“Are you Muslim?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Do you read the Quran?”
“I can read it, but I have not read it recently, why?”
“ISIS follows the teachings of Islam and Sharia. Do not read the terrorist Jihad stuff in Quran.”
As a Muslim female passenger, I have to be careful with this Uber driver. As an expert in modern Arabic poetry and politics, I understand the connection he made between words in the Quran and actions by ISIS.
As a great majority of the people we interact with on a daily basis, this Uber driver associated Islam with terrorism. He followed his question about my religion with another one about the Quran, and then he instructed me not to follow the teachings of the Quran because it contains some terrorist “stuff”. This is alarming because had I said that I read the Quran, the driver would probably have called me a terrorist. Given the scenario of this conversation, the consequences of such an accusation are dangerous, to say the least.
As the world awaits the latest developments from Iraq regarding ISIS being surrounded and trapped inside western Mosul, one has to wonder how this organisation has been able to successfully use propaganda to recruit followers and seize power in Syria and Iraq over such a short period of time.
It seems ISIS leaders realised how influential poetry is in Arab and Muslim cultures, and it exploits it as one of its ideological weapons to legitimise itself.
ISIS leaders understand the power not only the verses in the Quran have on Muslims in general, but also the impact poetry or nasheed (poetry put into music) has on its recruits. The insidious danger of this powerful poetry goes mostly unnoticed as very few have caught on to the potential terrors embedded within it.
Scholars and investigators of ISIS focus on the group's use and misuse of the Quran to spread its ideology and legitimise its so-called Caliphate. However, poetry too plays a vital role in this regard. ISIS understands that poetry is a lively source which can serve its goals and provide a well of inexhaustible material.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is a terrorist militant group well known for its public beheadings, burnings and stonings, among other horrific acts of violence against civilians, journalist, aid workers, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is estimated that ISIS has 20,000 to 25,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, but its supporters are hard to determine as they are spread all over the world.
In 2014, ISIS published The Blaze of Truth, a book of 107 poems by the Poetess of the Islamic State, Ahlam al-Nasr.
She writes: “Our innocent children have been killed and our free women were horrified/their only crime was being Muslim/they have no savior/ where are the heroes of Islam?/ kill them and burn them and do not worry about the consequences/ follow your almighty sword, and you will make the best news...”
These verses aim to incite Muslims to kill and burn the enemies of Islam in the name of defending Islam and protecting Muslims. The call for terror is intensified by telling Muslims that Muslim children and women are being killed because of their religion.
This is dangerous because it is followed by a verse that calls for terror by following the almighty sword, which makes it seem like it is the sole way to respond to horrific attacks against innocent Muslims. The verse ends with “making the best news,” which is a way of taking revenge against the enemies of Islam – this is important in ISIS propaganda because a great majority of this poetry travels across time and place.
In another poem in this collection titled: “I Want Jihad,” the verses read:
“I read the book of the all-knowing God, and I learned that it calls us to Jihad, if we want to live a just life. Many ignorant people tried to stop me from joining the call for Jihad, but I refused to listen to them. It is impossible that my Jihad is a delusion because it is the way to rescue my nation, support my religion and protect my land from the enemies.”
These verses make Jihad with ISIS the sole way of supporting Islam and living a “just” life. That said, anyone who wants to support Islam or protect his life or land, will have to join ISIS and have faith in its mission. The beginning of the verse references to reading the Quran, and the poet is telling us that these words carry the legacy of the Quran. That said, the call for joining ISIS in its mission is disguised under the call to follow the teachings of Islam. Those who do so are promised to be remembered as “victorious soldiers of God.”
Historically, going to war and dying while fighting to protect the honour of the tribe or to raise its social status in society were at the heart of Pre-Islamic poetry. Tribes waged wars against other tribes that challenged their authority, and men died to be remembered as honourable and heroic figures.
We know about these tribes, their social status, their victories and defeats, and their role in writing history through poets whose verse is the voice of the tribe. This guarantees they leave their mark on history long after all the members of the tribe are dead.
Poetry was in many parts of the Arab world transmitted orally, so it travels across time and place. The stronger and higher in status the community is, the more eloquent its poets are. After the advent of Islam, Muslims continued to use poetry as a platform to support Islam and the responsibility of the Muslim individual towards his religion and society. After the death of Prophet Muhammad, poets continued to be instrumental in spreading the message of Islam.
Today, ISIS makes extensive use of past publications of leaders of Al Qaeda such as some by Anwar al-Awlaqi, one of the senior recruiters for Al Qaeda who was killed in 2011. In 2004, he published Forty-four Ways to Support Jihad.
In it he emphasised that poetry has an essential role in diffusing the ideology of militant Jihad because “good poetry put into music can spread wide and fast to reach an audience we cannot reach through books or speeches. Poetry inspires others, especially children, who are the basis of Jihad. This is a significant factor in the culture of Jihad."
Instead of watching violent and inhumane videos of beheadings, which feeds into the propaganda machine of ISIS, examining ISIS’ exploitation of poetry to justify terrorist acts and legitimise itself as a modern Caliphate may be more informative.
In order for us to understand complex terrorist organizations like ISIS, we have to look at their exploitation of the arts, literature, poetry and music. And see how part of a war is waged through words.
It is clear that ISIS uses every opportunity to lure children and young men and women including using Arabic alphabet apps, as one publication put it, "the lyrics in the nasheed are littered with jihadist terminology, while other games within the app also include militaristic vocabulary with more common, basic words."
When ISIS fails at indoctrinating children in their religious camps, they use technology and poetry to do so. Technology is everywhere, and poetry appeals to the young and the old alike. We have to recognise that ISIS is not only a terrorist organisation, but also a clever one that is constantly in the works to advance itself and secure a stronger and wider circle of support across the globe.