He saw life as a saga. All the events in it were significant: all personages in contact with him heroic. His mind was stored with poems of old raids and epic tales of fights, and he overflowed with them on the nearest listener. - T.E Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
T.E Lawrence's description of Auda, a desert warlord, homeless but armed with poems and stories, resonates with the essential function of Jihadi poetry in creating a sense of cultural identity within Da'esh, the organisation that calls itself 'Islamic State'. Admittedly, Lawrence was writing in an entirely different, and importantly less religiously radicalised society, however, he frequently notes how essential culture and particularly poetry was to an essentially nomadic people. Whilst Da'esh's rapid expansion, declaration of a 'caliphate' and alleged issue of passports seem to propose a strong sense of state identity this is flawed. Its success is fundamentally based upon military victory, for example the capture of Mosul was touted as a clear sign of God's favour, however, as they encounter more organised resistance in the form of the Iraqi Military and a reinvigorated Kurdish force this is waning. In its place a fledgling cultural identity is forming and presents an essential target for attack. There are many admirable initiatives rewriting and poking fun at Da'esh and the exaggerated culture it's weaving but more must be done to undermine the dangerously attractive image it presents that not only strengthens it internally but allures potential foreign fighters.
A principle player in fostering Da'esh's poetry is Ahlam-al-Nasr, whose collection 'The Blaze of Truth' was published online last summer and circulated extremely quickly through militant networks. Known as 'The Poetess of Da'esh' she's the closest thing to a literary celebrity that Da'esh can hold and she provides a powerful rallying call. Indeed in February she wrote a 30 page essay defending the leadership's decision to burn the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh. In a recent article in the New Yorker Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel comprehensively dissect a number of the collections 107 poems and consider their cultural impact. They noted the importance of her recent marriage to Abu Usama al-Gharib, a Vienna-born jihadi close to the movements leadership which was reported on numerous Da'esh-affiliated twitter accounts. However the celebrations of nuptial bliss also mark the creation of media power couple as Al-Gharib is a veteran propagandist, initially for al-Qaeda and now for Da'esh.
To get an idea of the importance of Jihadi poetry in fostering Da'esh's identity we must examine both its roots in traditional Arab poetry and its politicisation in the Arab Spring. The poems Lawrence frequently encountered were the latest in a long tradition based in a oral culture. The earliest poems were written primarily in monorhyme, for easy memorisation, and functioned as historical record. By celebrating famous victories, lamenting the fallen, celebrating love and degrading their enemies they fostered a culture of romance and more importantly gave a fixed identity within it. Even now television shows such as the UAE-based 'Sha'ir al-Milyoon', or 'Millionaire Poet', in which poets compete along the lines of American Idol for enormous prizes, continue to celebrate this oral tradition. The political dimension of this poetry is paramount - indeed the 2010 winner of 'Millionaire Poet' delivered a piece fiercely critical of hard-line Saudi clerics. The most obvious example of poetry's political use is in the Arab Spring. During the Egyptian revolution lines from an early 20th century Tunisian poem by Abul-Qasim al Shabi were chanted, recitals broke out nightly and poetry was a catalyst for staying inciting cohesive resistance. An Al-Jazeera correspondent reported that protestors were chanting throughout the evening. He commented ‘There’ve been poetry readings. It seems as if they’re saying, “It’s early in the morning but we’re here to stay. We’re not going anywhere".' Indeed, Nasser Farghaly, an Egyptian filmmaker, poet and writer, recently spoke to Granta about the use of poems as a tool for political movement in modern Arabic poetry:
"The dialectic that has characterised the Arabic contemporary poetry scene for the last fifty years was very evident in the revolution; this is the dialectic of revolution in poetry, or revolution by poetry."
A State - or a State in Our Eyes
The poems that are chanted by Da'esh militants now may be different but they serve the same function of social cohesion. 'The Poetess of Da'esh' herself began her poetic career penning verses in support of the protests to oust Bashar al-Assad in 2011. Since then her work has become progressively more Islamist and extremist. Celebrating the symbolic capture of Mosul she wrote
Ask Mosul, city of Islam, about the lions—
How their fierce struggle brought liberation.
The land of glory has shed its humiliation and defeat
And put on the raiment of splendour.
