Poetry may seem an unlikely weapon of modern warfare, but Isis uses it to great effect. The counter-terror response seems confused.
Why do Jihadis write poetry? Why would people facing death at any time, from bullet or bomb, indulge in unnecessary pastimes, like writing and reciting poetry?
Jihadist poetry is as old as the Crusades but today it features in a new kind of warfare: the propaganda struggle, largely internet-based, for the hearts and minds of the Middle East. And whatever is happening on the ground, the putative Caliphate is currently winning the digital war, hands down.
There is as much Jihadi poetry available on the internet as there are calls to arms. Footage of warriors reciting verses, often in unison, appears alongside videos of fighting and violence. Poetry is one of their weapons.
It was the Prophet himself who first mooted the idea, reportedly saying about poets:
Indeed, this group inflicts more damage on the people of Mecca than a hail of arrows could do!
This same view is echoed today by Flagg Miller, Professor of Religious Studies of University of California, Davis:
The power of poetry to move Arab listeners and readers emotionally, to infiltrate the psyche and to create an aura of tradition, authenticity and legitimacy around the ideologies it enshrines, make it a perfect weapon for militant jihadist cause.
The anti-terror response is uncertain and confused. Yet we have history of this sort of thing. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, poets in Britain and elsewhere were producing reams of poetry very much with the effect (intended or otherwise) that Isis has today – to legitimise the dodgy morality and often brutal processes of empire building, to inspire the youth of the time to join the cause and to put across at all costs the message that ‘our cause is right and just’. Chesterton’s ‘Lepanto’, Sir Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitae Lampada’ and of course Kipling’s many verses reinforce this idea:
‘Lord of our far-flung battle line-
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine –
Lord God of Hosts be with us yet…’
And notably, this whole empire-building attitude was ably backed up by a cohort of storytellers such as H. Rider Haggard and GA Henty. Their writing today appears laughably jingoistic, but a hundred years ago, these authors inspired generations to do what white men were then expected to do – go out and impose new laws and culture on an ungrateful local populace. Rather like Isis does today. We should understand this better.
But before we rush to find new Chestertons or Kiplings or any English-speaking poet (though the appearance of a new Chesterton wouldn’t hurt), a deeper study of Isis’ methods would be helpful. And a look at the enduring phenomenon that is Arabic poetry and its importance in the everyday lives of most Middle East inhabitants would be a good start.
Consider for example, the Abu-Dhabi based TV show ‘Million’s Poet’ which draws an audience of millions for what is essentially a poetry competition. Jihadists draw on this enthusiasm and use their own poetry to give their cause an authenticity and sense of history. They know that horrific acts of terrorism need to be sweetened for public consumption. Osama bin Laden once published a book of his poetry aimed at giving terrorism a just and acceptable identity.
The culture of Jihad is a culture of romance. It promises adventure and asserts that the codes of medieval heroism and chivalry are still relevant. Having renounced their nationalities, the militants must invent an identity of their own. Isis recruits do not imagine they are emigrating to a dusty borderland between two disintegrating states but to a caliphate with more than a millennium of history. (The New Yorker, Robyn Cresswell and Bernard Haykel).
Poetry becomes for Isis a recruiting tool – a call to arms, like this example, scolding ‘sofa warriors’:
O, evil Facebook warriors,
Soldiers of the Whatsapp army,
O ye deputy sheikhs of Google….
The crucial point however, is that in 2017, communications are rapid, world-reaching and fast-changing. We know that -yet the West, especially North America, seems reluctant to move from the comfort zone offered by those poets of the last century, aptly summed up in Belloc’s memorable phrase:
Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun and they have not.
Jihadi poems, illustrations and songs are often simply dismissed by the West as ‘bad art’, unworthy of detailed examination because issues like strategy and armaments are more important. This attitude has to change. Isis may not have the Maxim gun or its modern equivalent, the nuclear warhead, but it has skills that are equally important, such as manipulating social media, avoid censorship with some ease.
Isis uses poetry on social media sites because it can build an illusion of respectability that can fool the censors. Laurence Bindner, writing on Isis’ resilience across the internet and social media, said this:
Isis has succeeded in maintaining constant distribution of its propaganda to reach its recruitment pool and beyond. Additionally, its broadcasting entails a form of normalization of extreme violence, increasing our tolerance of “acceptable levels of violence”… rival jihadist groups like al-Qaeda that equally incite jihad or terror attacks, but lacking perhaps in extreme graphic content, have remained online for several months, being considered as less dangerous than those of Isis.
How to fight such a culture? Well, to begin with, by no means all contemporary Islamic poetry is pro-Jihad. Academic and Jihad specialist Elisabeth Kendall had this to say (on the BBC):
Countries could help fund publications that do promote anti-jihadist poetry written by locals. She insists you can find such poems if you look closely. Lots of people spend all their time looking at what a group like Islamic State pumps out in English…. But that completely neglects the vast majority of these groups.
Certainly, censorship of the internet should be quicker and more flexible. Some of the energy and inventiveness that abounds in Silicon Valley must be channelled into this.
We can see the ability to adapt that is a vital characteristic in the big corporations – the Facebooks, Googles and YouTubes. Thinking ‘out of the box’ is what they do; creativity is their forte. The power of Facebook and Twitter, so chillingly successful in the last US Presidential election, has to be mobilised to help us rather than t divide us.. These skills need to be deployed to meet the terrorist threat, to counter each new thrust and to think ahead.
The Victorian and Edwardian poets may have been at times bombastic and a touch jingoistic but they knew how to inspire. They knew how to instil a sense of rightness and a sense of sacrifice.
Yet today such poems are coming from the terrorists. The suicide bomber who wrote:
I will fasten my explosive belt,
I will shudder like a lightening bolt
…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
…I will live and die for Allah.
Is displaying sentiments not that different from Rupert Brooke writing in 1914:
If I should die, think only this of me
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.
Right now it is hard to argue with the assertion of that suicide bomber: ‘..My voice is the loudest’.
That needs to change and it needs to change fast.