The New Yorker Examines Jihadist Poetry
At The New Yorker, Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel write about "jihadi power couple" Ahlam al-Nasr and her husband Abu Usama al-Gharib, "a veteran propagandist, initially for Al Qaeda and now for ISIS." Al-Nasr is a poet. Her book, The Blaze of Truth, published online last summer, "consists of a hundred and seven poems in Arabic—elegies to mujahideen, laments for prisoners, victory odes, and short poems that were originally tweets. Almost all the poems are written in monorhyme—one rhyme for what is sometimes many dozens of lines of verse—and classical Arabic metres." More:
Al-Nasr fled to one of the Gulf states but returned to Syria last year, arriving in Raqqa, the de-facto capital of ISIS, in early fall. She soon became a kind of court poet, and an official propagandist for the Islamic State. She has written poems in praise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled Caliph of ISIS, and, in February, she wrote a thirty-page essay defending the leadership’s decision to burn the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh alive. In a written account of her emigration, al-Nasr describes the caliphate as an Islamist paradise, a state whose rulers are uncorrupted and whose subjects behave according to pious norms. “In the caliphate, I saw women wearing the veil, everyone treating each other with virtue, and people closing up their shops at prayer times,” she writes. The movement’s victories in Mosul and western Iraq were fresh in the militants’ memory. In the city streets, “children played with sticks, pretending these were weapons they would use to fight heretics and unbelievers.” Al-Nasr celebrated ISIS’s military triumphs as a new dawn for Iraq: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 splendor.
ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other Islamist movements produce a huge amount of verse. The vast majority of it circulates online, in a clandestine network of social-media accounts, mirror sites, and proxies, which appear and disappear with bewildering speed, thanks to surveillance and hacking. On militant Web sites, poetry-discussion forums feature couplets on current events, competitions among duelling poets, who try to outdo one another in virtuosic feats, and downloadable collections with scholarly accoutrements. (“The Blaze of Truth” includes footnotes that explain tricky syntax and unusual rhyme schemes.)
Analysts have generally ignored these texts, as if poetry were a colorful but ultimately distracting by-product of jihad. But this is a mistake. It is impossible to understand jihadism—its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture. This culture finds expression in a number of forms, including anthems and documentary videos, but poetry is its heart. And, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.
The article continues at The New Yorker.