Exposing the jihadi mouthpieces who pollute our world

Exposing the jihadi mouthpieces who pollute our world

This image posted online by Daesh militants on June 14, 2014 shows Iraqi cadets captured by group moments before they were killed in Tikrit, Iraq. (Militant photo via AP, File)
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As the column of jihadis bearing black flags marched on Mosul and declared a caliphate, I was establishing a research unit that sought to provide greater understanding of the warped religious justification used by the group. This required us to monitor and digest jihadi propaganda. I used to read Dabiq, Daesh’s semi-regular, English-language magazine, with more thoroughness than the morning papers.

Over the course of this tumultuous period, certain stylistic elements of the propaganda became evident. One was the emphasis in publications on long features on some aspect of the terror group’s understanding of Islamic theology, which was often obscure and technical. In part, it was things like this that bolstered my conviction that to seek to address jihadism without tackling it at a theological level would be fruitless.

The cultural aspects were fascinating for another reason. Some elements, like the “five-star jihad” meme (propaganda targeted at Western Muslims tempted to travel to join Daesh, but worried about where they would get their hair gel) were both shallow and obvious. But others merited closer attention; one of these was the use of poetry.

This was primarily delivered through the medium of jihadi nashids: Poetry set to music, sung a cappella. But the poetry was not only designed for singing; it was also published in anthologies. And the most popular Daesh poet was the woman who went by the name Ahlam Al-Nasr (“dreams of victory”).

The granddaughter of Syrian cleric Mustafa Al-Bugha, Al-Nasr arrived in Daesh territory in 2014, aged 16, and soon married an Austrian-born commander. By the summer of 2015, she had published her first collection of poems, “The Blaze of Truth,” and was being hailed as the “Poet of the Islamic State.”

Peter Welby

The granddaughter of Syrian cleric Mustafa Al-Bugha, Al-Nasr arrived in Daesh territory in 2014, aged 16, and soon married an Austrian-born commander. By the summer of 2015, she had published her first collection of poems, “The Blaze of Truth,” and was being hailed as the “Poet of the Islamic State.”

Al-Nasr’s prime function, from an organizational point of view, was propaganda. The use of poetry to advance Islamic causes goes back to the companions of the Prophet of Islam himself. Daesh’s core claim is that it is not a break with Islam’s past but, rather, an authentic revival of early Islam.

Thomas Hegghammer, a leading expert on jihadi culture, once claimed that jihadis seemed to devote a lot of time to activities that were unrelated to their extremist cause.

But the reality is that their cultural activities are strongly related to their jihadi activity. Any counter-cultural group needs to establish its own culture, whatever its goals or reasons for existence. Ideology alone is not sufficient to keep fractious, homesick, culturally diverse people together. They need to develop a common cultural identity to cling to as well.

The recruitment route can go the other way, too. Non-violent Islamists can share cultural lodestars with violent jihadis, meaning that those who choose violence to achieve their goals find it easier to switch from one to the other.


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Al-Nasr’s poetry ticked all these boxes: It served as an instrument of propaganda, glorifying life in the so-called caliphate; it sought to tie the actions of Daesh to the successes and sacrifices of Islam’s early years; and it contributed to the literary canon, and therefore to the long-term stability of the Islamist and jihadi subculture.

All of this matters if we want to understand how to defeat jihadism in the long run. Daesh may be defeated territorially, but its supporters are still out there, demonstrating their capacity for violence. And just as Daesh was not the first jihadi group to achieve global prominence, neither will it be the last.

For too long, the West has focused on police and military responses to jihadism. These are clearly necessary, but they can only suppress it. Defeating it requires an approach that tackles the elements that give ideas their power.

The West has spent the past two decades slowly waking up to the need to tackle Islamism and jihadism at a theological level. 

It will take time, but exposing propagandists such as Al-Nasr as hate preachers is an important part of understanding the poison of jihadi thinking that pollutes our world and threatens our future.

 

Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion and Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen.
Twitter: @pdcwelby 

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