Why ISIS poetry could be more dangerous than its videos

The emerging phenomenon of ‘jihadism’ as an artistic genre acts as an extreme juxtaposition against the violent physical acts of barbarism committed by ISIS. The New Yorker recently published an extensive analysis of the jihadist poetry collection “Blaze of Truth” with the hope of “understanding jihadism through examining its culture.” However, the poetic genre of jihadism signifies more than merely a figurative window into the ethos of ISIS and instead stands to become a pervasive literary legacy in the cultural war of ISIS.

Although ISIS shares an essence of barbarism with other terrorist organisations, the rise of jihadist so-called art has signaled that the strategy of the group is both sophisticated and carefully honed. The most overt example of this lies in the meticulously structured poetry released by ISIS in which the discipline, skill and intelligence of its production is apparent. An example of this is the work of alleged ISIS’ Syrian poetess and propagandist Ahlam al-Nasr, whose poems are crafted with careful adherence to rigid rules of form; in her poem “farewell,” she writes:

Oh Farewell (...) for those who are departing life

And still live in my limbs (...) can’t you hear my pain and life shares my pain

With the orchestration of jihad poetry and other art forms, it is beginning to become more difficult for the general public to dismiss ISIS as proponents of the prevalent archetype of “irrational, primitive terrorists.” With ISIS militants’ latest conveyance of eloquence and humanity lies the danger of stirrings of empathy from the public and in extreme cases, the influencing of people to support and even join the cause of ISIS.

Medium of poetry

The medium of poetry is also helping ISIS jihadists individualize their jihadist experience. The extensive poetic rhetoric provides them with a space in which they can candidly express their identity and thoughts, and harness any frustrations they are facing in a creative manner. Unlike the compact lyrical tweets which were popular among ISIS foreign fighters and scattered with street slang and colloquialisms (as in the example of alleged ISIS follower Abu Qaqa al-Britani Afro), poetry gives ISIS extended control over the subject matter of their content as it unable to be punctured by distracting antagonistic retorts in the same way that short, social media posts are. The medium also enjoys them a creative freedom which allows them to narrate the story of jihad in a fantastical way that aims to diminish the negativity surrounding the abhorrent violent acts and controversial subject matters they are discussing, further adding to fears of their growing influence.

ISIS’ poetry is predominately structured within the format of a monologue through which the jihadists lament or contemplate the themes of love, sadness, loneliness and vulnerability

Dr. Halla Diyab

ISIS’ poetry is predominately structured within the format of a monologue through which the jihadists lament or contemplate the themes of love, sadness, loneliness and vulnerability and it could be argued that it is only in words that the militants are able to find solace for their sentiments. The resultant effect of this candid expression of emotion is the addition of a humanistic aspect to militant poets, and more dangerously, it allows parallels to be drawn between reader and poet.

This example of bringing the jihadists “to life” to make them relatable to the wider public is especially noticeable when lines of poetry are converted into jihadist nasheed lyrics. An example of this reconstruction lies in the work of alleged ISIS poet Abu Hajr al-Hadarmi whose poems have undergone this conversion. In one of his poetic-nasheeds called “oh Baghdad do not feel sad,” he addresses Baghdad, providing a sentimental personification of the city which echoes his innermost feelings.

A solitary act

The act of jihadism remains a solitary act, and it is through writing that ISIS militants are able to build a sense of emotional attachment to a wider audience. Although ISIS jihadists view themselves as comrades who are bound together by the jihadist cause, to the outside world they remain outcasts, disconnected from their families, national identities, and normal daily-life routine. They are geographically, emotionally and psychologically entrapped within the jihadist cause, with no feasible hope of escape. It is writing that offers a haven through which they are able to move out from behind the shadow of exclusion and express their hopes of being granted freedom and salvation.

The psychological impact of the visual scenes of violence committed by ISIS, although barbaric, can be fleeting amongst all of the other media narratives that are saturated by violence. They are also not open to interpretation, whilst poetic and artist rhetoric is not, as it evokes a deeper resonance and arguably a wider array of negative sensations by dwelling in the imagination, making its effect stronger and longer-lasting. By adopting this mode of expression, ISIS ensure they are cemented in the minds of the public which adds to the influence of the terrorist group.

The sudden shift of ISIS using digital media as a prominent tool in its online propaganda machine and recruitment process, to now emphasizing their narrative through extensively complex works of writing, may on first thought, seem transgressive, however, on introspection, gives an insight into the sophisticated mechanism controlling the group and reveals the unnerving keenness of ISIS to garner credibility and significance in existing culture. By using poetic art forms, ISIS is not only colonizing territories and demolishing history, they are authoring a new genre and literature with the aim of creating a cultural legacy that will replace thousands of years of authentic Islamic art and civilization with their narrative of terrorism.

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Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. She holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies from the University of Warwick. She has written a number of scripts for TV dramas countering religious extremism and international terrorism resulting in her being awarded Best Syrian Drama Script Award 2010 and the Artists Achievement Award 2011. She is a regular commentator in the Brit-ish and international media and has recently appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, BBC This Week, CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 News, ITV Central, Al Jazeera English, and BBC Radio 4, to name a few. She is a public speaker who spoke at the House of Commons, the Spectator Debate, Uniting for Peace and London’s Frontline Club. She has worked in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria and is an expert on the Middle East and Islamic culture. As a highly successful drama writer, she has been dubbed ‘one of the most influential women in Syria’ in 2011. She also produces documentary films for UK and international channels. She is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter: @drhalladiyab

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