News & Current Affairs

September 24, 2008

Analysing Bin Laden’s jihadi poetry

Analysing Bin Laden’s jihadi poetry

Undated file image of Osama Bin Laden

The tapes show Osama Bin Laden to be ‘an entertainer with an agenda’

To many people Osama Bin Laden is the ultimate barbarian, to others an elusive Muslim warrior. Most know him simply as the world’s most wanted man.

Few would imagine him as a published poet or wedding raconteur.

But now a host of previously unpublished speeches made by the man accused of planning the 9/11 attacks on the US are to be made public.

They include sermons and readings delivered at a wide range of events from weddings to jihadi recruitment sessions.

The material was discovered on a dozen of 1,500 cassettes found in al-Qaeda’s headquarters in Kandahar, Afghanistan, which was evacuated during the US-led invasion in 2001.

Encompassing recordings from the late 1960s until the year 2000, the collection includes hundreds of sermons by Islamic scholars, political speeches by al-Qaeda’s top strategists and even footage of live battles – as well as recordings of the group’s reclusive leader.

According to one US linguistics expert, Flagg Miller, who has spent five years analysing the material, the tapes provide an audio library of Bin Laden’s development as an orator.

The assistant professor of religious studies at the University of California, Davis said the recordings also offer “unprecedented insight” into debates within Bin Laden’s circle in the years leading up to the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001.

Jihad and weddings

Prof Miller’s analysis of the tapes shows Saudi-born Bin Laden to be a skilled poet who weaves mystical references as well as jihadist imagery into his verse, reciting 1,400-year-old poetry alongside more current mujahideen-era work.

“[The readings] were sometimes given to large audiences when he was recruiting for jihad in Afghanistan… and other times they were delivered at weddings, or to smaller audiences, possibly in private homes,” Prof Miller, a linguistic anthropologist specialising in the Middle East, told.

Poetry is important to Bin Laden’s core audiences of radical Islamists and disaffected youth, and his verses have been picked up by his followers around the world and used in their own work, said Prof Miller.

“The violence and barbarism of war can sicken anybody and poetry is a way to frame that violence in higher ethics,” he said.

However, some scholars have objected to the publication of Bin Laden’s poetry, saying the work has only sparked interest because of the notoriety of its author, and that publishing the verse gives a forum to a reviled figure.

In one of his own poems, Bin Laden, whose whereabouts remain unknown, refers to a youth “who plunges into the smoke of war, smiling”.

“He hunches forth, staining the blades of lances red. May God not let my eye stray from the most eminent humans, should they fall,” continues the recital.

The words are believed to have been recorded in the mountainous Afghan cave complex of Tora Bora in 1996, as the al-Qaeda chief made his first declaration of war against the US.

Performer with an agenda

Often identifiable by his distinctive monotone, Bin Laden’s recitals show him to be “the performer, the entertainer with an agenda”, said Prof Miller, who is researching a book analysing the poetry and its role in jihad.

Flagg Miller
Bin Laden uses poetry to tap into the cultural orientation, the history and the ethics of Islam
Prof Flagg Miller
University of California, Davis

“They also show his evolution from a relatively unpolished Muslim reformer, orator and jihad recruiter to his current persona, in which he attempts to position himself as an important intellectual and political voice on international affairs.”

Earlier material is littered with references to tribal poetry, Koranic verses and mystical allusions – mountains, for example, are used as metaphors to help his followers avoid the temptations of the secular world.

In one instance the man accused of orchestrating bombings in East Africa, Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as the US, describes himself as a “warrior poet”, whose words will lead his followers to an idyllic refuge in the Hindu Kush mountains.

More recent recordings are both more professionally produced and more overtly political – the anti-Western rhetoric with which the world has become familiar since the 9/11 attacks.

Prof Miller said that if alive, Bin Laden would still be writing poetry, which is central to the oral traditions of his tribal culture.

“Poetry is part of the oral tradition in the Arab world, which Bin Laden uses to tap into the cultural orientation, the history and the ethics of Islam,” he said.

The tapes are currently being cleaned and digitised at Yale University in the US and public access is expected to be granted in 2010.

Prof Miller’s findings are published in the October issue of the journal, Language and Communication.

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August 12, 2008

Spotlight on Egypt’s marriage crisis

Spotlight on Egypt’s marriage crisis

Ghada Abdelaal with her book Ayza-Tgawwiz

Abdelaal’s story started as an online log – now she’s working on a sitcom

“I want to get married” is a perfectly normal thing to say for a young Egyptian man. But when a girl says it in such a conservative society – let alone writes a book with that title – she is making a political statement.

“Girls are not supposed to be actively seeking something, a girl simply exists for someone to marry or divorce her,” says the author of the top-selling book, Ghada Abdelaal. “To say she wants something is seen as impolite.”

The book started as a blog, before it was spotted by an Egyptian publisher and printed as a series of comic sketches in which flawed and failed suitors knocking at her parents’ door.

A paranoid policeman, a hirsute fundamentalist, a pathological liar and other hilarious caricatures portrayed in sparkling Egyptian vernacular.

Marriage anxiety

The veiled, softly-spoken Abdelaal is a sharp and witty observer of social incongruity in Egypt, a feisty spirit trying to tear up stifling tradition.

They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married
Ghada Abdelaal

She says her target is not Egyptian men but a tradition known as “gawwaz el-salonat” (living room marriage), where a stranger is brought to the family home and the daughter must decide whether to marry him on the basis of this brief encounter.

“People who go for a picnic need to know each other a little longer than that – let alone make a lifelong commitment.”

The book’s popularity – it is in its third print run with a sitcom in the offing – reflects a widespread anxiety in Egyptian society. More and more young people cannot afford to get married.

Although the book focuses on finding Mr Right, she acknowledges finding an affordable flat remains an almost insurmountable obstacle. Many young people stay engaged for years before they can save up enough money.

“By the time they actually get to live together, they are already tired of each other,” says women’s rights activist Nihad Abou El Qoumsan. This causes the unusually high rate of divorce among the newlyweds in Egypt, she says.

Such is the impact of property prices on the marriage crisis, a popular talk show has invited engaged couples to join a draw to win a flat.

A new apartment will be given away by a wealthy businessman every day of the fasting and holiday month of Ramadan, in September. Huge numbers have registered.

Sexual frustration

Some describe it as a social time bomb. Religious customs mean there is no sex before marriage. So how do young people react to this situation?

I don’t think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated
Anthropologist Hania Sholkamy

Sociologist Madeeha al-Safty of the American University in Cairo believes one consequence is sexual harassment of women and rape reaching unprecedented levels in Egypt.

“If you are frustrated, there is the possibility that you take it out [through] violence.

“Some people choose the safer way in moving towards a more religious attitude – not necessarily extremism, but it might reach the point of extremism,” she adds.

But anthropologist Hania Sholkamy hesitates to link the problems of sexual harassment and rape to the marriage crisis.

“I don’t think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated. There are many millions of people who are extremely frustrated, but they do not harass women.

“I think the issue is one of violence and gender disparities, pure and simple.”

Gender disparities is a theme running throughout Abdelaal’s book, from the provocative title questioning the woman’s passive role in a traditional society to the way children are brought up.

“They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married.

“Even after she goes to school they tell her that a girl’s only future is in her husband’s home. So what happens when a girl for any reason cannot get married. Should she set fire to herself?”

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