Poetry ‘perfect weapon’ for recruiting jihadists – Oxford study

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Oxford researcher Elisabeth Kendall has discovered that poetry is a formidable instrument for recruiting violent jihadists. The findings are part of the forthcoming book on jihad in the 21st century. She writes that Arab listeners are particularly receptive to the power of verse.

This affinity is explained through the intimate connection of the particular art form with cultural authenticity in Arab culture, Kendall writes.

“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 causes,” Kendall explains in her essay, 'Yemen’s al-Qaida and Poetry as a Weapon of Jihad,' which forms part of her upcoming book, 'Twenty-First Century Jihad.'

This poetic power takes its roots in the religious teachings of the Koran. The strength of oral traditions in hard-to-reach areas with little internet or other means of communication is a very important contributor to this.

Elsewhere, the tradition finds favor with affluent Arabs as well. In the United Arab Emirates, a reality TV program, 'Million's Poets,' sometimes dubbed, 'Poetry Idol,' functions as a sort of local version of pop idol, and generates more viewers than football, the region’s most popular sport.

It is, therefore, not surprising that poetry finds new uses – over the last three decades in particular, with several Islamic extremist magazines featuring poems “extolling the virtues of, and rewards for, militant jihad. However, scholars and analysts alike have almost entirely neglected contemporary Arabic jihadist poetry, skipping over it in favor of more direct pronouncements, rulings and position statements. Yet poetry can carry messages to a broader audience as it plugs naturally into a long tradition of oral transmission, particularly on the Arabian Peninsula, spreading ideas through repeated recitation and chanting and through conversion into anthems (nashid, nasha'id).”

“The language of poetry emulates the language in which the [Koran] was revealed … jihadist publications make liberal use of poetry from the classical heritage, which they largely fail to attribute, but which listeners might find faintly familiar from oral tradition,” Kendall explains.

“The beauty of the language, solemn intonation, pattern and rhythms found in more classical poems, could not fail to impress.”

It was the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who in 2000 celebrated his son’s wedding with verses he had written himself, celebrating the attack on the USS Cole in October of the same year in Yemen.

Kendall believes contemporary jihad-inspired poetry to be important, because it also shines a light into the everyday lives, motivations and the social group dynamic of its protagonists. In so doing, it also demonstrates the political landscape in which it is usually employed.

To arrive at her current conclusions, Kendall used material from conversations with over 2,000 people in Yemen’s Mahra region. The research focused on the significance of poetry for the everyday lives of people there and was part of a wider study into socio-economic realities conducted by the NGO Mahra Youth Unity Organization.

The study took place in December 2012 and focused on illiterate respondents. Kendall found it surprising that as many as 74 percent of them considered poetry “important” or “very important” to their culture.

She also found that love of poetry to be much stronger in remote, desert tribes, in the poorest economic groups and among those who carried a gun. “The presence of a television and level of education made no discernible impact,” she wrote.

The impressiveness of the solemn, rhythmic character of classical poems is further combined today with imagery in online radicalization, on social networks and video streaming websites such as YouTube. The addition of symbolism, such as burning American flags or the World Trade Centre during the 9/11 attacks, is one popular theme.

Kendall also recounts footage of “jihadists training or dead children in Iraq and Gaza, with faint background music and a ‘reverb effect’ that emphasizes the monorhyme and heightens the sense of gravitas in the apocalyptic battle between good and evil that is the underlying theme running through most poems.”

Tied together, these factors explain why ideological indoctrination is much more important than military training, and that is something Kendall says all academics agree on.

“The above investigation has shown how poetry can inject ideas into the deep psyche through a cocktail of techniques: powerful images, historical allusion and parallels, linguistic beauty, rhyme and meter. All are framed within the broader apocalyptic struggle between good and evil and imbued with a long sense of tradition, both religious and literary (oral). This lends authenticity to the messages conveyed, using the genre of poetry, whose widespread popularity is proven still to persist today.”