Beats, Rhymes and Jihad

Hip-hop appeals to those who feel powerless and disenfranchised, which is why ISIS looks to hip-hop communities as potential recruiting grounds.

On 15 September (and subsequently, since), the United States carried out a series of airstrikes in western Iraq in support of fighters battling The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—the militant fundamentalist group that has seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq in recent months. The airstrikes are part of a new campaign against ISIS prompted in part by the release of three horrific videos showing the beheadings of US journalists Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff, and British aid worker David Haines. Recently, the US Congress approved funding to help arm and train Syrian rebels battling ISIS.

While recent events in Iraq and Syria are the latest chapter in what has become a decades old struggle for peace and human dignity in the face of totalitarian regimes and perpetual war, ISIS presents something different. Politicians, prominent Muslim intellectuals, and journalists are struggling to agree on a name for the group, which effectively controls an area the size of Jordan. Sometimes it’s ISIS, others IS (The Islamic State), and occasionally the group is referred to as ISIL (The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—a historical name from the lands East of the Mediterranean).

Whatever the group’s name, it has caught the world’s attention in a way that is only rivaled by al-Qaeda in the weeks after 9/11. One of the main ways in which ISIS has differentiated itself from previous Islamist militant groups is in its ability to connect with foreign youth through social media and popular culture, particularly young men living in Europe. It was not just the brutality of the beheading videos that shocked Western observers, but the fact that executioner spoke with a London accent.

British and American media have been filled with stories of "Jihadi John", a British national who left the UK to seek infamy fighting for ISIS. Authorities even speculate that the masked man conducting the executions in the videos is Abdel Majed Abdel Bary (also spelled 'Bari'), an aspiring rapper from London who gave up everything to fight for ISIS. There is also American jihadi Kenneth McCain, a 33-year old from Minnesota, who rapped at some shows in Sweden before joining ISIS and dying in battle in Syria earlier this year. While recent intelligence reports suggest that it is unlikely that the man in the beheading video actually conducted the executions and that voice heard in the video is probably not Bary’s, the nexus between immigrant hip-hop communities in Europe and Islamic militants is not altogether unfounded.

Book: Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists

Author: Scott Atran

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2010-10

Image:, the excesses of hip-hop stands in stark contrast to the abstentious lifestyle of Islamic fundamentalists, but in his book, Talking to the Enemy, anthropologist Scott Atran, drawing on numerous interviews with declared terrorists and their friends and families, shows that many terrorists do not necessarily have a long-established connection with fundamentalist Islam. Instead, young people drawn to Islamic radicalism often come to the movement quite suddenly in their early adult years. This is especially true of European recruits who are often second-generation immigrants.

In addition to being a form of adolescent rebellion, hip-hop has always served as a sounding board for the dispossessed and ignored. Just as the music offered a point of social organization and personal expression to the forgotten youth of the South Bronx in the '70s, hip-hop has become a way to carve out a hybrid identity in the immigrant ghettos of Europe. Over time, these hip-hop communities have evolved, uniting those of common background who find themselves in similar situations.

To get a sense of this new international Arab Hip-hop community, take the case of the group, The Refugees of Rap, founded in a refugee camp on the Syrian-Palestinian border. When the Syrian uprising against dictator Bashar Assad, began in 2011, the regime destroyed the UN-funded studio the group had been recording in. Members of the Refugees of Rap fled to France, and have since found themselves in a sort of diplomatic limbo, awaiting asylum.

It's not just a diaspora hip-hop community, which is seeking to enlist young Europeans of North African, Arab, and South Asian descent. In recent decades, Europe has seen the rise of a small, but very active network of Salafis, adherents to a 18th century doctrine that seeks to reject European values by looking within the community for Islamic solutions to modern problems. In its contemporary form, the previously apolitical Salafism has become synonymous with an uncompromising fundamentalist agenda and a quest to forcibly reclaim the glory of Islam during its earliest flourishes.

Book: Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture

Author: Hisham D. Aidi

Publisher: Pantheon

Publication date: 2014-03

Image: Salafi jihadists —with their rejection of Western society and utopian vision of the coming of new united Ummah (a nation or community), which offers the outcast youth a sense of contribution and acceptance—have had some success winning over converts from Europe’s immigrant hip-hop communities. In Hisham Aidi’s book Rebel Music, Michael Privot, director of the Brussels-based European Network Against Racism, sums the phenomena up as such: “For the fragile youth, Salafism offers an easy alternative, a complete rupture with the past.”

Hip-hop has a long history with Islam. In the '80s and '90s, numerous American rappers gave at least a nod to the religion. Napoleon, who was a member of Tupac Shakur’s Outlawz, has become a well known advocate for Islam since converting to the religion after Shakur’s murder. Now going by the name Mutah Wassin Shabazz Beale, the rapper-turned-motivational speaker travels the world telling how Islam saved his life. However, he has drawn criticism for Twitter comments praising the Saudi regime and condemning the Arab Spring.

While much is made of fundamentalist Islam’s rejection of music as frivolous and potentially corrupting, Islam itself is a religion of music. It's foolish to concede to the fundamentalist assertion that its interpretation of a doctrine or creed is authentic and traditional—in fact, the existence of fundamentalist anything presupposes the existence of an earlier, more liberal tradition.

For centuries, the lands that ISIS seeks to control have been filled with music. In the '30s, Salima Murad was the most popular star on Iraqi radio, so in the areas of Iraq and Syria that ISIS currently seeks to control, hearing a Jewish woman singing with instrumental accompaniment on the radio is in fact traditional.

Even the most ardent fundamentalists have an a passion for music—specifically the highest reverence for the prose, timbre, and rhythm of reading aloud the Quran, the chanting of which could easily pass for music in most cultures. So it's no surprise that a culture that reveres language, celebrates community and charity, and offers an alternative to Western models of living appeals to those who find themselves seeking something different.

Of the countless youth drawn to Islam through hip-hop, only a few ever become devout Muslims. And of all of the Muslims living in Europe, only some practice Salafism. And of those who practice Salafism, few are drawn to those calling for the creation of an Islamic state. And of that small number of people, even fewer are swayed to give up their life to join the jihad. Through this lens, the concern over Bary the ISIS rapper, borders on hysteria.

It's not just Salafist jihadists who have sought to harness the power of hip-hop. In 2005, George W. Bush spearheaded a program to send out hip-hop envoys. The result unintentionally galvanized the divide between Salafism and Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam that views music as a tool for devotional enrichment), and inadvertently lendt credence to the fundamentalist accusation that Sufism is not true Islam, but rather a tool for Western propaganda.

Like many popular subcultures, hip-hop appeals to those who feel powerless and disenfranchised and want to see change. More directly, globalization has turned hip-hop into a global network, where those on the margins may find a common voice. The messages can be beautiful -- and they can be ugly. Some of the artists are no doubt capable of despicable acts. However, those of us wishing to gain a better understanding of our world may want to listen more closely to artists such as Narcicyst and Excentrik, and check out the works of Atran and Aidi, as well.

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