The Call : The role of propaganda and ‘Nasheeds’ within ISIS

Cezary Piwowarski

Cezary Piwowarski

Hooked, perplexed, seduced, terrified: it is invariably difficult and tormenting to admit to oneself that ISIS’s hymns, (anasheed jihadiya or simply nasheeds) are of a riveting appeal. Upon my first listening of nasheeds, which have become the branding of ISIS (i.e: Dawlat al-Islam Qamat or Salil Sawarim) I was engrossed. Even for an ‘infidel’ like myself it undeniably bore a magnetic allure, a certain quality which serves to invigorate, stir up your spirits. The mystic aura is magnified by the beauty of Arabic prosody, its mellifluous tonalities sung by a chorus of masculine voices. Naturally incomprehensible to my Western-versed brain, these hieroglyphic poetics reverberated with verve, their beauteous melody cadenced by the a cappella drenched in echoes. It sounded timeless. Its subtle tremors and oscillations, the tempo, the rhythmic pulse, exercise a powerful sway on one who’s ear flirts with the charms of music.

Here, the ‘veil of ignorance’ which until now has warped our judgment is lifted. Without knowledge of the context, the background of these enticing tunes, one’s mind reverently espouses their poignancy wholeheartedly. Yet, I shudder.

Upon the whiplash-moment of realisation that you are taking solace in incantations soaked with the blood, sweat, toil and tears of thousands, you recoil. Dipping into this musical Armageddon, you now distinguish its latent macabre undertones: swords being unsheathed, the terse drumming of soldier’s boots pounding the path towards a messianic prophecy and the ear-splinting, skin-crawling crack of a gunfire. You reminisce that these are summonings to war and apocalyptical aspirations.

Experiencing this fall of grace- the Burkean Beauty impregnated by Terror- has led me to entertain a horrific belief: that I have confirmed the transnational, transcultural, boundless power of ISIS. If apostates and infidels, such as I, are moved without fully grasping the awesomeness of the nasheeds’ intended message, what becomes of the glory-seekers, the fervent believers?

The answer resides in the skyrocketing numbers of recruits steadily filling the ranks of ISIS and Daesh affiliates. Nasheeds, due to their acute emotional and intellectual appeal, with lyrics woven in Koranic preaching, compounded by their accessibility online, arguably raise concerns about the potential for radicalisation.

This gives credence to Don Dellilo’s words implying in ‘White Noise’-a consumer-culture frenzied novel- that we operate, live and respond to exogenous stimuli: the world is lead by stimuli. Thus, nasheeds are triggers sparking the cause to effect mechanism to materialise. They brew images of divine accomplishments encapsulated in a call for arms towards the pursuit of the Kaliphate’s re-establishment and the paroxystic Armageddon. The vision of this epic finale, the battle between the forces of Evil and Good which is said to unravel in northern Syria fulfils a deep psychological need. The Islamic State awaits the army of “Rome” whose defeat at Dabiq, Syria, will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse (see article The Atlantic for background and complete analysis). Indeed, the state’s magazine- named after city of Dabiq set to become Rome’s Waterloo- quotes Zarqawi (head of al‑Qaeda in Iraq from 2003 until his killing in 2006) as saying, “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify … until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”

Despite centuries since the demise of wars of religion, arcane theological beliefs remain the cornerstones of a plethora of contemporary struggles. The apparent theological credos bandied by ISIS and its deep-rooted ideological claims depict the portrait of a group more devout and infused with religious vigour than Westerners dare to acknowledge. The narrations of the Prophet’s rule inscribed and passed on through the Koran were fit for an epoch littered with bloodshed and tumultuous conquests. Thriving on these seeds of bellicosity, ISIS and its ‘freedom fighters’ battling under Islam’s mantras and absolution are ‘authentic throwback to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war’ according to a scholar named Haykel interviewed in The Atlantic (see link above). Koranic versification and symbolism run profusedly through lyrics heeding the rise of battalions geared towards wholesale annihilation- as demonstrated by the following translated extract :

Clashing of the swords: a nasheed of the reluctant.
The path of fighting is the path of life.
So amidst an assault, tyranny is destroyed.
And concealment of the voice results in the beauty of the echo.
By it my religion is glorified, and tyranny is laid low.
So, oh my people, awake on the path of the brave.
For either being alive delights leaders, or being dead vexes the enemy.
With righteousness arise,
The banner has called us,
To brighten the path of destiny,
To wage war on the enemy.
Whosoever among us dies, in sacrifice for defence,
Will enjoy eternity in Paradise. Mourning will depart.

