Jihadist groups such as the so-called Islamic State are known for their cunning propaganda. Kurstin Gatt examined their discursive and communicative strategies, focusing on a lesser-known tool: poetry. An interview about oral tradition, pre-Islamic motives, poetry as the medium of choice in war-torn regions, and the challenges of Western media coverage.

Interview by Nora Weinelt

For most Westerners, poetry is among the last things that come to mind when they think of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (also known as DAʿISH) – yet it is one of its most important and most effective propaganda and recruitment tools, as you argue in your book. Could you tell us how and when exactly poetry is being used there?

In jihadi circles, poetry is one of the most popular media of communication. We find poetry recited on the battlefield and on propaganda magazines. We also find it as a backdrop to the jihadi-produced videos and during family ‘fun days’ organized by Jihadists. Children are also encouraged to memorize and recite jihadi poetry from a very young age. Because the self-named ‘Islamic State’ makes use of hi-tech media, this poetry also gets circulated on social media channels and is made freely available to download across the globe.

Pictures in this article are examples of jihadi propaganda material, collected from social media accounts, Telegram groups, etc.

This genre is always recited a cappella and, when recorded, it is usually supported by sound effects from the battlefield, like the sounds of marching militants, the clinging of swords, the neighing of horses, and the sounds of stuttering gunfire and explosions. Similar to the classical poetic conventions, the main sub-genres of DAʿISH poetry include verses of incitement (tahrid), bravery in battle (hamasa), elegies (rithaʾ), renunciation (zuhd), and calling others to lead a life of abstention (tazhid).

This poetic genre is also charged with intense emotions. For example, in an elegy dedicated to a thirteen-year-old Syrian boy, who was killed by Syrian officials for protesting against the establishment, the female poet of DAʿISH known by the pseudonym ‘The Dreams of Victory’ (Ahlam al-Nasr) evokes emotions by detailing the violence inflicted on the body of the innocent infant:

They beat him up, they broke his arms, and they crushed his neck and chest,

They disfigured him, burnt him, tormented him until he died betrayed.

Appeals to emotions help to broaden support from mainstream Muslims (not only Jihadists) and to lure new members into their ranks.

Why is it precisely poetry DAʿISH resorts to? What is it about poetry – as opposed to any other literary genre – that they are interested in and make use of?

Poetry in the jihadi culture has primacy over other genres for three reasons: it is culturally authentic, aesthetically-appealing, and practical. It is authentic because it is rooted in an ancient oral tradition, and it resonates positively with Arabic speakers. When I say poetry, I mean the structured kind of poetry produced in Arabic, with a rigid end-rhyme, metre, and fixed themes. Encoding a political message in versified speech is both attractive and effective. DAʿISH exploits the beautiful sounds of this classical artefact which pre-dates Islam as a powerful ideological weapon to woo its followers and, in turn, to inspire acts of violence. This is mainly because the classical Arabic ode is performative: it promises to change reality. From a practical point of view, poetry serves as a cheap tool to communicate messages in war-torn regions that lack basic infrastructure. For example, when the spokesperson of DAʿISH called Abu Muhammad al-ʿAdnani was killed in 2016, the news first circulated in the form of an elegy following traditional conventions. The origins of the elegiac theme date back to pre-Islamic times and stemmed from the performance of mourning given by the wailing women. The opening verses of the elegy read:

The final word of every verse in the elegy ends with –ani, rhyming with the name of the lamented (al-ʿAdnani). The monorhyme, which echoes al-ʿAdnani’s name, serves as a mnemonic technique; it makes it easier to memorize and link the message of the poem to the protagonist. Memorized poetry is also practical because it goes undetected; once a message is learnt off by heart, it can travel across borders beyond the jihadist compound without revealing the militants’ ideology.

Working on poetry that is rooted in an oral tradition and, at least in parts, meant to go undetected seems to inevitably pose a methodological problem. How did you access and select your material?

