Book review

How do we explain the fact that militant Jihadists write poetry?

What makes the practice of terror compatible with the practice of culture and the arts?

“No more poetry after Auschwitz” is what the German philosopher Theodor Adorno is supposed to have said. He would perhaps have been astonished at the fact that poetry is both popular and flourishing amongst the circles of militant Islamists or “jihadis”, as a new book edited by Thomas Hegghammer, Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists, details.

“Silence! Words are for heroes / and the words of heroes are deeds”: thus begins a poem published in a journal called the Anthology for Glory written by Ahlam al-Nasr. Nasr, as the book tells us, is better known as the “Poetess of the Islamic State”. That militant Islamists and ‘jihadis’ are also in their spare time poets of some renown (at least in their own circles) is one of the many disturbing facts that this book edited by Hegghammer records about jihadi culture. Not only are most terrorists and militants amateur poets, singers and cinematographers, their cultural practices in many cases carry more importance than even tactical planning.

Thus, amongst Osama bin Laden’s documents were found a letter detailing military strategy and also a request for information regarding some obscure Arabic metrical patterns. This is an obvious incongruity in the image of the barbarous terrorist we have all internalised, and is but one disturbing fact among many regarding “jihadi culture” recounted by the contributors of this volume.

How to deal with it

There are usually two major modes of coping with this kind of disturbing knowledge, which Hannah Arendt aptly described as the banality of evil: either focus on the shock value of the banality, or disregarding it, emphasise the evil. The first is to be shocked and disturbed by the idea that monsters also drink the same Coca-Cola we do. This was the procedure followed by the New York Times in its simpering portrait of a Nazi sympathiser from Ohio, Tony Hovater. The second emphasises the evil nature of the subject regardless of how banal he might be in his regular life. This was the indignant response of many journalists to the Times article.

But what is actually shocking, is that the banality of evil still continues to shock us, even today. Why indeed are we shocked to know that jihadis compose a lot of poetry, sing songs, make videos and interpret each other’s dreams?

The question that is obfuscated by these two responses to the banality of evil is a simple one: do these militants and terrorists find their cultural and aesthetic trappings incongruous to the work of death that they carry out? Jihadi Culture has a straightforward answer to this, and it is negative. For these men (and women) their artistic and cultural pursuits are part and parcel of their lives as terrorists or militant sympathisers.

That the aesthetic and cultural could play a central role in the barbarous is something many would not like to think about, especially if they identify with some form of high culture and sophistication. Painting Islamist terrorists(or for that matter Trump voters or Hindutva fringe groups) as brutal barbarians is quite easy. What is difficult is to realise that the acclamation and appreciation of high culture also partakes of the same form as the glorification of the suicide bomber or the aestheticisation of Nazi Germany documented by Leni Riefenstahl.

Power always seems to take the garb of glory, majesty, and sublimity, wrapping itself up in robes that project it as both functional and inoperative, forceful and immobile. David B Cooks writes in his chapter that the same terrorists who flaunt their masculine prowess also foster a sensitive side that is brought to the verge of tears upon hearing a reading of the Quran or watching a video of maimed Bosnian children. Why this co-belonging of power and glory, force and passivity? This book attempts to understand, in a nebulous sort of way, why that has always been so in the domain of militant Islamists, but its findings can also be extrapolated to other fields.

What, not why

In his introduction Hegghammer clarifies that the book does not attempt to decipher why jihadis participate in cultural and artistic practices, but only what they do: “First of all, due to space limitations, my aim is primarily descriptive: I ask what people did in these groups, not so much why they did it.”

Their cultural, social and artistic practices have actually never been documented as such in academic discourse, and Hegghammer believes that doing so will not just add to the existing literature but also help in understanding the jihadi appeal. In eight chapters written by various experts such as Nelly Lahoud, Jonathan Pieslak, and Afshon Ostovar among others, this book deals with various topics like poetry, cinematography, martyrology, dream interpretation, music and religion amongst militant Islamist groups.

The book opens up the interior social and cultural lives of the dreaded Islamist terrorist groups from 1980 to 2010. The most perplexing question Hegghammer and his fellow contributors face however is the utility (or rather inutility) of these practices. Why does a brutal, hardened terrorist spend most of his time working on his verse rather than his weapons? If these practices have no correlational bearing on terrorism (since virtually anyone can be engaged in writing verse or singing nasheed songs) then why do terrorists constantly and persistently indulge in them, even when they are quite obviously counter-productive?

It is at this moment that Hegghammer’s analysis hits an obstacle which it is incapable of overcoming. The most he can do is formulate a couple of hypotheses, one of which explains these practices as initiatory rites which act as proof of the new recruit’s dedication to the cause. In reading these superfluous practices as another form of the instrumental Hegghammer finds himself amongst the numerous political theorists, from Aristotle to Ernst Kantorowicz, who, confronted with the complex choreography and massive expenditure of the symbolic apparatus of power, just threw up their hands and resigned themselves to its inexplicable existence.

Uncomfortable questions

What this book excludes is not just, as Simon Cottee in The Atlantic alleges, accounts of homosexuality and masturbation in jihadi camps. That is, rather, a methodological constraint upon the writers, as they were restricted to documents and texts, and not ethnographic surveys or personal interviews. What it actually refuses to confront is an important issue that finds its source in a problem quite properly theological, which is the question of glory (the predominance of glory in all military cultures, including the Islamists, must be seen in a spectrum of continuity).

The predominance of marriage ceremonies for suicide bombers, heroic poetry, and visual glorification of martyrs is observed by the contributors in this book throughout all spheres of conflict wracking West Asia. All of them are willing to die for their own and god’s glory. The inviting glory of martyrdom actually cripples the militant movement by being especially impractical – fighters who willingly die on the battlefield can better serve their cause by escaping to fight again. Yet, the contributors refuse to accept the proximity of power and glory, force and inoperativity. For them they remain uncomfortable questions, but the greatest merit of the book is to give these questions a space for preliminary articulation.

The book thus leaves us with uncomfortable questions. But they are not the same questions that perturbed the writers in The Washington Post and The Atlantic who responded to the Times article. Those writers were correct in arguing that whether Nazis and jihadis share cultural, social and artistic practices with us is hardly important, and we should not be shocked even if they do. But the closeness of the artistic, the glorious, and the inoperative to the workings of power is perplexing on a wholly different level from The Atlantic’s humanistic peregrinations.

Theodor Adorno, that astute thinker of society, is supposed to have said “no poetry after Auschwitz”, but what he actually said in the essay Cultural Criticism and Society was more nuanced and disturbing: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” For Adorno poetry could not escape culpability as the substance upon which the political machine inscribes its documents of barbarism. What Jihadi Culture thus leaves us with is this possibility of an uncanny confrontation with power as simultaneously force and passivity, functionality and inoperativity, barbarism and glory.

Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists , edited by Thomas Hegghammer, Cambridge University Press.

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