Of all the things that the Western World will come to remember Osama bin Laden for, it seems unlikely that his poetry will top the list. In the extremist world, it is quite the contrary. Bin Laden’s skills as an orator and rhetorician, as well as his poetic talent are famed among militants. In light of the knowledge that bin Laden’s command of language may have been the greatest that he lent to al-Qaeda, the United States’ relentless pursuit of this one man makes considerably more sense.
This should serve to illustrate that the role of poetry within extremist culture is a central one, and provide some context as to why it has been adopted by the heir apparent to al-Qaeda, ISIS. Circulating on the internet, and being removed as quickly as it appears, jihadi poetry explores theology, extols the pursuit of the caliphate, and calls for Muslims around the world to join the struggle that ISIS are committed to.
The extremist poet Ahlam al-Nasr praised the group’s capture of the Iraqi city Mosul, writing “The land of glory has shed its humiliation and defeat and put on the raiment of splendour.” Al-Nasr moved to live under ISIS’ caliphate and the effect of her poetry was not lost on ISIS as she has since been made an official propagandist for them, praising their conquered territories as an “Islamic paradise.” This pursuit of poetic beauty with which to praise the pursuit of a Sharia State crossing the borders of all Arab countries does, however, reveal a deeper anxiety at the heart of the Jihadist project.
ISIS are utopians. Like the Soviet Union and the Fascists before them, the brutality that ISIS inflicts upon its victims is in pursuit of a perfect society. Their dream is a world perfected by the institutionalisation of their fundamentalist theology. Like all utopias, however, the caliphate is a fantasy world. It is predicated on the denial of the legitimacy of any borders within the Arab world, and it remains unrecognised by the government of any nation state. Moreover, contrary to the “land of glory” as presented in Al-Nasr’s poem, the caliphate remains a rigidly totalitarian society. It is within this context that ISIS have positioned poetry as a central part of their culture.
The history of poetry within the Arab world shows the poet as a celebrated figure, central to a society’s self-examination. Jihadist poets draw on this tradition to legitimise the caliphate. Poetry is malleable in all the ways that the world ISIS fight against is not, and allows them to better construct their fantastical utopia, if not in reality then at least in art. Poetry allows ISIS to imbue the society that they have thus far created with all the meaning that, in reality, it lacks.
Such correspondence between extremists must be removed from the internet quickly to ensure they are not found, and this too creates a greater demand for the work of poetry – to commemorate that which passes away too quickly. Much extremist poetry is written for posterity: one of bin Laden’s most celebrated verses was a commemoration of the 9/11 high-jackers.
This too is born out of an anxious need to forge a cultural identity while the perfect world they seek remains beyond the horizon. The poetry of ISIS strengthens the shared vision of the group, but does so because this vision can be achieved no other way. Instead, it reminds us that no matter how much damage these extemists do along the way, they can never reach the paradise that they seek.