Podcast: Al Qaeda Poetry Readings in Yemen, An Interview With Elisabeth Kendall

Published August 12th, 2018 - 10:32 GMT
Elisabeth Kendall with Yemeni tribesmen (Elisabeth Kendall)
Elisabeth Kendall with Yemeni tribesmen (Elisabeth Kendall)


“The power of poetry to move Arab listeners and readers emotionally, to infiltrate the psyche and to create an aura of tradition, authenticity and legitimacy around the ideologies it enshrines make it a perfect weapon for militant jihadist causes,” writes Elisabeth Kendall, a Senior Research Fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University’s Pembroke College.


(Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) 

Alternating between writing papers and mediating tribal negotiations, Kendall is a leading expert in analyzing and witnessing the power of poetry to motivate or stem violence in the Middle East. Although much of Middle East culture is oral rather than written, and massive chunks of public statements from jihadi groups come in the form of poems, scholars have largely neglected their role in shaping ideologies and motivating individuals to engage in extremist acts.

But Dr. Kendall claims they are indispensable to any serious study of jihadi ideology and violence.


Kendall with Yemeni tribesmen (Elisabeth Kendall)

Poems grounded in Islamic tradition and filled with metaphors that compel individuals help to make the cause of jihad and violence noble and appealing, Dr. Kendall argues in her conversation with Al Bawaba.

Poetry also helps tie jihadi messages to larger and more broadly shared sentiments with local populations. “We mustn't have a binary view of people who join the mujahideen or don’t,” Kendall says.


Poetry competition in Yemen (Elisabeth Kendall)

“There’s a massive majority in the middle who might not be totally against it, they might sympathize with bits and pieces,” and poetry helps facilitate that. Kendall cites poems that criticize drone strikes help to cultivate a sense of shared values between jihadi fighters and everyday people in the Middle East.

In developing targeted counter-radicalization strategies, Kendall thinks poems can be useful.

A successful counter-jihadi poetry campaign “involves collecting material that is naturally being written that argues the case against a jihad,” adding that “it’s not going to be any good if we start a program ‘now let’s sit around and create some poems that answer back at theirs…it just needs to be collected and the voice magnified.”

To listen to the full conversation, click here:

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