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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?

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 www.ummah.com 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.

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