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Event Summaries
December 20, 2017

Event Summary: Poetry – an important weapon of militant jihad?

Henry Jackson Society

By  Susie Heron-Halliday

On the 19th of December, the Henry Jackson Society was delighted to welcome Dr Elisabeth Kendall to the House of Lords for an event chaired by the Rt Hon Baroness Butler-Sloss GBE. Elisabeth Kendall is a 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 a significant amount of time in the field, particularly in Yemen, and is the author or editor of several books, including Re-claiming Islamic Tradition, and Twenty-First Century Jihad. For the last four years, she has acted as an international advisor (pro-bono) to a cross-tribal council in Eastern Yemen that promotes social and political cohesion as a counterweight to AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) & ISIS.

Alongside her speech, Elisabeth Kendall used a PowerPoint presentation to show examples of poetry used by militant jihadists, which was particularly interesting. She began by showing a ‘typical’ type of poem that is written or recited by jihadists, and describing the cultural importance of poetry across. Elisabeth argued that poetry is often used by jihadists to create the illusion of authenticity and legitimacy. Which, in turn, makes these ideas seem like they are a part of main stream culture. Interestingly, Elisabeth pointed out that poetry is not an elitist pursuit in the Arab world. In fact, she described a program called ‘Million’s Poet’, which is hugely popular and attracts around 70 million viewers. Elisabeth went on to speak about her field work in Yemen, she showed the audience pictures from her time in East Yemen, close to where Al Qaeda ran its de facto capital until recently. She surveyed the people in this area, and found that over 90% of people said poetry was important to them.

After establishing the importance of poetry in the Arab world, and Islamic culture more generally. Elisabeth spoke about how her interest in such a niche subject came about. Whilst at Edinburgh, she noticed that nobody was interested in poetry despite its prominence in many jihadist texts. Often, she claimed, it would not even be translated at all, or would simply be listed as ‘five lines of poetry’. This is despite the fact that, 1 in 5 pages of Al Qaeda’s magazine contained poetry. Next, Elisabeth showed examples of different types of poetry, and detailed the differences in the styles. For example, she argued that there seems to be two broad categories; taking old poetry from the classical heritage and writing new poetry but making it look old. Interestingly, most poems are in classical Arabic, not regional variations of Arabic.

The floor was then opened up to questions from the attendees. During this period, Elisabeth argued that although poetry may have been ignored at first, military and governments are becoming increasingly interested in its uses for jihad and mobilising support. She also discussed poems which are now often converted into music for a ‘Westernised’ audience, particularly teenagers. She claimed that, in the beginning, ISIS was mainly doing poetry in classical Arabic. Then, ISIS moved onto nasheed (poetry for a Western audience). Elisabeth was then asked if there is any causation between poetry and actual terror attacks. She replied that it would be hard to find solid evidence of this as it’s difficult to draw conclusions here. However, she described one poem, Call to the knife, which was quite popular. This poem came out around three weeks before the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and just before ISIS began beheading people.

The event ended with discussions of some form of counter jihadist poetry. However, Elisabeth stressed that this would need to come from the Arab and Islamic world to be truly authentic. The Henry Jackson Society would like to thank Dr Elisabeth Kendall for her fascinating talk on an under researched, but important area.