Radicalism & Music: An Introduction to the Music Cultures of al-Qa'ida...

Jonathan Pieslak

How can music move people to sudden violence that they may later regret or not fully understand?

Excerpted from Radicalism & Music: An Introduction to the Music Cultures of al-Qa'ida, Racist Skinheads, Christian-Affiliated Radicals, and Eco-Animal Rights Militants by Jonathan Pieslak, published by Wesleyan University Press (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2016 Jonathan Pieslak. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Al-Qa’ida Culture

and Anashid

Muslims need to be inspired to practice Jihad. In the time of Rasulullah (saaws) [the prophet Muhammad] he had poets who would use their poetry to inspire the Muslims and demoralize the disbelievers. Today nasheed can play that role. A good nasheed can spread so widely it can reach to an audience that you could not reach through a lecture or a book. Nasheeds are especially inspiring to the youth, who are the foundation of Jihad in every age and time. Nasheeds are an important element in creating a “Jihad culture.”

Anwar al-Awlaqi, Militant Imam, al-Qa’ida Operative

Prelude: A "Lone Wolf"

March 2, 2011. Frankfurt Airport, Terminal 2. Arid Uka, a twenty-one-year-old of Kosovo-Albanian descent, holds a part-time job at the Frankfurt Airport’s post office. On this Wednesday afternoon, he observed two U.S. servicemen strolling through the airport’s second terminal and followed them to the U.S. Air Force bus stop. After watching a group of men mill around the platform and board a bus, the dark-complexioned Muslim approached Sr. Amn. Nicholas Alden and asked if he could bum a cigarette. Alden obliged and, upon taking the cigarette, Uka made another inquiry, questioning if this group of American servicemen was headed to Afghanistan. Alden confirmed this and turned to return his luggage dolly. Hearing his suspicion confirmed, Uka withdrew a full magazine of ammunition from his backpack, loaded a 9 mm pistol, and shot Alden in the back of the head.

Without pause, he boarded the bus, armed with the pistol, extra ammunition, and two knives, shouting, “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest). Uka shot the driver, Zachary Cuddeback, in the head and then fired into the bus of servicemen, wounding two before his gun jammed. As he fled the scene, Uka was chased down by the Airman he only moments ago had at the point of his pistol. Alden and Cuddeback would die from the wounds sustained in the attack.

Six months later. A courtroom in Frankfurt. Uka is charged with two counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder. Expressing regret, he reflected, “To this day, I try to understand what happened and why I did it ... but I don’t understand. What I did was wrong but I cannot undo what I did. If you ask me why I did this, I can only say ... I don’t understand anymore how I went that far.” German prosecutors, nonetheless, crafted a clearer picture.

Uka would tell German police in interrogation that he acted against U.S. military personnel out of revenge for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it was a scene from the 2007 movie Redacted that ultimately triggered his violence. The film fictionalizes the real-life case of a U.S. military unit charged and convicted in the rape of a girl and killing of an Iraqi family on March 12, 2006. The day before the attack in Frankfurt, Uka watched a YouTube video titled “Americans Raping Our Sisters! Wake Up Ummah!,” which showed the rape scene from the lm (ummah refers to the general Muslim community). The YouTube video presented the scene as genuine footage, and Uka unwittingly fell for this deception, believing the video to be documentation of the actual rape.

Uka found the link to the video on an Islamist website, with which he had recently become familiar through his circle of Islamist Facebook friends. He told German police that the images of the rape disturbed him so profoundly overnight that he was compelled to act. The ensuing day he vowed to do anything to prevent more American servicemen from reaching Afghanistan: “I thought what I saw in that video, these people would do in Afghanistan.” Following the impulse of his perceived duty, Uka took a bus headed for the airport.

Sitting on the bus, though, he harbored doubts about his plan: “On the one hand, I wanted to do something to help the women and on the other I hoped I would not see any soldiers.” Yet Uka had another weapon with him that would dispel his doubts: his iPod. On the road to the airport, Uka let the radical messages of jihad, violence, the veneration of martyrdom, and the evils of the West reverberate in his head. The music of a distinct subgenre of Islamic songs (anashid) -- jihad-themed anashid (anashid jihadiya) -- filled his ear buds. His reluctance would be overcome by the power of what resonated in his ears. “It [the jihad-themed anashid] made me really angry,” Uka explained to the judge. These anashid may have provided the final push, motivating him to follow through with the attacks. Later in the courtroom Uka condemned this music, the videos, and all the jihadi media that he voraciously consumed up to the attacks as “lying propaganda.”

