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The Rhyme and Reason of Jihad

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

You probably didn’t know it but Osama bin Laden was a poet. In fact, according to Yale’s Robyn Creswell and Princeton’s Bernard Haykel, “of all jihadi poets, bin Laden was the most celebrated, and he prided himself on his knowledge of the art.”


They add (in the June 8 edition of The New Yorker): “A large part of bin Laden’s charisma as a leader was his mastery of classical eloquence.” Here, for example, he elegizes the mass-murderers of 9/11/01: “Embracing death, the knights of glory found their rest. / They gripped the towers with hands of rage and ripped through them like a torrent.”

Professors Creswell and Haykel further report that a wide range of Islamist groups are now producing “a huge amount of verse.” This art is an expression of the “the culture of jihad” which, they say, we should regard as a “culture of romance. It promises adventure and asserts that the codes of medieval heroism and chivalry are still relevant.”

As you might imagine, this essay has provoked some controversy. Should the prosody of terrorist masterminds, suicide-bombers and head-choppers really be approached with seriousness and even respect? My answer is yes. Let me tell you a brief story to explain why.

The other day I participated in a panel discussion, before an audience of business executives, on developments in the Middle East. One of my fellow panelists was from the White House. She insisted on referring to the militants now in control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq only as “ISIL.” She would not use the term “Islamic State” – the name the militants themselves use. And she seemed uncomfortable when I noted that ISIL is simply an acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (a geographical term for the eastern Mediterranean).


You’re probably familiar with her reasoning: To pronounce the word “Islamic” might appear to confirm the militants’ claim to religious legitimacy. The Obama administration’s policies have been based on the theory that the conflicts raging in the Middle East, Africa and Asia -- and occasionally erupting elsewhere from Paris to Garland, Texas – are precipitated by “violent extremists” who are, if anything, un-Islamic and whose theology should be regarded as bogus and irrelevant.

The Creswell/Haykel scholarship on jihadi poetry and culture can only lead to the conclusion that this approach is fundamentally flawed. They make clear that it is not without justification that the mass-murderers emerging from the Islamic world view themselves as representatives of an ancient tradition, as “knights of jihad” (albeit armed with modern weaponry) and “the only true Muslims.” As for the young Muslim men and women leaving London, Paris and Minneapolis to join the Islamic State, they “do not imagine they are emigrating to a dusty borderland between two disintegrating states but to a caliphate with more than a millennium of history.”

As important as what Professors Creswell and Haykel say is where they say it: The New Yorker caters to “progressive” readers most of whom, I would speculate, have been inclined to accept the White House narrative, to have eschewed such terms as “jihadism” and “Islamism,” and to have embraced the comforting conviction that “jihad” implies a personal struggle for self-improvement – a concept “hijacked” by those “violent extremists” who do, nonetheless have “grievances,” some of which should be “addressed” by offering concessions.


That such concessions whet rather than satisfy the appetites of those who fancy themselves holy warriors and religious revolutionaries is a lesson too many people – not least at senior levels of government – have yet to learn.

Also significant: The Creswell/Haykel exploration of jihadi poetry and culture follows by just three months Graeme Wood’s incisive essay in the Atlantic, also a left-of-center publication. Mr. Wood posited that the public has been misled by “a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. …The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. …[T]he religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” The same can be said of al Qaeda and, I would emphatically add, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Mr. Wood noted that Islam “allows many interpretations” – in other words, he is not agreeing with those (including both Islamists and some on the far right) who contend that the hundreds of millions of Muslims not contributing to the ongoing 21st century jihad against unbelievers should be viewed as apostates.

That said, it is clearly the militant readings of Islam that are now ascendant. These interpretations are responsible for much of the bloodletting in the world today and pose the most significant threat to the national security of America and its allies, as well as to Muslims who would rather not be ruled by medievalist barbarians – however poetic and romantic they may be.


Professors Creswell and Haykel write: “It is impossible to understand jihadism -- its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture.” Yes, quite so. And what’s more: Policies, strategies and defenses not based on such understanding are highly unlikely to be anything other than counterproductive.

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