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Radicalism & Music: An Introduction to the Music Cultures of al-Qa’ida…

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.

Sounds, Timbres, and Cultural Resonances

We might view this obvious contradiction similarly to the use of musical instruments in Islamic military music. Within the historical soundscape of Islamic music, military music provides some of the only examples where exceptions were made for instruments (drums and tambourines in particular) seemingly among all practices. The use of instruments such as drums may have been permitted to assist in battlefield maneuvers and commands, but, in all likelihood, to sustain morale or heighten aggression in the field of battle. These reasons, among others, may have proven too useful in the arena of military conquest to be overruled by orthodox religious practice — something certainly not unique to Islam.

While jihad-themed anashid figure prominently in the media and culture of al-Qa’ida, one might retain a degree of skepticism regarding their importance within the overall framework of radicalism. After all, music is not a recurring topic in discussions on al-Qa’ida; it is not an issue that fuels the conflict, the gun that fires, or the finger that pulls the trigger. We might therefore consider it of secondary importance. But I would argue that music is a dynamic cultural catalyst in many of the processes we see as being of primary importance: recruitment, membership retention, morale, and motivation for action. Indeed, I would be surprised if al-Qa’ida is not deploying anashid in a strategic, deliberate way, given the fact that music in general has been a profoundly effective propaganda resource throughout history — propaganda efforts that al-Qa’ida is almost assuredly aware of and has studied. There must be a compelling reason why bombed music shops are often replaced by those selling jihadi CDs and cassettes; it would be much simpler and safer, from a theological viewpoint, to stay out of the entire debate surrounding anashid altogether, particularly for an ultraconservative group like al-Qa’ida. Presumably, then, they are promoting and utilizing jihad-themed anashid for a reason, one of which may be that the sonic art form can be skillfully exploited to manipulate ideas and instill attitudes.

Al-Qa’ida’s use of anashid represents a cultural strategy of influence intended to entice recruits, retain membership, and motivate members to action through music and messages that legitimize and promote their ideology. Even those jihad-themed anashid created by artists who are not associated with al-Qa’ida are (mis)appropriated with these purposes — remember that one can write and sing about the themes of jihad and not support al-Qa’ida. We might liken this cultural strategy to the music policies of many former communist regimes in which music was a highly controlled art form used to legitimize state policies and promote ideology. Music that failed to resonate with the goals of the state was heavily censored. Clothed beautifully in music, history has shown that this is some of the most penetrating and appealing cultural garb.

Even if anashid are not directly effective as recruiting tools, their dissemination spreads al-Qa’ida ideology, conceivably instilling sympathetic or supportive attitudes among those who are not members of the group. Establishing this type of broad societal sympathy through cultural coercion, wherein people support an ideology without formally being members of the group espousing it, is a major step in furthering any radical agenda. Said points out that throughout the history of the genre, “Nasheeds were one of the instruments used by Islamists to win the battle on public influence.” Such a strategy operates, in part, on the principle that any message constantly reinforced will ultimately come to be accepted by means of exposure, however illogical. This tactic is not limited to al-Qa’ida propaganda strategy; one member of a racist-skinhead discussion forum commented, “I always felt that the pigs who are tasked with monitoring such so-called ‘hate sites,’ probably end up learning the truth and eventually sympathizing with the White Power Movement, assuming they are White, and not mentally retarded.” Phrased more succinctly, American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910) said, “There is nothing so absurd that it cannot be believed as truth if repeated often enough.”

At the same time, the anashid used in al-Qa’ida media and circulated among its members represent a delicate balancing act between presenting a consistent ideological position and employing music to its fullest potential. On one hand, al-Qa’ida can only use anashid that represent the most traditional understandings of the genre because the organization must preserve a conservative religious stance on music. On the other, given the prevalence of anashid in al-Qa’ida media, the group seemingly understands the potency of music to strengthen many aspects of its overall operation and therefore would want to exploit music to the greatest degree. Let’s explore how the group negotiates this thorny terrain more fully.

