This, the morning after the Paris carnage, may seem like a dreadful time to be talking about jihad. The whole concept sounds so murderous!
But it isn’t really, not in its proper form. In her eponymous new book contextualizing 21st century jihad, Elisabeth Kendall explains that it is not quite what self-proclaimed jihadists and the western media say. It “can embody principles and concerns by no means unique to Islam and need not necessarily be conﬁned to promoting or safeguarding the interests of Muslims,” she writes.
It could not mobilise Muslims against external aggression in “pre-modern” periods, she points out, but “its efﬁcacy is clearly enhanced when combined with nationalism in the modern era.”
And modern jihad relies heavily on, wait for it, poetry.
She should know.
Elisabeth Kendall was director of the newly established Arabic language-based area studies centre at the University of Edinburgh, in collaboration with the universities of Durham and Manchester from 2008 to 2010. On her watch, the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World was responsible for what she describes as 2009’s “huge conference on jihad and martyrdom … we brought together scholars, academics, policymakers, spies and former terrorists to discuss the issues from a variety of perspectives”. In 2013, she was invited to address about 260 people who were being sworn in as delegates to the first cross-tribal council in the Mahra region of eastern Yemen. (Click here for the Times Higher Education piece on that remarkable event and her work trying to articulate the views of the Mahri people more widely.)
Most interesting though in her new book is the focus on jihadist poetry. She says that “websites analysing jihadism always skip over the poetry” but it is key in the way it telescopes “a complex political and religious landscape into a simple battle of good versus evil in which recent ‘martyrs’ are lionised alongside the companions of the Prophet Muhammad himself.”
From her survey of Yemen’s eastern tribes, Ms Kendall found a remarkable respect for poetry. A massive 74 per cent of more than 2,000 locals, she has written elsewhere, “still consider poetry an important part of daily life (and) Al Qaeda was able to stoke passionate emotions and plug into tribal honour codes using the catchy rhymes and rhythms of poetry, which can easily be converted into rousing anthems.”
She quotes the following lines: “Is there any martyr whom we desire to be united with us in love,/and whose dowry is a flowing ocean of blood?”; and “I will fasten my explosive belt,/I will shudder like a lightning bolt”.
That’s pretty powerful, even in English translation.