'Kurdish Shakira' Takes on ISIS

The rising trend of anti-Islamic State video clips stems from a need to provide an alternative to the organization's own Internet blitz.

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Kurdish pop star Helly Luv poses in front of Kurdish Peshmerga troops at a base in Dohuk, July 5, 2014.
Kurdish pop star Helly Luv poses in front of Kurdish Peshmerga troops at a base in Dohuk, July 5, 2014.Credit: 'Helly Luv Visits Peshmerga troops2' by G2musicgroup - Own work

In the fury of battle – among the shriek of bullets claiming victims and tank shells destroying homes and dismembering human beings – a pair of gold high heels suddenly appears on screen, among the legs of the soldiers and civilians fighting for their lives. Within a few seconds, the woman wearing the high heels also appears. She’s tall and erect, with bright-red hair covered by a red-and-white-checked keffiyeh. She’s seen atop a moving tank, an ammunition belt slung over her body. Waving a fist, she begins singing her song “Revolution,” in English.

This provocative clip, by singer Helly Luv, a 27-year-old Kurd who fled to Finland from Iran in 1988 with her parents, has attracted about two million views on the Internet. She has attained such popularity that she has been dubbed “the Kurdish Shakira” – a reference to the Colombian-born pop superstar.

“Revolution” is a war song posted in protest of the violent Islamic State, also as ISIS or ISIL. It is one of a number of songs produced in Arab countries and Iran, in an apparent attempt to develop some kind of cultural response to the successful Internet campaign being waged by the militant organization.

Among these efforts, for example, is one by Egyptian singer Shaaban Abdel Rahim, who sings to ISIS leader Abu Baker al-Baghdadi: “You can’t do a thing to me, I am not afraid of you.”

ISIS has not remained unmoved by the musical assault against it, and on its many websites, the organization curses the singers and even threatens their lives. Apparently, a good measure of courage is needed for one to enter ISIS’ Internet arena. The organization has followers everywhere, and those who pose a challenge to one of its main weapons — the battle over its image — may find themselves in its sights.

At the end of Helly Luv’s clip, she is shown being killed by a bullet fired from some unknown direction after it's explained that she is very close to where ISIS forces are stationed.

It’s too early to gauge the influence of popular singers on young people’s attitudes toward ISIS. However, it is clear that the widening musical campaign against the organization, which has managed to capture on the ground large swathes of Syria and Iraq, is based on growing public recognition of the fact that the campaign against the group has to be waged not just on the military and political levels, but also on the cultural level, in an effort perhaps to stanch its sources of funding.

Sudanese critic

One person who has attacked the cultural failure that gave rise to the vacuum ISIS is filling is the prominent Sudanese publicist and researcher Haider Ibrahim Ali. Earlier this month, Ali published a hard-hitting piece about what he terms formal Islam’s sanctification of the external trappings of religion, which is not satisfying the cultural hunger of young Muslims.

Ali cites as an example the report that 11 Sudanese students went to Turkey in March, in order to cross over the border into Syria and join ISIS. Eight were medical students. He describes them as sons of physicians, members of the higher technocratic class who had obtained British passports because they were born in the U.K. while their parents were students in Britain or had sought asylum there.

Ali attempts to undermine the perception that those seeking to join ISIS do so out of desperation due to poverty or lack of education. The parents of the students from Sudan who went to Turkey are members of the liberal left, he notes, and then asks: What went wrong here?

In addition to making various accusations, the Sudanese writer also takes the students’ parents to task, accusing them of busying themselves with making enough money to get a new car every year rather than devoting themselves to their children’s education. He also has criticism for a religious establishment that views prayer at mosques and the pilgrimage to Mecca as the major tenets of the faith. at a time when corruption and sexual harassment fill the public sphere. He says if those who define themselves as moderates were to explain to young people that this is not the correct version of Islam, then the confused young people would ask: If that is indeed the case, why is this version of Islam so widespread?

Muslim leaders and scholars have an essential role to play against the ideas that ISIS is spreading, Ali says. It is unfortunate, he adds, that the religious intellectuals who oppose extremist trends are not devoting efforts to defend a renewed, modern Islam capable of convincing young people that ISIS is misguided. Instead there are empty slogans being disseminated that claim there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy or human rights.

Ali’s comments are not directed only at religious scholars in Sudan. Indirectly they are also aimed at Saudi Arabia, for example, where preachers and educators are required to condemn exaggerated forms of Islam, but school curriculums have not been reformed in the least.

In the educational void that has been created, it appears that talented singers and video producers will continue their public relations battle against ISIS, not in Muslim religious schools but rather on the Internet battlefield they were handed by the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world.

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