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IS Uses Ancient Arabic Traditions to Get Its Message Out

  • Adam Phillips

The text on this video posted to YouTube by the Ansar al-Mujahideen Network reads "This poem is dedicated to all the leaders of jihad, especially Osama bin Laden, may he rest in peace, and it is a gift to the Islamic State of Iraq, may God keep it."

The text on this video posted to YouTube by the Ansar al-Mujahideen Network reads "This poem is dedicated to all the leaders of jihad, especially Osama bin Laden, may he rest in peace, and it is a gift to the Islamic State of Iraq, may God keep it."

Islamic State militants are using the concepts of ancient Arabic traditions to lure followers via social media, analysts say.

Princeton University Near Eastern studies professor Bernard Haykel has studied the level of sophistication the militants bring to their videos, which frequently feature poetry and music rooted in the classical traditions of Arabia.

Haykel showed a VOA reporter a YouTube video featuring a dashing young Islamic State recruit standing near a stack of captured weaponry somewhere in Syria. The man was reciting an original poem written in the flowery style of classical Arabic verse.

“It’s obviously memorized even though he is reciting it as if it were extemporaneous,” Haykel said. “But it is classical Arabic in its language, its meter and its imagery.”

Much of the imagery has to do with the rapid expansion of Islam in its early days, when the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors in Arabia conquered territory from Iran to Spain. Many of those lands, such as Syria and Egypt, which had been Christian until the conquest, remain Muslim to this day.

According to the translation done by Haykel, the fighter goes on to say “we are trying to revive the spirit of that early community, which was powerful and warlike and had pride and was not humiliated and broken and defeated like it has become. “

IS extremists also use poetry to justify their cause and convince others of its righteousness, Haykel said.

“They are also trying to get recruits to join them and ((they also want to)) appeal to the wider world of Muslims… who don’t identify them with the Islam they know and believe,” he said.

“In short, the Islamic State militants are hoping to send a clear message: We represent the real Islam,” he said.

Recruitment videos produced by IS militants and their sympathizers often use dramatic visuals culled from video war games. Some show Muslim heroes in medieval garb raising triumphant swords over smoldering cities. Sometimes fighters are depicted on horseback.

Some IS propaganda is aimed at the governments in the Middle East and the West who oppose their conquest, Haykel said.

“Beheadings and the burning people alive is intended to terrorize the enemy… by saying ‘if you fight us and we capture you, this is what will happen to you,”” he said.

The Obama Administration has expanded its efforts to counter such propaganda with its own social media campaign, featuring Muslim clerics and others denouncing IS and its tactics.

But to be credible, Haykel said, the information war must be waged by Muslims who are not perceived as being mouthpieces for the West.

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