment. Third, whether through poetry or the visual depiction of a martyr, their culture speaks to the power of stories. They are recounting adventures, while governments respond with sterile ‘counter-narratives’. Solutions developed by committee or by bureaucracies don’t stand much of a chance against a living culture. A first step might be to make sure that these individuals have their needs met at home, pre-empting the dangerous quest for radical alternatives.  

The book successfully demonstrates that militancy is about more than bombs and ideology. The “rugged terrorists” turn out to be more emotional and sensitive than their reputation would have us imagine. In an inescapable irony, they use authenticity and beauty for the most damaging ends. “Dreams are ... important, but so are their earthly custodians,” we are told. Indeed, the book left me with a sense that there is not yet enough attention on what is behind all this: the human as a whole, with all our motivations, needs and capacities, here so spectacularly hijacked. If we had a better grasp of how these “earthly custodians” operate, not least by using the lens of the human givens, there might ultimately be much less misdirected energy and abuse of a great heritage. 

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Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists, Edited by Thomas Hegghammer
Cambridge University Press. 2017.

This review was written by John Bell and first appeared in Human Givens Journal Volume 24, No 2, 2017.

John Bell