Sunday, December 27, 2015

When Killing and Praying Cease

ISIS would not have close to the followers it has if all it offered were slaughter and praying. We in the West are, for the most part, not willing to examine the totality of the ISIS message. As harsh as their militaristic view of Sunni Islam might be, they have proved themselves to be able administrators – sending up viable taxation, public services, police power, petroleum export, etc. – in the lands they have conquered. They are masters of media, from old world radio and television to the nuances of social media and its massive reach around the world. Media professionals are often ranked higher within the ISIS hierarchy than some of their best soldiers.
NY Times journalist, Thomas Hegghammer, examined the writings and social media posting of ISIS stalwarts and how ordinary members described their lives and depicted themselves within the ISIS world. “Using autobiographies, videos, blog posts, tweets and defectors’ accounts, I have sought a sense of the cultural dimensions of jihadi activism. 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. There’s nothing militant about this traditional genre, which dates from pre-Islamic times. But 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. Jihadis can’t seem to get enough anashid. They listen to them in their dorms and in their cars, sing them in training camps and in the trenches, and discuss them on Twitter and Facebook. Some use them to mentally prepare for operations: Ayoub El Khazani, a 25-year-old Moroccan man who attempted a shooting attack on a Paris-bound train in August, listened to YouTube videos of jihadi anashid just minutes before his failed operation.
“Anashid are closely related to poetry, another staple of jihadi culture. 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. Leaders from the Islamic State’s spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani to Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahri often include lines of poetry in their speeches and treatises. Foot soldiers in Syria and Iraq sometimes hold impromptu poetry performances or group recitals in the field.
In any large jihadi group there might be a few people who specialize in composing or memorizing poems. These poets can be anyone from within the movement, men or women of any rank. The Islamic State’s most famous poet is a Syrian woman in her 20s who goes by the name Ahlam al-Nasr, or Dreams of Victory. (While jihadi women generally socialize separately from men, the Internet has allowed women to take a more active part in the movement’s cultural life.) Her most famous collection, “Blaze of Truth,” contains lines such as “Shake the throne of the cross, and Extinguish the fire of the Zoroastrians / Strike down every adversity, and go reap those heads.”
“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…
“Jihadi culture also comes with its own sartorial styles. In Europe, radicals sometimes wear a combination of sneakers, a Middle Eastern or Pakistani gown and a combat jacket on top. It’s a style that perhaps reflects their urban roots, Muslim identity and militant sympathies. The men often follow Salafi etiquette, for example by carrying a tooth-cleaning twig known as a miswak, wearing nonalcoholic perfume, and avoiding gold jewelry, as they believe the Prophet Muhammad did.
“As new recruits shed their jeans and track suits for robes, as they memorize the words to the Islamic State’s anashid and learn to look for glimpses of paradise in dreams, they 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.” New York Times, December 19th.
To understand what attracts recruits, people otherwise devoid of meaning within the societies they have grown up in, facing a general disdain for Muslims all over the West, one must address not just the call to arms or the religious fervor that we think defines it all but the cultural pull that reaches into ancient roots and provides a socially relevant context for the redefining of self into a very dangerous cult. For young people seeking a definition of self, finding where they fit in and belong, we must be very careful to provide meaningful alternatives, a social choice that gives them meaning without killing, judging people on extreme criteria and without the hate that has given rise to one of the earth’s most terrible philosophies of faith that we have seen in a very long time.
I’m Peter Dekom, and while ISIS is a rather clear enemy to most of us, to defeat it, to silence its deadly message, we need to understand the whys and wherefores in rather extreme detail to put a stop to is powerful attraction to disenfranchised Muslim youth.

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