The voluminous debates that appear in print and online about music, anashid, the use of instruments, drums, and so on suggest an underlying anxiety. They reflect, among other things, the tension between the power of music to animate and reinforce a message and the power of music to seduce one away from religious virtue. From a theological perspective, one of the most common arguments in the debate on the legality of anashid is the degree to which anashid become their own ends, overshadowing the message they are intended to serve. Some argue that anashid should qualify as illegitimate music because they potentially shift the emphasis away from the message to the quality of the singing, the melodic beauty, or other nonreligious features. Christianity has struggled with the same issue, and, for all of their differences, Islam and Christianity have come face-to-face with the similar problem, eloquently articulated by the Christian saint Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions (397–398 CE):

But if I am not to turn a deaf ear to music, which is the setting for the words which give it life, I must allow it a position of some honour in my heart, and I find it dfficult to assign it to its proper place. For sometimes I feel that I treat it with more honour than it deserves. I realise that when they are sung these sacred words stir my mind to greater fervour and kindle in me a more ardent flame of piety than they would if they were not sung … so I waiver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know from experience, can accrue from singing.

More than a thousand years later, John Calvin’s introduction to the 1543 edition of the Geneva Psalter reiterates Augustine’s dilemma:

But amongst other things which are suitable for the recreation of men, and for yielding them pleasure, music is either first, or one of the chief, and we must esteem it a gift of God bestowed for that end. Therefore, by so much the more, we ought to see that it is not abused, for fear of soiling and contaminating it; turning that to our condemnation which was given for good. Even were there no other consideration than this alone, it ought to move us to regulate the use of music, so as to make it subservient to all good morals, and that it should not give occasion for loosing the bridle of dissoluteness, that it should not lead to voluptuousness, nor be the instrument of immodesty and impurity.

But further, there is scarcely anything in this world which can more powerfully turn or bend hither and tither the manners of men, as Plato has wisely remarked. And in fact we experimentally feel that it has a secret and incredible power over our hearts to move them one way or other. Therefore we ought to be so much the more careful to regulate it in such a manner, that it may be useful to us, and in no way pernicious. For this reason, the ancient doctors of the church often complained that the people of their time were addicted to disgraceful and immodest songs, which, not without cause, they esteemed and called a deadly and satanic poison for corrupting the world.

Augustine and Calvin ultimately approve the carefully monitored use of music in religious service, and in Tracts on Listening to Music, Islam scholar James Robson asserts that Calvin’s ruling on music “is essentially the same argument as that used by al-Ghazali [a prominent eleventh- to twelfth-century Muslim teacher] and other Muslims, who hold that music is lawful.” The challenge for religion then becomes the task of keeping one’s ears on God: limit the consumption of music to only that which supports its message and regulate the effect of the music so that it does not best the message.

In theory, one could eliminate music completely, even the intoned Koranic recitation that would qualify as nonmusic in Islam, as some Christian sects have done throughout history. But a powerful tool of recruitment, social bonding, message reinforcement, emotional articulation, and motivation to action would be lost. Whether aware of this latent potential or not, most if not all denominations of Christianity have eventually loosened their stranglehold on music, more recently exemplified by the Quakers who initially prohibited almost all music and now have a fully realized musical service. And for all the debates about the boundaries of permissible music in Islam, sacred cantillation, poetry with a raised voice — everything that supposedly distinguishes Islamic recitation from music — these texts are given a realization or performance differing significantly from speech.

From the perspective of cultural strategy, however, these challenges are exactly the reasons anashid are such useful tools. Quite often, it is not the words that create the initial connection or enjoyment; it is the extratextual features, such as the vocal timbre and arrangement, melodic structure, and rhythmic structure (Augustine’s dilemma resounds even today). Most online discussions support this thesis, as any thread about one’s preferred jihad-themed anashid almost invariably points to the quality of the singing, the beauty of the melody, even the “thumpin” rhythm as the reasons for any nashid to break into one’s favorites list. The poetry or text, while not ignored or absent from these discussions, seems to run second to the timbral and musical components of the anashid. In fact, many listeners do not understand the predominantly Arabic texts and thus make an initial connection to the music on a sonic level, even if they later request a translation. Specifically, rhythm is a highly valued component of many anashid within jihadi culture. Those demonstrating vocal lines with repeated beat patterns and driving rhythms are clearly the most popular among listeners of this music.

