If jihadists were not so bloodthirsty outside of their downtime, this thesis wouldn’t be nearly so jarring or disquieting. But, as Wiesel reminds us, “It is possible to fire your gun at living targets and nonetheless delight in the cadence of a poem, the composition of a painting…” Or, as in the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS, it is possible to enjoy your work as a proficient beheader of “infidels” and “apostates” and still partake in a good cry: Zarqawi was known in jihadi circles as both “the Slaughterer” and “He Who Weeps a Lot,” the latter being a reference to his inclination to emote and cry during prayer.
And weeping, evidently, is quite a thing among jihadists. So, too, are poetry recitation, hymn singing, dream interpretation, and a whole gamut of other things that serve no obvious strategic purpose. This is the “soft” face of jihadism that Jihadi Culture aims to understand, drawing together a range of contributions—on poetry, music, iconography, cinematography, dream interpretation, and martyrology—from some of the world’s leading “jihadologists.”
As a work of scholarship, Jihadi Culture is original and groundbreaking, blazing the trail for a social anthropology of jihadi culture that doesn’t yet really exist. It is also a work of studied scholarly open-mindedness that foregoes the considerable opportunities for making fun of a culture that takes itself very seriously indeed. (Hegghammer, in his own downtime, is not immune to the joys of laughing at jihadists. Check out, for example, his @BoredJihadi Twitter account, in which there is a running joke about jihadi training montages. But there is not a trace of this in his scholarship.)
At the heart of Jihadi Culture is a deep appreciation for the centrality of culture to jihadi groups, and how it serves not only to bind its members together but also to attract new acolytes. For Hegghammer, jihadi groups are far more than just organizations with doctrinal beliefs; they are also living subcultures that provide emotional rewards to those who participate in them. This is no mere academic matter, for, as Hegghammer suggests, understanding what these rewards are and how jihadi groups meet them “can shed new light on why people join extremist groups.”
In the concluding chapter, Hegghammer asks, “What do jihadis do when they are not fighting?” This seems like a straightforward and inconsequential question, yet it is anything but, because it has such a strong bearing on the decisive question of what role (if any) religion, and Islam in particular, plays in the decision-making and behavior of jihadists.
According to one school of thought, religion plays very little role in the motivational structure of jihadism, and explains neither why people join nor why they remain in jihadi groups. Often this claim is made by foregrounding secular psychological states or motives, like alienation, the search for identity or meaning and belonging, outrage over political injustices, and a host of sensually charged desires related to excitement, risk-taking, and sadism. Or it is made by portraying jihadists, variously, as opportunists who exploit religion for political ends, closeted libertines who hide behind a veil of piety, or as cretinous neophytes who know little about their religion.