– Salil Sawarim – Abu Yasser

It is crucial to bear in mind that propaganda material channelled by the multimedia truly remains a dire problem if filtered via a radical mind-set, in combination with other catalysers. Undeniably, Internet is a haven for nasheed decimation: on Youtube, a search for nasheed returns 1.3 millions results (and more than 80,400 for “jihad nasheed”). Indeed, the World Wide Web is the weapon of choice, the optimal canvas for radicalisation. Nevertheless it would be fallacious to believe that it produces radicalisation in complete isolation of other factors.

One could go so far as to posit that internalising and responding to radical messages resembles in various degrees the dynamics of marketing and laws of advertisement. ISIS is lucidly catering to certain target-groups, a batch of profiles bundling up the frustrated youth, the disenfranchised soldiers, the converted, the anti-American, the fanatical, the war-savvy, and so on and so forth. Verily, the movement’s grip and propensity to entice becomes a serious problem if you have forgotten how to look and listen.

ISIS has proven the paramount importance of the nasheed holds in their organisation. Brandishing nasheeds as their ‘anthems’(a Western concept), they are indispensable to their modus operandi, philosophy of war and global publicity: chanting them on the battlefields, sounding them on cars whilst parading hostages, using them as soundtracks eccetera. It has become inseparable from the image of violent propaganda generated by its ‘high-tech jihad’.

Nasheeds, predate the rise of ISIS and can be traced back to the early 1980s and late 1970s, the decades that are known as the era of “Islamic resurrection” (see article EuroNews). Behnam T. Said, a PhD candidate at the University of Jena interviewed in the article linked above, points out that after the outbreak of Arab Spring and the last years within the context of the war in Syria, a stronger increase of new nasheeds could be observed.

ISIS has effectively persevered in appropriating the format of these religious recitals, which originally counted references to Islamic epics, history, and prophecies. Recycling ancient songs, it is however fathering a new landscape of nasheeds. In a prescient and strategic move, it has increasingly moulded the hymns to a modern audience by packing them with instruments, auto-tuning and dancing at times. This marks a major rift between the original hymns, which consider the intrusion of instruments in the chorus of voices as “haraam” (sinful). Assuredly, by discarding founding principles ISIS is concocting a unique branding by dint of multiple quasi-divorces in various domains: the split from Al-Qaeda and Al Nusra on the basis of ideological divergences and antipodal ways of enforcing the Prophet’s words marks one, alongside detaching itself from the pure, sacrosanct methodology of Nasheed production as another.

If terrorism is the ultimate battle of hearts and minds, a psychological warfare, then ISIS is gaining ground. With the inception of ‘the Al Hayat Media Center’ in 2014. This propaganda hub targets Western audiences and produces material in English, German, Russian and French. Evidently, ISIS and its sprawling networks of accomplished tech experts are advancing ambitious media objectives.

Since the Iraqi invasion in 2003, they have deftly turned weaponry pertaining to the West’s ‘hard power’, now they have equally inverted the West’s ‘soft power’ artilleries. In an information-era heralding technology as its bulwark: the medium has become the message. Thus, ISIS is somewhat reshaping a type of consumption culture alongside the news industry. Using Derrida’s terms, it is yielding power through its faire-savoir (making-known): achieving worldwide coverage, a quasi-monopole of ‘breaking news’ stories saturating our wired societies, decimating its image beyond its borders,serves to fuel ISIS’s self-reinforcing narrative.

Along those lines, ISIS is a news behemoth. Like a conventional media outlet it has a logo not dissimilar to that of Al-Jazeera and is prolifically making known that it can terrorise, and intimidate with impunity. ‘Isn’t fear news?’ inquired the fear-of-death-ridden protagonists of Don Dellilo’s ‘White Noise’: yes. And ISIS readily banks on the post-9/11 perennial fears, which increase exponentially with the technical ability to reproduce, and re-broadcast its videotaped terror in every corner of the globe.

Much like the master-puppeteer Hitchcock, ISIS plays on the spectatorship’s morbid obsessions of gore and depravity, offering a show mingling theatrical and cinematographic effects. Indeed, each video realised by ISIS strikes us due to its high-quality, uniquely fashioned visual aesthetics and expertly manoeuvred camera shots. The drama is omnipresent: the video tells as it shows. The extremely graphic 22-minute video showing Muadh al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian Pilot, immolated by fire in a cage, the numerous beheadings, the hostage parade of the 21 Christians this week, exemplify how carefully crafted, and allegoric ISIS’s visual imagery wishes to be.

