The ties that bind jihadists

I have a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education -- written several months ago  -- about the culture of Islamic extremists, the kinds of activities that jihadis engage in in their spare time and that very likely contribute significantly to the appeal and narrative of jihadism. It was fascinating to talk to the scholars working on this (most of the work is on ISIS' predecessors). Many make the point that without understanding the cultural practices and rewards of jihadism it is hard to counter-act its appeal or to assess its staying power. Here is an excerpt:

By Hegghammer’s definition, jihadist culture includes activities that do more than fulfill basic military needs. Some of those are quite unexpected. Public displays of weeping are an aspect of jihadist culture that intrigues Hegghammer, who notes that the practice is so common that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq until his death, in 2006, was known as "the slaughterer" but also as "he who weeps a lot." It’s a well-respected sign of piety to weep during Quran recitations, when watching propaganda videos and reflecting on the suffering of Muslims around the world, and when talking of martyrdom and one’s desire to achieve it. It is not, however, appropriate to cry over the death in combat of comrades — the correct response is to rejoice.
There are other surprises besides the frequency with which jihadist leaders burst into tears. Iain Edgar, a professor of anthropology at Durham University and a contributor to Hegghammer’s volume, has been researching the role of dreams within jihadist groups.
Edgar is a specialist in dream cultures around the world. Dreams are taken seriously by many Muslims as potentially divine messages.
In Pakistan, Edgar learned that the late Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar was widely credited with acting upon his premonitory dreams. Osama bin Laden, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad, would often start the day by asking if any of his followers had had a significant dream, Edgar says. Jihadist leaders use dreams to legitimize their decisions — to carry out an attack, for example — as divinely inspired, and to emphasize their close connection with the Prophet and his companions.
"The idea that dreaming was still part of contemporary politics and of the biggest conflict today — I found that really fascinating," says Edgar.
Other scholars are interested in the stories that jihadist movements are crafting about themselves. Haykel and Robyn Creswell, an assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University, have written a paper on the poetry of Islamic radical groups (a version of which appeared in June in The New Yorker). The scholars examine the pre-eminent role of poetry within Muslim culture generally and jihadist groups in particular, where most other forms of art are proscribed. Poetry, they argue, is "a window on the movement talking to itself."
Jihadists write poems lamenting the hardships they suffer (but explaining why they are worth it), winning rhetorical arguments against their critics, elegizing fallen comrades, taking political and theological stances, praising leaders, and memorializing battles. The poetry is rec­ondite, says Haykel, often modeled on early Islamic forms, because while jihadists are bent on creating a radical new reality, they cast themselves as the inheritors of Islamic tradition.
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.