The poetry of al Qaeda and the Taliban

Faisal Devji writes about an aspect of al Qaeda and Taliban communications that most terrorism analysts overlook: the interest that bin Laden and others have in poetry.

Readers going through the cache of letters that were released early this month from Osama bin Laden’s hideaway in Abbottabad, Pakistan, may have been taken aback by a reference — in the midst of discussions of tactics, regional politics and exchange rates for ransom money — to poetry.

One letter written by Bin Laden and perhaps an associate went from criticizing the news media’s coverage of Al Qaeda to commenting on a pre-Islamic tradition of satirical poetry called hija, which Arab tribes once used to mock their enemies. It’s easy to imagine that counterterrorism analysts wondered how to interpret that one.

In fact, poetry has long been a part of Muslim radicalism; the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, for example, was the author of a large collection of verse. Today, the Taliban’s Web site features poems written by the group’s members and sympathizers, both men and women. Recitations are frequently recorded and stored on cellphones and transferred from one person to another by way of Bluetooth technology.

Many Afghan and Al Qaeda poems — which come from distinct but hybrid literary traditions — are, as might be expected, political. In a statement broadcast on Al Jazeera in December 2001, Osama bin Laden quoted the following verses from one of his favorite contemporary poets, Yusuf Abu Hilala, changing the last line and replacing the word “castles” in the original with “towers,” as a reference to the destruction of the World Trade Center:

Though the clothes of darkness enveloped us and the poisoned tooth bit us,

Though our homes overflowed with blood and the assailant desecrated our land,

Though from the squares the shining of swords and horses vanished,

And sound of drums was growing

The fighters’ winds blew, striking their towers and telling them:

We will not cease our raids until you leave our fields.

If Al Qaeda’s writers tend to be preoccupied with what they see as Islam’s long and global history of conflict with Christendom, from the Crusades to the war on terror, Taliban poets tend to refer to the literature produced in their part of the world by nationalist and socialist movements over the course of the 20th century. And if Al Qaeda poems are characterized by the swords, charging horses and fiery deserts of pre-Islamic lore, Taliban poets praise more recent warriors like Malalai, a 19th-century battlefield heroine. The chief examples of historical conflict in Taliban poetry are the Anglo-Afghan wars, of which today’s United States-led war in Afghanistan is seen as a pale reflection.

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