The soft power of militant jihad

Thomas Hegghammer writes: After Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to the Islamic State, reportedly beheaded the American hostage Nicholas Berg in 2004, he became known in jihadi circles as the Slaughterer. Few people in the West are aware that he also went by the nickname He Who Weeps a Lot. Mr. Zarqawi was known for weeping during prayer and when speaking about Muslim women’s suffering under occupation.

The Slaughterer’s brand of radical Islam was brutal even by jihadi standards. Under Mr. Zarqawi’s command, Al Qaeda in Iraq executed so many hostages and killed so many Shiite civilians that Al Qaeda’s leadership reprimanded him. But in his public displays of emotion, He Who Weeps a Lot was not an aberration. For radical Islamists who view crying as a sign of devotion to God, communal sobbing is as common as car bombing.

A foreign fighter in Syria who wrote a blog post in March about an imam crying while making an invocation wrote that “brothers were crying with him, some audible, and others would have their tears fall silently.” Jihadis also weep when listening to religious hymns, watching propaganda videos, discussing the plight of Sunni Muslims or talking about the afterlife. Some weep more than others, and those who do are looked up to by those who don’t.

Why have tens of thousands of people from around the world chosen to live under the Islamic State’s draconian rule and fight under its black flag? To understand this phenomenon, we must recognize that the world of radical Islam is not just death and destruction. It also encompasses fashion, music, poetry, dream interpretation. In short, jihadism offers its adherents a rich cultural universe in which they can immerse themselves. [Continue reading…]

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