Looking at specific examples, threads on Islamic discussion forums like ask users about their favorite jihad-themed anashid, and the majority are those that have an up-tempo or clearly articulated beat. A thread titled “The Best of Jihadi Nasheeds,” which ran from July 4, 2005, until it was closed on June 21, 2007, included 1,166 posts. A comment le by forum member “Rashid” during the beginning of this epic discussion typifies what was sought and what was posted: “Anyway, I’m back, and want to build my nasheed collection. Anyone have some nice, fast paced, Jihad nasheeds?” When this thread hit 1,000 posts, a new one began, titled “Jihadi Nasheeds,” on March 18, 2007. It has remained active as of the time of this book and has more than 3,000 posts. Surveys of other threads, such as “My Favorite Jihad Nasheeds,” reinforce this assertion as the majority of links and videos contain up-tempo, invigorating anashid. The sounds, timbres, and cultural resonances of the genre generate much of the initial and sustaining appeal, particularly to non-Arabic-speaking audiences; the message and ideology are seemingly of secondary interest.

Yet another contradiction arises. Like the hip-hop and rap intended to draw Western-exposed Islamic youth to an ideology that views Western culture and music as evil, how anashid function within the cultural life of those who consume this music is largely ironic. It is the objectionable aspects of anashid (its ability to eclipse the religious message) that draw the many listeners to it. One of the main reasons jurists claim that music must be avoided is its ability to excite the senses and arouse the emotions. But a nashid’s ability to arouse emotion as a culturally coded signifier of Muslim identity is precisely what makes it such a valuable tool in propaganda, recruitment, membership retention, morale, and motivation to action.

Jihad’s Musical Social Network

Why are jihad-themed anashid chosen over other art or cultural forms? Much of the answer lies in music’s ability to forge social bonds. In her book, Music in Everyday Life, sociologist Tia DeNora proposes that one of music’s primary functions is as “a device for clarifying social order, for structuring subjectivity (desire and the temporal parameters of emotion and the emotive dimension of interaction) and for establishing a basis for collaborative action.” Music unites people through the shared experience of enjoyment, and this unifying quality can be a powerful means of recruitment and strengthen a sense of community.

While the processes of recruitment and membership retention in groups such as al-Qa’ida are vastly complex, many recent studies of radical and terrorist groups suggest that membership is less the result of ideological-appeal theory — the theory that people join a group based on the ability of the ideology to alleviate their sense of individual strain — than social bonds. Studies by a host of experts point to interpersonal bonds as the initial and sustaining aspects of the stages of member recruitment, with ideological acceptance coming as a later, even final, step. In an examination of recruitment into cults and sects, scholars Rodney Stark and W. S. Bainbridge conclude, “Rather than being drawn to the group because of the appeal of its ideology, people were drawn to the ideology because of their ties to the group — final conversion was coming to accept the opinions of one’s friends.”

When understood in this fashion, not only are the sounds of jihad-themed anashid a fruitful means of attracting listeners, but they carry the added potency to forge interpersonal bonds, something demonstrated throughout online communities supportive of jihad-themed anashid. Online discussion forums provide a staggering abundance of links, downloads, resources, and, most important, personal support for jihadi causes, and anashid are often at the center of long discussion-forum threads. Recent research by counterterrorism analyst Madeleine Gruen and communications professor Gabriel Weimann supports the idea that the Internet is a fertile ground for terrorist recruitment and support, and jihad-themed anashid are often the focal points around which forum members communicate and other ideological reinforcement. While it appears contradictory that interpersonal bonds develop and strengthen without personal contact, in many cases the Internet accelerates the process of social-bond formation. Geography, age, gender, and other identity boundaries are broken down online, and the Internet allows jihad sympathizers to communicate and reinforce one another without constraint. Given the Internet’s ability to provide a virtually unrestricted setting for communication, interpersonal bonds, and particularly those forged around music, can advance more quickly and with greater intensity.

