Could Poetry Combat Extremism? Jihadist Verse And Its Poetic Antidote

In an extended feature on August 29, BBC correspondent Alex Marshall profiled Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, in her role as a critic of jihadist poetry. With this most recent feature, the BBC joins publications like the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and others, in urging readers to take the poetry published by extremist militant groups seriously.

“We always ask the question, ‘What radicalises people?’ and not the bigger question, ‘What enables these groups to be tolerated among well-armed populations?’ And the way they do that is just getting into the rhythm of the local culture with things like poems,” Kendall says in the article.“If they didn’t do that, they wouldn’t survive. And if they didn’t have a safe haven, foreign fighters would have nowhere to go,” she writes.

But Kendall, and the profile of her current work, go one step further than many of the other articles, dating mainly from 2015, which delves into the contentious issue of Extremist Islamic poetry. For Kendall identifies a non-violent, grassroots way that local populations might fight (and be helped to fight) extremism in their midsts: poetry itself.

Poetry has long been a valued form of communication in a part of the world where reality TV programs centre on the composition of verse as much as they do on song and dance in the West. Winners of one such televised competition based out of Abu Dhabi regularly take home 1.3 million dollars in prize money, making it the most lucrative poetry competition in the world, worth more even than the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In this part of the world where poetry is so valued, it is also, however, afforded a proportionate degree of perceived political power—and one not always welcomed by government officials and governing groups. Indeed, Qatari poet, Mohammed al-‘Ajami (known widely by the name Ibn al-Dheeb), was arrested and jailed in November 2011 for verse deemed critical of Qatar’s ruling family. Al-‘Ajami had recited the poem in question to a private group inside his home in Cairo in 2010 when one of his listeners recorded and uploaded the reading to YouTube without his knowledge. Al-‘Ajami was subsequently taken into custody and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment in a decision Amnesty International denounced as a grave violation of his right to free expression.

Mohammed al-‘Ajami’s story concluded happily: following humanitarian campaigns by organizations like Amnesty International, he was released in 2015. His ordeal nonetheless speaks to the particular power and the fear attached, in Middle Eastern countries, to dissenting voices which express themselves through verse—whether that dissent is directed towards an individual, a group, a government, or a terrorist organization.

It is in this power of dissent, or even simply of difference, that Kendall posits a potential for change with respect to the area of her own expertise.

“I think it could,” says Kendall in response to Marshall’s question about whether or not poetry could help turn people away from jihad. “I’m not suggesting counter-terrorism experts start writing poetry. That would be a huge mistake and counter-productive, because it wouldn’t be authentic,” she expresses.

“But,” Marshall continues, paraphrasing his subject, “countries could help fund publications that do promote anti-jihadist poetry written by locals.”

The suggestion is not without its complications. “Pseudonyms would be essential, unfortunately,” Marshall writes, in order to protect anti-jihadist poets from becoming targets. And yet, the idea of combating violent extremism with poetry is as simple as it is revolutionary: poetry helps to humanize jihadist extremists to the communities in which they organize, helps to recruit innocent bystanders to their cause; why, then, couldn’t poetry also provide a refuge away from extremism? Provide an alternate, non-violent reflection of a community’s particular pain? A peaceful alternative for collectively processing grief and hurt and fear? Jihadist poetry, after all, works on social observation and on the honest confrontation of a given reality’s most frightening or painful truths—like all poetry. It fulfils a purpose, but a purpose that might equally be filled by a verse which does not glorify violence or twist religious dogma to destructive ends.

“It’s not designed to be good literature,” says Kendall of the jihadist poetry she has spent years seeking out, “it’s designed to plug into a tribal tradition that’s authentic and speaks to people’s hearts, and it does that.” Other poetry could do that too. Anti-jihadist poetry exists, Kendall concedes. But there isn’t enough of it, and the responsibility for creating a space in which such poetry could thrive may fall to the very Western powers which have so interposed themselves in the region.

The idea of supporting peaceful poetry initiatives in the Middle East is not entirely new. PEN International has a division dedicated to Africa and the Middle East, but has only six active centres in the whole Middle Eastern region, meaning that gaining access to the organization’s resources is difficult in that region, often impossible. If peace and helping national governing bodies to diffuse conflict themselves is the ultimate goal, then poetry seems an under-used and undervalued tool.

So poetry has to be taken seriously, by Western governments as much as by the jihadist militants composing poems with ammunition draped across their chests. And more has to be done to support both public and private publishing ventures in Middle Eastern countries experiencing conflict. The potential advantages of such a strategy are incalculable. For one thing, enabling communities to combat extremism themselves would lessen the need for Western military involvement in the region. For another, supporting local poetry initiatives might also provide a war torn part of the world a chance to begin to heal itself—for the first time in decades of seemingly unrelenting turmoil.

Article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects each individual’s right “to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Poetry may not actually diffuse jihadist weapons, but with billions of dollars spent each year on military action intended to combat Islamic extremism, an investment in poetry is comparably negligible. And the returns might surprise us.

Genevieve Zimantas