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December 19, 2017

Poetry: An important weapon of militant jihad?

Henry Jackson Society

TIME:  17:00 – 18:00, Tuesday 19th December 2017

VENUE: Committee Room 3, House of  Lords,

Houses of Parliament, London SW1A OPA


Dr Elisabeth Kendall
Senior Research Fellow in Arabic Arabic and Islamic Studies – Pembroke College, Oxford

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In the quest to understand the hearts and minds of those who practise militant jihad, interrogating the poetry that speaks to both is fundamental. Osama bin Laden himself composed poetry, including, perhaps most famously, his ode celebrating the destruction of the USS Cole in 2000, which he recited at his son’s wedding. But, throughout history, poetry has played a central role in Arab culture, punctuating a broad range of activities, from tribal occasions and political events through to the simple everyday get-togethers. The power of poetry to move Arab listeners and readers emotionally, to infiltrate the psyche and to create an aura of tradition, authenticity and legitimacy around the ideologies it enshrines, make it a perfect weapon for militant jihadist causes.

Over the last three decades, Islamic extremist magazines have regularly featured poetry extolling the virtues of, and rewards for, militant jihad. However, scholars and analysts alike have almost entirely neglected contemporary Arabic jihadist poetry, skipping over these classical monorhymed passages (notoriously tricky to translate) in favour of more direct position statements and theological debates. Yet poetry can carry messages to a broader audience as it plugs naturally into a long tradition of oral transmission, particularly on the Arabian Peninsula, spreading ideas through repeated recitation and chanting and through conversion into anthems (anashid). This is especially important in remote regions such as central and eastern Yemen where Internet, photocopying and printing facilities – and even a mobile phone signal – are either non-existent or prohibitively expensive to access.

By kind invitation of The Rt Hon The Baroness Butler-Sloss GBE, The Henry Jackson Society is delighted to invite you to an event with Dr Elisabeth Kendall as she analyses poetry in an attempt to reveal clues about jihadist motivation, group dynamics and cultural concerns.

Elisabeth Kendall

Dr Elisabeth Kendall is Senior Research Fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford University.  Her current work examines how militant jihadist movements exploit and feed off traditional local Arab culture(s). She spends significant time in the field, particularly in Yemen, and is the author or editor of several books, including ReClaiming Islamic Tradition (2016, with Ahmad Khan) and Twenty-First Century Jihad (2015, with Ewan Stein). Kendall studied Arabic initially as an undergraduate at Oxford University, receiving the top 1st class degree in Oriental Studies (Arabic & Islamic Studies) for 30 years. She features regularly in the international media including CNN, BBC News, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Times and The Guardian.