By repeatedly portraying Da'esh in paradisal language she is balming an integral existential anxiety within it. Surrounded by enemies on all sides and pounded by coalition bombing, the identity of Da'esh lies less in its fluctuating borders than the imaginative fantasy realm of the 'Caliphate'. By exploiting the rich oral tradition of Arabic poetry they are in effect hijacking a cohesive cultural identity for themselves and appropriating the societal roots they lack. Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel make the important distinction between Ahlam's poems and other like it and videos of beheadings and burnings. The graphic atrocities 'are made primarily for foreign consumption' whereas 'poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad'.
Da'esh itself has a troubled relationship with the idea of 'statehood'. In the early summer of 2014 Abu Bakr al-Bhagdadi declared 'Syria is not for Syrians and Iraq is not for Iraqis. The land is for the Muslims, all Muslims', thus disavowing traditional notions of statehood which typically find their model in a Westphalian secular system. However, in some respects Da'esh is behaving very much like a state. Indeed, a comprehensive study by Charles C. Caris & Samuel Reynolds for the institute of war examined how it 'has built a holistic system of governance that includes religious, educational, judicial, security, humanitarian, and infrastructure projects, among others'. Admittedly these initiatives were largely centred around the stronghold of Raqqa but the resemblance to organized statehood is striking and this is also reflected in its governing structure. Beneath him, al-Baghdadi has a chief advisor on Syria and a chief advisor on Iraq, each of whom lead 5-7 governors. There are nine councils, including the Leadership Council, the Shore Council, the Military Council, the Legal Council, the Fighters’ Assistance Council, the Financial Council, the Intelligence Council, the Security Council, and the Media Council. Thus it's clear that Da'esh is striving after a kind of sovereignty and statehood whilst simultaneously rejecting traditional, or at least Western, definitions of them. This is reflected in the names they employ. On the one hand, they use the term khalifah, a religious term far older than the 19th century nation state, to refer to Bhagdadi. This proclaims him the leader of the entire Muslim community across the world thus disregarding traditional state boundaries and national identities in favour of religion. On the other, they call themselves 'Dawlah' a term originating in the 10th century but used more recently to describe a sovereign state with the panoply of statehood. In this way Is both subscribes to and frustrates Western conceptions of secular statehood. Da'esh claims sovereignty for its 'caliphate' yet rejects the treaty from which 'sovereignty' as a modern concept was born – the treaty of Westphalia. The poetry of Ahlam-al-Nasr and others like her treads between these seemingly conflicting positions by not only perpetuating the religious call of the caliphate but also celebrating the everyday life within the 'state' of Da'esh. The two positions are collapsed in her declaration 'In the caliphate, I saw women wearing the veil, everyone treating each other with virtue, and people closing up their shops at prayer times' written in an essay defending the leadership's decision to burn Moaz al-Kasasbeh. However, the danger of propagandists like Ahlam al Nasr is that they inspire followers who in turn encourage foreign fighters disaffected with western sovereignty. One such is a British Da'esh militant, Abuqaqa Britani, who used to go by the name 'greenbirdexpress' on the social networking site Ask.fm and has started posting his own verse on Twitter. The widespread proliferation of jihadi poetry not only serves to redefine traditional notions of sovereignty but also endeavours to lure disaffected Muslims abroad to become foreign fighters.
The Emerging Cultural Battleground
However, around the world people are fighting back. Sana al-Yemen, a British teenager recently found herself the centre of a media craze after she uploaded a video reciting her own anti-Da'esh poem on youtube. Within minutes Al-Jazeera, CNN and the BBC had contacted her for comment and the poem had gone viral. She now has over 4000 followers on Twitter and has been the focus of a feature length documentary. The poem itself specifically attacked preachers in Europe calling for young people take up arms in support of Da'esh. In particular she comments upon Sheikh Mohamed al-Areifi, a Salafist cleric from Saudi Arabia who has been accused of encouraging young British Muslims to head to Syria and Iraq. There are countless other individuals around the world undermining Da'esh's rhetoric, another British example being Humza Arshad. His joint project with Scotland Yard is an essential part of their counter extremism outreach work. Alongside police officers he participates in presentations at schools all over the UK. His tongue in cheek delivery was recorded by Griff White who observed:
The police officer had just finished an earnest presentation on counter-extremism before an audience of 200 restless teenagers at an East London secondary school when a young man of Pakistani origin in a black hoodie took the stage. "How many of you people are Muslim?" the man barked. He grinned as nearly every hand went up. "Guys, we can take over! Sharia law coming soon!" the man cried gleefully. "Allahu Akbar!"