Whereas the Internet provides a new setting, the process of interpersonal bonding created among combatants and their supporters through the shared enjoyment of music has a long and rich history, transcending culture, geography, and religion. This is illustrated by the musical environment that existed among U.S. soldiers and Marines during the Iraq War (2003–10), where music often defined social circles, operated as a pretext for action, served as entertainment, and honored those killed. Music has a profound ability to catalyze the process of interpersonal bonding that appears so important to recruitment, membership morale, and sustaining motivation during war operations. Likewise, anashid provide a means of forging interpersonal bonds in jihadi culture — the glue that holds groups like al-Qa’ida together perhaps more so than ideology. In Breaking the Silence, a 2002 documentary about music in Afghanistan, a former mujahid in Afghanistan is quoted as saying,

Although it was a holy war, we still listened to music. We were not narrow-minded. Music was our entertainment. Here is an example of what we used to listen to [turns on a tape of a cappella mujahideen song]. There was the sound of weapons ring. These tapes calmed us down when we were fighting. When we sat with our friends, this was our entertainment.

This statement, while brief, is fairly instructive. Not only does the mujahid suggest that music is permissible entertainment even in the context of a holy war, but he suggests that music was the focal point during periods of socialization with friends. Moreover, his reflection that “these tapes calmed us down when we were fighting” clearly underscores the idea that this music had a meaningful emotional impact on listeners — an idea frequently articulated by present-day discussion forum members who similarly discuss jihad-themed anashid’s emotional impact.

My assertion about music’s potency to create interpersonal bonds is supported by the example of Arid Uka. When he contemplates, “I don’t understand anymore how I went that far,” the explanation for his actions may seem confusing to him, but it is reasonable to piece together when viewed from the outside: a Western-exposed Muslim youth discovers the flourishing environments of radical online social networks and discussion forums. Easily disseminated media like music and videos glorify radical ideology and call for action on behalf of defending his religion and his God. The young man finds a video of American soldiers raping Muslim women. The sounds of anashid jihadiya dispel his doubts about the measures to be taken to protect the women of his faith, and he decides to take action. A violent, fatal result is certainly plausible amid these conditions. Uka’s online recruitment and social bonding offer insights into the roles played by anashid as a valuable component of promoting jihadi cultural strategy or “creating a ‘Jihad culture.’” As Uka’s case demonstrates, anashid can present and reinforce a message in favor of jihad without any direct action taken by the group. By limiting the lawfulness of music to only that which supports the ideology, the “first, or one of the chief ” recreations of men, whether in person or online, repeatedly strengthens the message.

Any message of radicalism is disseminated more widely through music. The Internet has allowed al-Qa’ida and other groups to circulate music with unprecedented scope, and, in many cases, the technological possibilities introduced by the Internet have been expertly exploited. Without doubt, the Internet has become an invaluable forum for the dissemination of radical ideology and media, even among social-networking sites. There is no greater tool in building effective propaganda than the Internet because of its ability to reach millions of viewers all over the globe. The veil of anonymity and the protection of distance allow Internet users to foment hatred and violence with little or no consequence. But virtual reality has also caused major problems, particularly among conservative Islamist movements.

The Internet has been one of the major sources of exposure for Islamic youth to secular Western culture, in all of its addictive materialism, consumerism, and narcissism. Islamic youths and societies in general are inundated with Western phenomena like Facebook and popular media such as music, television, and movies. If one asks Islamic youths how they learned English: television, movies, and the Internet almost always appear in their answers. Exemplified by the multiple revolutions of the Arab Spring, Western music became the soundtrack to much of the resistance, such as in Libya where Pink Floyd and hip-hop were used by combatants in their struggle against Muammar Gaddafi. When Islamic groups and youths are, by their own choice, embracing certain aspects of secular Western culture, convincing them to adhere to a more conservative religious practice represents a major challenge. The larger point here is that jihad-themed anashid cannot be understood in a vacuum; they are in permanent competition with secular cultural impulses over the attention of young people, “who are the foundation of Jihad in every age and time.”

This competition also speaks to the issue of why jihadi hip-hop and rap have been so important to Western-exposed Islamic audiences. The music reaches the youth from which future jihadists may emerge with a message presented in a musical language they are predisposed to enjoy, even when it appears as a musical genre originating from the culture they oppose. Those who enjoy traditional jihad-themed anashid (those without instruments) are not altogether attracted to this music because of its message, but through the quality of the singing, melodic beauty, and driving rhythmic structure. A lesson in propaganda emerges: when attempting to draw people to radical ideology, don’t lead with the ideology if you can find a more attractive garment in which to dress the message, and music provides very fashionable clothes.