The visual grammar begs to be deciphered. Videos such as Cantlie’s broadcasts are sequential, ending with a serie-like ‘Join me for the next programme’ closure (see article The Guardian). This ultimately serves to garner subscribers and pander to their expectations- an audience avidly awaiting the next episode of hyper-real human decapitation. Due to the shrinking of distances engineered by real-time technologies, our screens seem like a very insignificant and thin membrane parting the ‘us’ from the ‘them’. Therein, identification to their cause or the predicament of the victim is instantly heightened. And, identification in essence is the crucial ingredient: it breeds fear on one hand, and awe on the other.

Furthermore, by producing its own documentaries such as the feature-length ‘Flames of War’ mythologizing ISIS military heroism, launching Twitter trends or issuing the self-publishing ‘Dabiq’, ISIS proves that it is navigating a known terrain. It is rapidly learning, adapting, and proliferating. The panoply of signs, symbols, codes harnessed via these processes of communication are instruments of a ruthless manipulation. For one, the coloured-coded orange jumpsuit, reminiscent of Guantanamo-bay detainees and worn by every paraded victim reaffirms the symbolic character of the war and its staged directions.

Arrays of factors concur to the assertion that the reality on the ground since June 2013 trumpets the emergence of an Eastern ‘wind of change’: ‘a new era’, propounded by Amirul-Mu’minin in the introductory pages of Dabiq’s first issue. The pseudo-feudal alliances and ‘pure’ ideologies reinforcing the tissue of the Islamic State, undergird the salience of values rooted in primordialism. The ISIS assuredly is putting the onus on kindship and descent in the formation of its archipelagoes of influence. The Caliphate is a de facto, if extra-legal, state with nominal boundaries, dispensing services and a form of justice (Sharia). ‘It is a de facto state that is a safe haven’, breeding a ‘ multi-ethnic army; almost a foreign legion’ highlighted Douglas A. Ollivant (former Director of Iraq, US National Security Council) and Brian Fishman (former Director of Research for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point).

As depicted throughout this article, ISIS’s machine of propaganda foments brimming support as it rallies under a common cause and enemy (very conventional means of warfare, in a very assymetrical one). Its maturing legitimacy is cemented via the fabrication of bonds based on indissoluble principles such as faith, honour, duty, loyalty and bravado.

This characteristically mirrors what Anderson labelled ‘imagined communities’. Despite having an undelineated state prior to the Caliphate’s official establishment, according to the author of “Informing the People about the Islamic State of Iraq”, Uthman Bin Abd al-Rahman al-Tamimi, IS ‘existed despite having no contiguous territory, despite providing minimal services (“Improving their [the people’s] conditions is less important than the condition of their religion”), and despite not having a monopoly on the legitimate use of armed force—the traditional sine qua non of a state’.

Although ISIS bedevills Western conceptualisations such as ‘nationalism’, by reviving ancient linkages and territorial rights, by ‘re-inventing’ a community, would it be utterly unsound to speculate that in many ways ISIS is spurring not solely a novel version of jihadi militancy, but concomitantly a newfangled nationalistic fervour?


  1. 8 Jul ’15 at 11:28 pm

    An irate Muslim

    Just to clarify for the ordinary reader who might not know what a nasheed is, it is a prayer sung in appreciation of Islam. A naat is usually about the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, and a hamd is about Allah SBT. Of course, ISIS loves to manipulate so has taken what is usually peaceful, poetic and pure, and turned it into a weapon. Is anyone surprised? I think not. I think you overemphasise the role of nasheeds and it’s slightly annoying. Mostly, they are just listened to because it’s what we do instead of listening to other things. I think this article is full of hyperbole, and it waffles on without any real progress. Of COURSE there is an appeal to nationalism (look at the name), and of COURSE ISIS will use deeply entrenched traditions and warp them to their its own advantage. I am sorry to be so critical but I read this article and lost a lot of hope in Nouse instantaneously. This just shows how people like to use lots of fun words and turn it into something abysmal.

    Before you label me a troll, I’m irate and serious and tired of being associated with such crazy people who give my religion a bad name.

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  2. 8 Jul ’15 at 11:32 pm

    An irate Muslim

    Also, excuse my typos. I’m fasting and I’m shattered. I think that student journalism needs a fresh take on topics. Nouse could do with starting to look at journalistic content, too. It feels like the author is aspiring to be all Guardianista without actually being successful at it. It just comes across as very self-absorbed, and sounds like the author thinks they’re the first person in the entire world to ever have an idea, or indeed write an article from the looks of things.

    No, I do not wish to target you, dear author, but I am just increasingly irritated with life and hence, you have unfortunately incurred my wrath. That’s a good thing; criticism is what will make you a better writer. Although, you can of course disagree with everything I said. :)

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