Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Quotable: Thomas Hegghammer on the “soft power of militant jihad”


Monday, December 21st 2015

Christian Vinculado Tandberg/FFI
“. . . we must recognize that the world of radical Islam is not just death and destruction. It also encompasses fashion, music, poetry, dream interpretation. In short, jihadism offers its adherents a rich cultural universe in which they can immerse themselves.”  This is among the conclusions of Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment.  His article, “The Soft Power of Militant Jihad,”  appeared in The New York Timeson Sunday, December 18, 2015.  Since it’s the Public Diplomacy officers at an embassy or consulate who most focus on “culture,” Hegghammer’s article is instructive.  Here are a few main points:

  • For the past four years I have been studying what jihadis do in their spare time. The idea is simple: To really understand a community, we need to look at everything its members do. Using autobiographies, videos, blog posts, tweets and defectors’ accounts,

  • What I have discovered is a world of art and emotions. While much of it has parallels in mainstream Muslim culture, these militants have put a radical ideological spin on it.

  • When jihadis aren’t fighting — which is most of the time — they enjoy storytelling and watching films, cooking and swimming.

  • The social atmosphere (at least for those who play by the rules) is egalitarian, affectionate and even playful. Jihadi life is emotionally intense, filled with the thrill of combat, the sorrow of loss, the joy of camaraderie and the elation of religious experience. I suspect this is a key source of its attraction.

  • The corridors of jihadi safe houses are filled with music or, more precisely, a cappella hymns (since musical instruments are forbidden) known as anashid. . . . in the 1970s, Islamists began composing their own ideological songs about their favored themes. Today there are thousands of jihadi songs in circulation, with new tunes being added every month.

  • Across the Arab and Islamic world, poetry is much more widely appreciated than it is in the West. Militants, though, have used the genre to their own ends. Over the past three decades or so, jihadi poets have developed a vast body of radical verse.

  • Perhaps more important than poems for jihadis are dreams, which they believe can contain instructions from God or premonitions of the future. Both leaders and foot soldiers say they sometimes rely on nighttime visions for decision making.

  • [New recruits] . . . discover a whole new lifestyle. Music, rituals and customs may be as important to jihadi recruitment as theological treatises and political arguments.

  • Yes, some people join radical groups because they want to escape personal problems, avenge Western foreign policy or obey a radical doctrine. But some recruits may join because they find a cultural community and a new life that is emotionally rewarding.

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