The 'Softer' Side of Jihadists

Weeping, reciting poetry, singing hymns—these are all part of jihadi culture. Does appreciating that culture risk downplaying the militants’ barbarity?

A suspected al-Qaeda militant stands behind bars.
A suspected al-Qaeda militant stands behind bars during a hearing at a court on December 2, 2014 in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.  (Mohammed Huwais / AFP / Getty)

“Yes,” wrote Elie Wiesel, “it is possible to defile life and creation and feel no remorse. To tend one’s garden and water one’s flowers but two steps away from barbed wire. … To go on vacation, be enthralled by the beauty of a landscape, make children laugh—and still fulfill regularly, day in and day out, the duties of [a] killer.”

Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, was referring to the ordinary Germans who willingly participated in the destruction of European Jewry in World War II, riffing on a point that has since become conventional wisdom in genocide studies and the criminology of collective violence: that, by and large, the perpetrators of mass killing are “normal” people, neither monsters nor sadists, whose capacity for evil coexists with their capacity for good.

Thomas Hegghammer’s recent book, Jihadi Culture, seems to concur with this: “Yes, it is possible to saw off heads and feel no remorse. To produce third-rate poetry but two steps away from one’s sex slave. To sing and pray—and still fulfill regularly, day in and day out, the duties of a jihadi warrior.” Actually, this quotation is nowhere to be found in Hegghammer’s book, because I made it up. But it does capture the book’s central thesis: that jihadi militancy “is about more than bombs and doctrines. It is also about rituals, customs, and dress codes. It is about music, films, and storytelling. It is about sports, jokes, and food.”

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.

Jihadi Culture offers a sustained and strongly argued corrective to this school of thought by showing that jihadis spend most of their downtime on devotional and recreational practices that are saturated with religious meaning and content. “It may be true that many militants have a non-observant past,” writes Hegghammer, “but my investigation suggests that once they are in a militant group, they take ritual observance very seriously.”

“We should not assume,” Hegghammer adds, “that their belief is less intense just because they know little about theology.” In this, Hegghammer is in agreement with The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood, who has trenchantly argued against the inclination, common among those who downplay the role of religion in the motivation of jihadists, to “confuse duration of piety for depth of piety; religion for religiosity; and, most tellingly, orthodoxy for belief”:

But that is not how religion works, and it is certainly not how ISIS works. Often, the ISIS foreign fighter is newly pious; he arrives at his piety as a Hemingway character once said he arrived at bankruptcy: slowly, then all at once. He is sometimes inconsistent in his practice. (These very failings, and his own self-hatred over them, are often what drive him into ISIS’s redemptive embrace in the first place.) He isn’t learned—most people are not, including most pious people—and he consciously rejects the mainstream. Rejecting it is not error. It is the point.

Jihadi Culture is also a vigorous corrective to tabloid-fueled fantasies of jihadists as bloodthirsty monsters. But is it a little too insistent as a corrective to these fantasies, a little too appreciative of the more soulful aspects of jihadi culture?

On the opening page of the book, Hegghammer writes that “jihadis have a rich aesthetic culture that is essential for understanding their mindset and worldview.” “Rich,” as journalist Andrew Anthony observed in his profile of Hegghammer, is an odd word choice for a culture that is immersed in prohibition, censure, and repression. It is also an unfortunate word choice, because “rich” is a term that morally shades the thing it describes, lending it a positive valence.

This is emblematic of a larger problem with Jihadi Culture: So keen is Hegghammer to correct the tabloid construction of jihadists as one-dimensional brutes that he risks going too far in the opposite direction. This is not to say that he excuses—or, still less, justifies—jihadi culture. But the account he offers is an unmistakably favorable one. It is also consonant with the one that jihadists themselves would like to propagate.

Reading Jihadi Culture, you will find that jihadists “love poetry,” “weep a lot,” “talk regularly about dreams,” “value personal humility, artistic sensitivity, and displays of emotion,” and spend an inordinate amount of time listening to hymns and praying. What you will not read about is the secret, subterranean culture of jihadi groups. Hegghammer makes a big point about jihadists weeping, but it’s likely that they masturbate with as much frequency and ferocity as they weep. There’s probably also a lot of illicit gay sex in jihadi camps. And there’s good evidence to suggest that there’s a fair amount of drug-taking among jihadists. But you won’t read about any of this in Jihadi Culture, because it’s so heavily reliant on the idealized jihadi presentation of self in the form of jihadi personal memoirs.

In his classic work Folk Devils and Moral Panics, the sociologist Stanley Cohen warned against the danger of being “too respectful” in decoding the “subcultural detritus” of deviant groups—of being too reverential toward “the musical notes, hair styles, safety pins, zips, and boots.” This was a reference to 1980s British skinhead culture, and the “deferential care” and “exaggerated contextualization” with which some Marxist-inspired deviance scholars approached it. Cohen, in elaborating on his point, quoted a passage from Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques: “While often inclined to subversion among his own people and in revolt against traditional behavior, the anthropologist appears respectful to the point of conservativism as soon as he is dealing with a society different from his own.” For Cohen, the core task of the sociologist of deviance is to “understand without being too respectful.” If there is a tension in Jihadi Culture, it is that it leans too far toward the latter.

In his critique of the Howard Becker School of deviancy sociology, which sought to identify with the deviant and take his side, the radical sociologist Alvin Gouldner noted his impression that “their pull to the underdog is sometimes part of a titillated attraction to the underdog’s exotic difference and easily takes the form of ‘essays on quaintness.’” Gouldner then went on to accuse Becker of romanticism, comparing him to “the zoo curator who preeningly displays his rare specimens.”

It would be unfair to level the same accusation against Hegghammer and his fellow jihadologists, but the charge of sentimentalism is not entirely unwarranted. It’s also easy to see how research papers on jihadi dream interpretation and blog posts on jihadi embroidery can be derided as “essays on quaintness.” The effect is not unlike that of well-meaning efforts to expose the ordinariness of right-wing extremists: The emphasis on the quotidian serves to obscure the grotesqueness.