The teens erupted in laughter even before the man had a chance to clarify: "I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I think I scared the white people."
There is a fine balance between ascribing media coverage to anti-Da'esh Muslim voices and ascribing expectation. A combination of the religious motivation of IS and the hesitancy of western media to confront to 'Islamic' aspect of 'Islamic State' has been counter-productive. Whilst striving to avoid offence, news agencies are overlooking how religion - if a warped interpretation - is fuelling the conflict. The danger with this approach is that it places an inordinate pressure upon the Muslim community to denounce Da'esh's use of religion. One example of this is the decision of the mosque that Mohammad Abdulazeez, the Tennessee shooter, prayed at to cancel its Eid al-Fitr celebrations and mourn the dead marines. The eyes of America and its news agencies were upon them and thus they felt unable to continue with their own un-radicalised religious practises, and obliged to provide the rejection of Da'esh's religion that others have avoided. Headlines such as 'Government to take firmer stance on Muslims who fail to denounce jihadis' (the Independent, 18/07/2015) simply serve to increase this pressure and create an expectation for Muslim's to 'prove' their non-radicalisation by denouncing Da'esh. Marc Schneier wrote persuasively on this topic, commenting that this question arises out of the failure of the western media to effectively record the instant rejections of radicalism that surround many Islamist terrorist attacks. For instance, during the summer of 2014, the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza triggered an explosion of violent anti-Semitism across Europe; many acts were committed by Muslims. While the media highlighted the very real and deeply troubling upsurge of violence in countries like France, Germany and Belgium, they rarely reported on Muslim leaders who denounced the violence. This media neglect then occasionally boils over into sudden bouts fierce expectancy where various Muslim communities are forced to 'prove' their moderate beliefs even though they have frequently espoused them in the past. Ironically, the trepidation of news agencies to approach the clear religious motivation of Da'esh is placing an inordinate expectation and ultimately suspicion upon wider Muslim communities to do so. This is why the widespread coverage of everyday low key actors such as Sana al-Yemen is so important.
This coverage is also essential as initiatives such as Humza Arshad's showcase the power of humour to undermine Da'esh's rhetoric. In a recent interview on CNN Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, former host of Al Bernameg, summed this up perfectly when he said 'I think satire is incredible because basically it takes down this kind of fear from the hearts of people and when you take away the fear through laughter, they aren’t scary anymore'. Indeed, just across the border from Da'esh is the new hit Iraqi comedy show Dawlat al-Khurafa or the Superstitious State — a play on khilafa, or caliphate. It features Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Da'esh's leader, as a buffoon who hatches from an egg after a truly bizarre ceremony involving Satan, the Joker and, as far as I can make out, a Western cowboy. The show draws attention to the little known ludicrous laws imposed by Da'esh such as the banning of electric razors and the displaying of tomatoes side by side.
Da'esh is in a critical stage in its development. No longer fuelled by constant military success and under increasing threat from Kurdish forces, who recently captured military bases 30 miles from Raqqa, it is becoming increasingly reliant on its own interpretation of sovereignty. Nevertheless, it still poses an enormous threat to regional and international security so this cultural weakness needs to exploited to destroy the fantasy caliphate that both holds Da'esh together internally and allures foreign fighters. By examining jihadi poetry we can gain an essential glimpse into the cultural mindset of the fighters and use this to target anxieties afflicting the self proclaimed state as a whole. To do this the international community must draw media attention to individuals such as Sana, Humza and the unpublicised hundreds like them who recognise this weakness. News of the military battle against Da'esh is daily reported, with accounts of coalition bombing filling headlines, but its cultural and intellectual counterpart has not been sufficiently covered. The intellectual battleground needs to be placed at the forefront by policymakers, not simply sidelined in favour of an expansion of coalition bombing. In codifying its reinterpretation and rejection of Western sovereignty, Da'esh is becoming more reliant on its own self proclaimed myth. By waging this 'intellectual war' and expanding media coverage of everyday rejections of radicalism we can both deconstruct Da'esh's self edifying mythos and reduce the number of foreign fighters flocking to support it.
Click here for an Iraqi News report on Dawlat al-Khurafa.