To answer this question, we first need to define ‘orality’. In my work, I argue that the so-called ‘Islamic State’ is an example of ‘secondary orality.’ This means that the jihadi organization communicates its messages verbally and maintains its existence by using technology. In this day and age, Jihadists exploit technology to fundraise, distribute messages and directives, recruit, and proselytize. Militant Jihadists post videos and audio files with poetry on their personal social media accounts all the time. And this is how I accessed the material. Initially, I collected my corpus by monitoring jihadi-run websites and social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I also monitored group conversations on Telegram in real-time. These online accounts, groups, and websites were sometimes deleted within a few hours. At a later stage, blogs were set up by scholars that granted other like-minded researchers limited access to sensitive data. In the process of creating my corpus, I tried to examine some overarching themes of jihadi poetry such as blood-vengeance by referring to elegies, ascetic verses and verses of military zeal.

Could you give us an example of a poem that is especially widespread among Jihadists and their followers? What is it about, which (literary) motives does it employ, and how exactly does it promise to change reality?

Poetry changes reality by manipulating Jihadists into performing ‘martyrdom’ for the group with the illusion of a paradisiacal promise. Through poetry, jihadi groups threaten their adversaries and incite their members to seek blood vengeance. One example is a poem called ‘Soon, soon’. The verses read as follows:

Arabic version of the poem. Censor bar over decapitation photo by LiB.

Let us try to unpack some of the multi-layered literary motives and culturally-guided interpretations borrowed from different traditions. For a start, the predominant style of the poem follows traditional conventions: it is composed in Classical Arabic, it follows a traditional metre and a monorhyme. The main theme is connected to the ancient ethos of blood vengeance, which is a pre-Islamic mechanism that originally rested on the sacredness of blood and clan solidarity.Pre-Islamic tribal communities promoted blood vengeance as a moral code of action, which ensured the restoration of honour. In this poetic composition, blood vengeance is manifested in a number of literary motives which wield hortatory power. These conventional literary motives engage in exhortation (istinhaḍ), the call to take up arms (istinfar), threatening or warning (tawaʿʿud), and ridiculing the enemy (hijaʾ).

Literary motives are used as part of the psychological warfare tactics intended to discredit the opponents and instigate violence against them. In verse two, for example, the enemy is warned about attacks taking place ‘in the heart of your home.’ This is a direct warning about terrorist attacks taking place on European soil. Aggression against the enemy is heightened by calling upon militant fighters to take up arms such as ‘the sword’, ‘the blade’, ‘the bullet’, ‘the spear’, and ‘the blast’. Feeding on the same semantic field of aggression are references to the destruction of the body, the overflow of blood, and a slow painful death. Verses 8 and 10 ridicule the enemy (hijāʾ) for abandoning the battle, casting them as cowards and fearful of death.

Martial content is supported by references to nature, which is a common feature of traditional desert poetry dating back to the pre-Islamic period. The horse, which stands for chivalry, battle, bravery, and victory, was used as the primary riding beast that could cover ground quickly in battle during the Islamic conquests. The lion is a symbol of the fighters’ prowess, bravery, and devotion. The blaze, like the blast, sensationalizes self-destruction. Such references to nature strike a note of authenticity with the audience.

These literary motives are also accompanied by a mish-mash of references to the pre-Islamic and Islamic traditions. Verse 11, which talks about filling the roads with ‘crimson blood’, echoes the pre-Islamic poet ʿAmr b. Kulthūm, who, in one of his verses, says “because our blood was spilled, their blood was made to flow.” The phrase ‘striking of necks’ in verse 12 resembles an often misinterpreted Qurʾanic verse which reads“when you meet those who disbelieve [in battle], strike [their] necks.” Lost in our translation are the internal rhyme and the loose monorhyme -rā, which establish a steady flowing rhythm throughout the chant, giving the impression that the group’s successes are voluminous and never-ending. The excessive repetition of morphological patterns also reinforces the rhythm. These mnemonic techniques, which can only be appreciated in Arabic, help individuals to internalize the message and disseminate it verbally to other like-minded individuals, reminding them of their duties towards the ‘Islamic State’.