A compelling example is evidenced by the music videos recently created by Shia Islamists in support of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA), a militant Syrian organization committed to defending the Sayida Zaynab shrine and fighting on the side of Syrian president al-Assad. Although the group is composed of local Syrian Shia, the majority are foreign fighters, many of whom are Iraqi Shia. These music videos seemingly appeal to Shia Islamist youth and honor the Shia fighters affiliated with LAFA, especially the Iraqi ones, given that the Iraqi dialect of Arabic is prevalent in these songs. Musically speaking, though, the tracks are fascinating negotiations between presenting a conservative practice of music and appealing to the widest audience among Western-exposed Islamic youth. Most of these songs employ only percussion instruments in the musical soundscape, an apparent nod to the instrument-free mandate of theological conservatives. Using vocal harmony to create a full sonic texture, many songs might be justified as nonmūsīqá, based on the argument that they use only drums and percussion and have Islam-related texts.

But this faint gesture at traditionalism is offset by the musical style and production. Mostly up-tempo, hip-hop beats with sung and rapped male vocals appear in these songs — a far cry stylistically from the jihad-themed anashid of al-Qa’ida propaganda. Moreover, a distinctive element within the vocal parts of these tracks is the preponderance of autotune, a vocal effect that corrects deviations of pitch to the nearest semitone. This vocal effect is a hallmark of Western popular music, pop and hip-hop in particular, and represents a conscious rejection of one of the most characteristic musical features of traditional Near Eastern music, namely the vocal inflections that include pitch spaces occurring between semitones. I mentioned earlier that a distinguishing feature of the maqām system of pitch from Western modes or scales is the use of microtones — pitches in between semitones. In these songs the defining elements of traditional music are literally tuned out in favor of the production effects and stylistic features of Western pop music. While one may defend these videos under the letter of the law as legitimate poetry with a raised voice and void of forbidden instruments, their spirit clearly invokes all the enticing (and religiously problematic) features associated with music. One might recollect Juliet’s convincing petition to Romeo: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Such deliberate manipulations of sound prioritize the appeal and popularity of music over adherence to the features of nonmūsīqá intended by religiously conservative positions on music.

While I have argued for the importance of nontextual elements in al-Qa’ida anashid, the message of this music must not be overlooked. Most lyrics in al-Qa’ida anashid glorify aspects of jihad, extol martyrs, call for the defense of Islam, and, in their most potent form, combine these thematic elements. The following text is a jihad-themed nashid from The West and the Dark Tunnel, and the video includes scenes from an apparent suicide bombing in which the drivers of a truck detonate an explosive device at a military outpost:

Verse: Who dares to stand in front of them? They are those who sacrifice for their Prophet / They are Khalid and Dharaar.

Chorus: Our path, our path, this is our path! The jihad and more jihad.

Verse: They advance seeking death, and when they see it, they will smile. They are aware of the danger, yes. But they have no fear.

Chorus: Our path, our path, this is our path! The jihad and more jihad.

Verse: They leap like lions into the lines of the enemy. The aid of Allah is with you today, O Mujahideen!

These themes resonate with the anashid texts presented earlier from The Red Mosque, as well as the anashid excerpts interspersed throughout the documentary, oftentimes playing in the background and brought to the forefront to underscore key moments in the narration and video:

We endured oppression for so long, and became today able to pay back and avenge. Oh martyrs, it is because of your benevolence that we are able to hold our heads high… The promise that we made to the Truth continued to be dutifully fulfilled. Bullets kept being red and the obligation continued to be fulfilled. Thee eyes of the sky will be witness on the Day of Judgment to the criminal oppression committed upon the innocent…. Desecration of the Qur’an and at the hands of vain louts! O God! O Avenger! To You we complain! … Fire and pillage and plunder prevailed on that side, while the Truth was proclaimed and remembrance of Allah persisted here… The prayers of the People of Truth, on that night of the gallows, the passion of the heart, the melancholic spirit kept burning up into supplication…. Gratitude is seen in the scorching sun of sacrifice and preference. The stages on the way to the destination kept being crossed.

The themes we see in as-Sahab videos are by no means exclusive to al-Qa’ida. Indeed, the veneration of martyrdom and the call to defend Islam through violence resound persistently through most of the jihad-themed anashid I have examined — a collection comprising more than 600 jihad-themed anashid obtained through the Internet, a collection of over 100 Internet videos, and the aforementioned 146 videos circulating in Afghanistan.