Interviews with Uka’s fellow airport postal workers revealed that he was a quiet, calm person. How, then, did this seemingly peaceful young man, with no outward signs of radical views and affiliation or training with a terrorist group come to commit such atrocities? An article in the German Spiegel Online International proposes that Uka’s radicalization occurred swiftly and was almost entirely supported through the Internet: “a large number of people, many of them well-known Islamists, became Facebook friends of Arid U. just in the two weeks immediately preceding Wednesday’s attack. Investigators suspect that the wave of new contacts could have something to do with the airport assault. One theory holds that Arid U. radicalized extremely quickly and became part of a scene that urged him to act.”

Away from the virtual world, Uka demonstrated few, if any, outward signs of radicalization or tendencies toward violence. Online, however, he was rhetorically vicious, supported and inspired by the community of jihad sympathizers with whom he communicated. Jihad-themed anashid played a major role in his radicalization and in the events leading up to the murders. The friendships he maintained online often revolved around sharing jihad-themed anashid and videos posted on Facebook, YouTube, and other websites.

According to the German police investigation, Uka frequently participated in Islamist “friends” networks on Facebook, enjoyed first-person shooter video games (“Call to Duty” was a favorite), actively praised jihad-themed anashid through YouTube commentary and online discussions, and posted links to such music on his Facebook wall. One report of the incident claims, “The ex-rapper Deso Dogg from Berlin, who converted to Islam and now calls himself ‘Abu Malik,’ was particularly in influential to Arid U. ‘I love you for Allah!’ said the German-Kosovan [Arid U.] in response to one of the former musician’s videos [an anashid]. Abu Malik, who preaches the ‘True Religion’ of the Sala missionary movement, recently released a controversial song in which he extols jihad and martyrdom.” In the nashid Abu Malik praises Osama bin Laden and sings, “your name flows in our blood.” While not directly linked to Uka, Abu Malik commended his actions: “The brother (Uka) hasn’t killed civilians, he has killed soldiers who had been on their way to kill Muslims.” During the trial, prosecutors introduced a wealth of songs and media files from his computer, cell phone, and MP3 player as evidence of his radicalization. On February 10, 2012, Uka was sentenced to life in prison.

Upon first assessment, the case of Arid Uka seems unusual and extreme. He took murderous action alone, without training or membership in a radical or terrorist group, and his religiopolitically motivated violence was carried out impulsively without considerable advanced planning -- rare, indeed. In these ways Uka represents the “lone wolf” that many Western government officials now suggest is the probable source of future terrorist attacks (another lone wolf, Anders Breivik, appears in the following chapter).

From a historical and musical point of view, however, there are aspects of this lone wolf that position him well within the pack. Uka’s use of song to sustain a violent course of action, with a specific socioreligious and sociopolitical purpose, is as old as music itself. Throughout the history of war, men have continually employed music to inspire themselves for combat. Before and during battle, music has been a catalyst to heighten anger, aggression, and the appetite for violence. Religious organizations have consistently found music an expedient tool to assert or maintain control over congregations and to inspire the violent fervor of religious defense. Even outside of combat, in the spheres of sociopolitical life, national solidarity movements have often called on music to activate the manipulation of public sentiment. In the twentieth century, music was persistently co-opted in attempts to convince entire populations of the legitimacy of fascist or communist regimes, with composers and performers often forced to glorify the state and the reigning political ideology.

Viewed against the backdrop of such precedents, Uka’s case invites us to question how music can move people to sudden violence that they may later regret or not fully understand. Clearly, this side of music has a long and distinct history that challenges any placement of the art form within an exclusively benevolent frame. It is tempting to believe that music functions only to soothe, uplift, or entertain and to condemn the use of music by totalitarian regimes, oppressive groups, or radical cultures as a grotesque manipulation of an inherently innocent art form. But such a perspective would color the lenses through which we view the complex, varied spectrum of human relationships with music.

To begin our exploration of music within radical cultures, this chapter examines the music of militant Islam, focusing primarily on the role of jihad-themed anashid in the media and culture of al-Qa’ida. After addressing the ambiguities and debates on permissible music in Islam, the chapter explores the history of anashid, the jihadi texts, and the genre’s musical characteristics. It then argues that anashid function in al-Qa’ida media as a means of enticing recruits, retaining members, and motivating members to action through emotionally charged music and messages that legitimize al-Qa’ida ideology and promote such themes as rising to the defense of Islam and the Muslim community and the veneration of martyrdom. In this context, anashid have a profound ability to catalyze the process of interpersonal bonding that appears so important to recruitment and membership retention. Employing the tools of analytic and historical musicology, as well as contemporary research on terrorism and political violence, I aim to elucidate how jihad-themed anashid function in al-Qa’ida culture in as much as open resources have allowed. Let us consider some of the processes operating behind the sounds of radicalism.

