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The Religious Chants the Islamic State is Using to Woo Recruits

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post on Jan. 14, 2015.

By Inna Naroditskaya

Paris is on high alert this week after terrorists killed 17 people. Though the attackers were affiliated with the Islamic State, reports suggest at least some were French-born. Which means they might have been wooed by the organization’s infamous recruiting videos.

The Islamic State’s propaganda machine is powerful, churning out hundreds of thousands of online videos aimed at young recruits. Some show Islamic State fighters carrying out atrocities; others extoll the perks of caliphate living.

But most share another quality — they feature jihadi nasheeds. Nasheeds are Islamic song-poems. They are often chanted, and their text at times includes a formula or a line from the Qur’an.”

One video, for example, opens with a head and face wrapped in a keffyah, hands on a machine gun bearing the Islamic State flag. A studio-amplified male chorus singing in Arabic accompany clips of men running with guns or calmly shooting unarmed captives in the back.

It’s no accident. As Anwar al Awlaki wrote in his pamphlet “44 ways of supporting Jihad,”

“A good nasheed can spread so widely it can reach to an audience that could not reach through a lecture or a book.  Nasheeds are especially inspiring to the youth … an important element in creating a ‘Jihad culture.’ “

As an ethnomusicologist, I study the power of music to sway and unite. In reviewing dozens of promotional Islamic State videos last month, I found that disturbing violent visuals are often softened by these song poems.  The nasheed incites viewers to “wake” and to join.

In some videos, the music has been Westernized to appeal to Western youth. In others, the tunes and rhythms relies on local musical traditions to cater to regional Islamic nationalists.

As Bouchra Ouall explains, “almost all Jihad propaganda media productions use nasheeds … the chant, melody and lyrics have a disproportionately large effect on the emotions of the viewers.”

Although jihadi use of nasheeds surged after the Iraq war, the seeds were planted decades earlier.

In the 1970s, Cat Stevens – a Western pop star and avid Islamic convert now known as Yusuf Islam – uttered his nasheed: “I pray to Allah to give us victory over kuffar.”

A decade later, Chechen poet and guitarist Timur Mutsurayev used nasheeds to link the Chechen war against Russia with global jihad, and his city Groznyi with Jerusalem. Striking guitar chords, Mutsurayev performed his “Great Jihad” in crisp, well-articulated Russian:

We are the army of Allah
Muslims we are
In the Holy War
Victory with us
We can be saved only by
the final Glorious Jihad

Mutsurayev’s militant nasheeds, although forbidden by Soviets, became popular enough to voice the Chechen revolution.

The emergence of electronic media made nasheed transmission easier than ever. For example, a Russian nasheed that includes lines like “we, jihadis, children of Allah … whose thirst for jihad is faith in Allah” and “Battle with infidels is the purpose of jihad. We’ll place over the planet the power of shariat” has been viewed by over  100,000 people. .

Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations in the Middle East, recently spoke about the Islamic State’s psychological tactics, admitting that he and other officials “have barely made a dent in the larger, longer-term campaign to kill the ideology that animates the terrorist movement.” The nasheed is an instrument of that ideology, one of the key elements of the influential online recruitment videos. We must foster popular culture and popular songs that confront jihadist nasheed.

- Inna Naroditskaya is a professor of music studies at Northwestern University.

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