The final point I would like to make about al-Qa’ida’s anashid texts concerns the idea of social “strain.” Earlier, I suggested that many recent studies identify social bonds, not ideological appeal, as the primary influence in recruitment and membership retention in extremist groups. But I do not want to imply that ideological appeal opposes social bonds, and we must therefore accept one over the other. Rather, the two may complement and reinforce each other, and the thematic content presented in al-Qa’ida’s anashid makes a case for something of a resurrection of ideological appeal.

Ideological-appeal theory is built on the idea of strain, a theory first proposed by sociologist Robert Merton in 1938, who believed that individuals can develop feelings of alienation due to their perception of a normless and culturally deteriorating society in which they live. Unwilling to accept a hopeless situation, they become strained and actively seek an ideology that will relieve their sense of individual strain.

The texts of anashid, while not devoid of social-bonding themes, play much more to the themes of personal and community strain. The texts initiate and support the message of a threat to Islam and the Muslim community. These messages attempt to instill a feeling of personal strain, appealing to the sense of responsibility of Muslims to their religion and the ummah. One’s religion, one’s community, and thereby oneself is strained by damaging changes in society. The purpose of the calls to duty that exist throughout al-Qa’ida anashid is to impress strain on the Muslim listener. If one can effectively create strain, then the process of ideological appeal unfolds naturally. These messages suggest strain in such a way that only the ideology of the group that produces the message can relieve it. When such ideas, however, are set to music, they become vastly more influential, as the capacity of the sonic art form is tapped to forge social bonds, reinforce the message, animate it with emotion, and motivate the listener to action. The use of jihad-themed anashid in al-Qa’ida media fittingly exemplifies how the cultural strategy of music can manifest such objectives.

Postlude: The Nairobi Bombing, and Anashid

August 7, 1998. Nairobi, Kenya (approximately 10:30 a.m.). A white Mitsubishi Cantor truck pulls up to the gates of the U.S. Embassy. Inside the cab are the driver, a Saudi named Azzam, and Khalid al-‘Awhali, who leans out of the truck and yells at the security guard, Benson Akuku Bwaku, demanding that he open the gate. When Bwaku refuses, ‘Awhali fires at him and throws a stun grenade at a crowd of embassy guards as he jumps out of the vehicle. Bwaku radios Marine Post One to report the incident and the truck explodes, killing 219 people and injuring thousands.

‘Awhali was supposed to die a martyr in this operation, but he was taken into custody after receiving medical treatment for injuries sustained in the blast. FBI agent Stephen Gaudin interviewed ‘Awhali on August 22, 1998, and recounted that “on their way Al-‘Owhali described to me that he and Azzam were listening to an audio cassette of what he described as chanting poems (anashid) for motivation in preparing to die.” In many ways this situation resembles the scenario leading to Arid Uka’s murders twelve and a half years later. The most profound similarity between these two cases is that the courage to follow through with violence was catalyzed by music. And it is clear that these “chanting poems” were more than just a persuasive tool; they meant a great deal to ‘Awhali. Gaudin continues,

The interview ended where Mr. al-‘Owhali stated that he would like to recite a poem to the investigators and he wanted the official from the Department of Justice to also stay and hear the poem as well. So Al-‘Owhali began to say this poem, and it wasn’t so much normal speak, it was a chanting, almost a singing-type poem. He was doing it in his — in Arabic, in his language and through the translator I was able to determine that this particular chanting poem questioned whether or not two friends would ever meet again in paradise, and Al-‘Owhali explained to me that this chanting poem is what he and Azzam were listening to as they were driving for motivation, they were listening to for motivation as they were driving to attack the U.S. Embassy. And as Al-‘Owhali was reflecting on his friendship with Azzam and this chanting poem, he started to cry.

Music’s role in the cultivation of social bonding, hatred, and violence invites us to think anew about the art form of sound and sound humanity.


If they seek peace, then seek you peace. And trust in God for He is

the One that heareth and knoweth all things…

And the servants of (Allah) Most Gracious are those who walk

the earth in humility, and when the ignorant

address them, they say, “Peace!”

Koran 8:61 and 25:63

Jonathan Pieslak is an associate professor at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the author of Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War.