An Alternate Understanding of Anashid

By now we have seen that defining anashid and understanding how the genre operates in the Muslim world is, in a word, challenging. Muslim communities have grappled with ideas about how anashid should or should not sound, and how they ought to be performed or used by various groups. But there is another way of looking at this situation that might help to clarify our understanding of anashid in light of its widely varied manifestations. We can view anashid, not as a single, fixed type of song or intoned poetry, but as a catchall within the global Islamic community that can be manipulated to fit variable doctrinal interpretations. Because almost any stance on the permissibility of anashid and music is possible, even from the legal point of view (i.e., scriptural analysis), any particular nashid, ranging from solo vocal melody to pop song, could be allowable according to the political, social, or ideological aims of an Islamic group. This view proposes a reverse approach to rulings on music: the decision about what constitutes lawful nashid originates with a strategy involving particular goals, political aims, propaganda, audience targeting, and recruitment, later followed by the issuing of a scriptural justification for the prescribed stance. Thus, we may be able to “hear” the strategy of an organization through its selected anashid.

Viewed in this way, we can explain why some conservative groups in Malaysia, for instance, have accepted pop-oriented anashid. An accepting, less-conservative position on how anashid should sound helps narrow a widening gap between increasingly Westernized youth and more traditional practices of Islam in that country. We can also begin to understand the motivations behind the great variety of musical practices in violence-endorsing Islamic radical groups. If we begin by considering the strategies and goals of individual groups, we can make sense of why pop music–like videos with full instrumentations, even sung by women, produced by groups like Hamas are absent from the anashid circulated by al-Qa’ida.

These musical differences would seem to represent such polar-opposite practices of Islam that one would imagine we are comparing a conservative group (al-Qa’ida) to a very moderate or even liberal one on the other (Hamas). But such differences might be explained, in part, by proposing that groups like Hamas are appealing to a much more Western-exposed and Western-influenced youth culture from which they wish to recruit. Islamic studies scholar Jonas Otterbeck makes the credible observation that a Western-exposed and consumer-inclined youth culture is growing in Arab nations, and religious authorities have had to address the divide that has grown progressively wider between traditional Islamic values and influences from consumer culture, which are now more than ever accessible to and influential on Muslim youths.

In such cases, the extremist Sunni religious ideology espoused by Hamas -- at least on the surface, Hamas is ostensibly contradictory on many points -- is flexible enough to include the use of instruments in music. An instrument-free position would be far too conservative a mandate to attract the interest and support of Gaza residents who have a greater exposure to Western secular culture and music. We might therefore view the spectrum of what is musically allowable in global, jihad-endorsing culture as being determined by the strategic recruiting goals and cultural backgrounds of different groups. Taliban taranas, for instance, are set in traditional Afghan-Pasto modes and rhythms, corresponding to the cultural background of those who are members and those they wish to recruit.

In light of this alternate understanding of anashid, another example worth considering is the use of rap and hip-hop to target Muslim and even non-Muslim youths living in Western countries. The rap/hip-hop group, Blakstone, is composed of U.K. members of the conservative Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrīr. Their lyrics are quite steeped in Hizb ut-Tahrīr ideology and, as poetry, might be acceptable to all within the Salafi movement, like al-Qa’ida. But it seems contradictory that Hizb ut-Tahrīr would permit the use of instruments and a Western genre to express their ideology because this music would most certainly fall into the category of “illegitimate” musical forms (like those proposed by al-Faruqi). The irony here is that such groups prey on a target audience’s love of Western musical genres to attract them to an ideology that condemns Western culture (and, by extension, music) as evil. Although the textual voicing of injustice and oppression that can appear in rap and hip-hop may provide a suitable platform for articulating their goals, in broad genre terms, hip-hop music that calls for the establishment of the caliphate is akin to white-supremacist rap (if such a thing existed) -- the musical genre is inherently at odds with the message. But the organization must walk the fine line between upholding conservative religious doctrine and the pragmatism of proselytizing to a Western-exposed and influenced Muslim youth audience, who would almost certainly find a cappella anashid to be less appealing.

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