Several months ago The New Yorker dedicated a long article to Ahlam al-Nasr, a young female poet from Syria. Profile pieces about poets are not especially common nowadays, but Nasr is exceptional: She is known as “the poetess of the Islamic State.” She was born in Damascus to a law-professor mother, and her early poems were published during the period of protest in 2011 against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. After a period in exile, Nasr returned to Syria about a year ago, and settled in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, where she became the ISIS court poet.
Sung recitations of her work are performed a cappella, in accordance with ISIS’ prohibition on instrumental music. In the extremist Islamic movement, as in Al-Qaida, poets play an important role, and public recitations function as a popular social entertainment. Few people remember, but Osama bin Laden himself wrote poems.
In a sense, claims the article, jointly written by Arabic-poetry scholar Robyn Cresswell of Yale and Islamic scholar Bernard Haykel of Princeton, ISIS fighters are all poets. “And, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings,” they write, “which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.... The culture of jihad is a culture of romance. It promises adventure and asserts that the codes of medieval heroism and chivalry are still relevant.”
In the poems, the jihadist is described as a young person who rebels against his hesitant and old-fashioned parents, and fulfills himself in the new caliphate. This situation is also apparently what sends young European girls into the arms of the Islamic State. “She’s leaving home, bye bye.”
We are used to seeing Islamic terror as a phenomenon that totally contradicts our lifestyle, and is rooted in an “archaic world.” Thus the attacks in Paris last Friday were presented as a clash between two worlds, between two eras or two civilizations. The world of the free, youthful culture of the 11th arrondissement was ostensibly attacked by desert nomads, who are subject to atavistic, religious codes. But as we know, some of those who carried out the attacks are French citizens. They were exposed to European and global civilization no less than their peers who attended the concert in the Bataclan theater. Most of the young people who join ISIS come from Muslim families, but some have adopted Islam only recently, thereby assuming a new rebellious identity.
Some commentators hasten to explain that the young Muslims were excluded by secular French society, and were thus pushed into the arms of extremism. That may be true, but we must recall that radical political violence is not foreign to modern secular culture. As the late Israeli sociologist Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt demonstrated in his book “Fundamentalism, Sectarianism and Revolution,” the roots of contemporary religious fundamentalism lie in the Jacobin Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. It is not a vestige of the Middle Ages, but a thoroughly modern political phenomenon.
In that sense, the roots of terror draw less from sixth-century Mecca, and more from 18th-century Paris (where there were also a number of decapitations, as we may recall). The slogan “Let the impure blood water our furrows” is taken from the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise” – not from an ISIS anthem. As in other movements of political-religious awakening, the revolutionary violence of the Jacobin terrorists is mingled with a romantic spirit.
Individualism, hatred of the establishment and a cult of emotion activate the jihadists, just as they activated the anarchist assassins in the 19th century or the Red Brigades in the 1970s. “The ISIS volunteers are drawn to the exalted, to everything that is lacking in the boring and weary world of liberal democracy,” explains anthropologist and researcher of fundamentalism Scott Atran, of CNRS in Paris. The Western volunteers who are streaming to Syria are, in his words, “immigrants, students, between jobs and mates,” who were searching for themselves until they found the way to Islam.
Of course there are significant differences between young people who worship Lord Byron or Kurt Cobain, and those who burn people alive, and rape and skewer children. ISIS conducts morbid rituals, within which its members derive enjoyment from sadistic violence. But hasn’t this ritual of violence already been present, or at least latent, in modern culture? Had hippie-murderer Charles Manson been younger, he might have converted to Islam and traveled to Raqqa. There he would have found many people like him.
In effect, contemporary culture is suffused with bloody violence, perhaps more than at any other time in the modern era. A few months ago, writing in this paper, Rogel Alpher described how the world is now marching “with bloody regression toward the Middle Ages,” and is deteriorating into a “Game of Thrones”-type reality, with decapitations and cruelty. He claims that, “We thought that the 21st century would be enlightened, and instead it threatens to deteriorate into an abyss of benighted fanaticism and a rejection of progress.”
But the connection between “Game of Thrones” and the Middle Ages is only coincidental. “Game of Thrones” is a postmodern fantasy of violence. And so is ISIS – although in a different way. It would not be far-fetched to say that the terrorists attacked the centers of contemporary culture just because they are so familiar with it: They massacred the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo in January because they hate their caricatures, and they massacred fans of the Eagles of Death Metal band because they hate their music. A contemporary form of cultural criticism.
These observations are not meant to arouse sympathy for cruel murderers, or to blur the difference between them and their victims. Clearly the phenomenon of Islamic terror contains important elements besides romanticism and a revolt against the establishment. But this horrifying phenomenon, which is playing an increasingly important role in our world, cannot be deciphered without understanding that the culture of murder is borne on the spirit of the age. Jihad is one item in the contemporary market of ideologies. It is competing for the soul of disaffected young Europeans, alongside veganism or protest movements against the European Union. Except that the jihadist ideology is more inviting for young Muslims, and promises greater freedom for their inclinations.
Many of the articles written in response to the attacks in Paris in effect called to preserve the bourgeois culture represented today by the City of Light. It is quite probable that this will be the reaction in Europe – the invocation of defensive bourgeois decency that will entrench itself behind security barriers. But in an era of economic crises, environmental disasters and extremist images disseminated on the Internet, it is doubtful whether the exalting of culture and the “good life” will be able to unite the confused inhabitants of Europe around it. As George Orwell claimed, “ease, security and avoidance of pain” will find it difficult to compete with the sense of meaning provided by extremist modern ideologies. Perhaps only an alternative idealistic ideology, no less romantic than jihad, will be able to provide a solution.