It sounds like many of the jihadi key concepts, such as blood vengeance, actually go back to pre-Islamic times rather than to the Qurʾan…

Exactly! Blood vengeance is a pre-Islamic concept which also happened to be a popular literary theme in pre-Islamic poetry, particularly in elegies which lament a fallen hero. When the Qurʾan was revealed, its message was intended to overcome this violence by introducing the belief in the afterlife. Therefore, bloodshed became explicitly banned, and blood vengeance was considered as ‘unislamic’. The idea of retribution transitioned to the Islamic concept of paradisiacal compensation and life after death. However, this does not mean that blood vengeance lost its currency during warfare. Medieval poets and political leaders exploited this ancient ‘unislamic’ principle to their advantage. For example, the famous Abbasid Arab court poet known as al-Mutanabbi (d. 965 CE) declared in one of his verses “you killed me, God will kill you. Attack the enemy and kill.”

Unfortunately, the poetic model of blood vengeance still persists among jihadi groups in the twenty-first century. DAʿISH abuses the classical poetic heritage by creating an illusion of authenticity around the messaging, which in turn, would give it some sort of legitimacy. It basically makes the jihadi quest for vengeance expressed in poetry seem part of the tradition, or authentic mainstream Islamic culture, and not some kind of violent sub-culture. The slick propaganda of DAʿISH abounds with the misinterpretation of Islamic texts. Jihadists demand retribution and mask it with pseudo-Islamic idiom to give their violent message religious immunity.

As someone who has extensively studied jihadi ideology and communication strategies, is there anything you wish Western media outlets did differently when covering DAʿISH or similar groups?

Although the ‘Islamic State’ organization has lost its political territory, the trajectory of contemporary history tells us that other like-minded groups will probably reappear in the months to come. These groups will be using similar strategies to lure grassroot recruits. And this is exactly why we need to study the jihadi groups in light of the cultural traditions in which they are operating. It is very unfortunate to see mainstream outlets parroting, and in doing so, reinforcing the jihadi agenda when they report terrorist attacks.

A classic example is the conflation of the term ‘Muslim’ with ‘Jihadist’. This piece of misinformation implies that mainstream Islam and Muslims are to blame for the barbaric acts. We often read that the Jihadists had claimed to be devout Muslims and shouted allahu akbar before a shooting massacre or a suicide bombing. Media outlets are not the only ones to blame for this; politicians also tend to fall into this trap. A few days ago, while talking about a recent beheading by a Jihadist in France, the French President Macron declared that Islam was in crisis. And this is exactly how Jihadists want themselves and their barbaric attacks to be pictured in Western media—as part of the 1.8 billion mainstream adherents of Islam.

© Reichert Verlag

Jihadism is a global phenomenon and requires a collective and long-term strategy. Politicians, journalists, reporters, political activists, and policymakers, who engage with words in their professions, all have a role to play to limit the damage caused by these organizations. But first, we need to see jihadism through its own eyes and voice, and we can only do this by looking at the authentic artefacts like poetry that tell us more about the political culture, self-images, and, in particular, the making of the jihadi worldview. My book is a step in this direction; I try to make sense of the messages with which jihadi cadres are bombarded continuously and decode these messages to address how people come to embrace such deadly cults. My book also shows how Jihadists skilfully distort traditional models to give their works and their ideology the veneer of authenticity and make them appear rooted in a hallowed past. Being knowledgeable about how Jihadists manage to manipulate their followers discursively is surely an effective strategy to weaken the manipulative power of these groups in the future.

Kurstin Gatt lectures at the University of Malta. His research focuses on the intersections of the literary, the religious, and the political in Arabic discourse. His recent publication Decoding DĀʿISH, which is based on his doctoral dissertation at the Freie Universität Berlin, is the latest volume of the series Literatures in Context published by Reichert Verlag