David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Why Jihadists Love Postmodern Poetry


We live in a world overflowing with cynicism about the meaning of language and the power of metaphor. For decades we’ve needed to look no further than college English departments and the pages of literary journals and the many books stuffed full of genre-bending postmodern poetry.

Now postmodernism is playing with live ammo. Literally.

And with that scratchy gem I call your attention to the steady news of violent extremists masquerading as devout Muslims across the Middle East, Africa, and in the Xbox-loving suburban ghettos of Europe and the United States. Those self-appointed executioners responsible for the Charlie Hebdo murders along with their throat-cutting ISIS psychopathic comrades could be the type of poetry-fawning fascists we’ve seen before (see: Stalin, Joseph). For example, consider the following unattributed lines of poetry quoted below. These are published in the contemporary jihadist journal, Sada al-Malahim, and you’ll find the lines at the end of an essay, as Elizabeth Kendell notes in “Yemen’s al-Qa’ida and Poetry as a Weapon of Jihad,” emphasizing the United States’s “weakness exacerbated by the financial crisis in what the article perceives to be the imminent collapse of capitalism.” Note the postmodernist mashup of an ancient Arab tradition scratched into nauseating contemporary vindictiveness:

I will fasten my explosive belt,
I will shudder like a lightning bolt
and rush by like a torrential stream
and resound like stormy thunder.
In my heart is the heart of a volcano.
I will sweep through the land like a flood.
For I live by the Qur’an
as I remember the Merciful.
My steadfastness lies in faith
so let the day of the Qur’an come.
For I live by the Qur’an
as I remember the Merciful.
My steadfastness lies in faith
so let the day of the Holy Book come
to demolish the thrones of the tyrant.
My voice is the loudest voice
for I do not fear false clerics.
I will live and die for Allah.

According to Kendell poetry is “key” to “ideological indoctrination and spiritual preparation” among jihadist recruits and always takes “precedence over military training.” Think about that. Now even violent extremists see poetry not as a cohesive lyric exploration about experience but as a fully postmodern “active and reproductive event that will itself be repeated and passed on”—as in the stanza below written by an another anonymous poet and published in the April/May issue of Sada al-Malahim that performs the act of a suicide bomber “recreating both the fear of potential victims and the rush of the power ‘high’ felt by the bomber”:

I am among them
a ghost exacerbating their torture.
They will know nothing of my coming and going
twenty-first century jihad until destruction looms in their public spaces
and they fall in throngs.

As an aside, you really should click on this literary journal’s website—that is, if you dare to set off a blinking light inside some cubicle in the NSA headquarters. Sada al-Malahim magazine’s website is better looking than, say, Slate‘s or the Atlantic‘s, that’s for sure. It’s bright, glossy, elegant and actually downright stylish. Meanwhile, if you like high/low pastiche, I don’t see how you couldn’t like these “I am among them” lines calling for murderous “destruction.” It’s got that post-irony, post-juxtaposition of creative and critical roles down pat. And the lines are hardly different in intent if not style from my doing a quick Google search to flarf up an experimental, conceptual, absurdist darling of a poem and calling it “Allahu Akbar (God Is Great)”:

Between jihad gun lyrics got nothing to lose
Double gun rack tool holder side by side squat stuff
Firearms training center water permeations
Through living hands
Action screw question
How do I install my piston

My apologies to the majority of peace-loving postmodernists out there for my stupid poem as well as to the majority of the 1.6 billion peaceful Muslims in the world. But no apologies vis a vis the comparison of these 21st century totalitarian thugs dressed up as pious Muslims and all the other murdering fanatics we’ve known dressed up as jackbooted Nazis, red-shirted Stalinists, hooded KKK militiamen, Yemeni Houthis, Boko Haram, the League of Communists in Yugoslavia, Eyal Zionists, and on and on.

The similarity between Islamic State slaughter in Iraq and Syria and Aryan Nazi slaughter in Poland and Czechoslovakia is probably obvious enough. Because a fascist’s stripes are always the same. Those stripes cover the same violent, murderous cults that worship destruction and hate both earnest, rational language and the progressive arc of history and that also despise modernity except when it comes to using the internet to recruit lonely men and women looking for self-worth in the romanticism of some distant, death-wishing, nihilist cause—and also except when it comes to the pursuit of gaining weapons, oil refineries, hair product, viagra (see: bin Laden, Osama) and also, apparently, when it comes to the use of Tumblr, as Ruth Sherlock reported last November in the Telegraph: “The Telegraph has been following the Tumblr account of ’Abu Qa’qaa’, a jihadist in Syria who is believed to be British, where he runs question and answer sessions for would-be volunteers, mostly from the UK. Analysts have said they believe the account to be genuine. An iPad or “something with wi-fi”, he wrote in a recent post, is essential, along with soap and hair products (‘My Afro is melting,’ he wrote).”

Those stripes also sport the standard anti-Semitic paranoia, contempt and subjugation of women, hero worship of murderous leaders, hatred of foreigners, nostalgia for lost empire, obsession with ancient humiliation and revenge, a lack of fear of war, a penchant against science, medicine, and doctors, rote sexual repression, and a relativist’s disdain not so much for the Great Satan but for imagination writ large—or art and literature and non-propogandistic poetry and music and now, I guess, satirical cartoons, and every form of liberal humanism—as degenerate.

It would be both dreadful and dangerous if we were to convince ourselves that charges of fascism were now cliche and meaningless. A term like fascist is a writer’s weapon, and it should always be used to convey reproach and censure. Relativism gives way. Thus we would apply the term toward anyone burning books and cultural treasures and houses of worship and also distorting and plundering language in pursuit of relativist acts of violence. We would apply that term to any ideology suspicious of objective knowledge, complexity, ambiguity, contradiction, hierarchy, and diversity, and to anyone who fetishizes Orwellian newspeak such as what I just crudely demonstrated with the lines of “poetry” I “composed” above. I mean, the 2006 Sunni bombing of the Shia al-Askari shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, where two neo-jihadis blew up the famous golden dome is similar in every important respect to the 1963 white Protestant bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in the United States.

And then there’s the attempt to intimidate writers and journalists, poets and novelists, to attack, kidnap, and even murder them as a recruiting tool, as an act of raw political power, as an aggrandizement not of Islam, but of a political and even aesthetic cult of destruction and death.

Those Islamists who perpetuate ignorance and kill with such ease—“fascism with an Islamic face,” is how Christopher Hitchens put it in the fall of 2001—aren’t merely pseudo-Muslims, aren’t merely extremist Muslims, but they are sleazy, old-school, counter-reformationist, murdering sociopaths who will tunnel language from anywhere to bolster and sustain their campaigns to seize political power and territory from so-called infidels and to reverse the history of humanism.

Cue the executioners entering the offices of Charlie Hebdo who, in essence, took postmodernism from the jihadist journals to the streets of Paris. In the effort to attack coherent metaphor, they killed a dozen journalists and bystanders. In an effort to fetishize disruption and reproduce chaos, they took the lives of men and women who value knowledge and reality, even if their version of reality was provocative.

Now I know the differences between violent, murdering extremism performed in the public square and poetic experimentation performed in the literary square. There is no moral equivalency between cold-blooded killers and literary-bound poets who practice an art of free-flowing creations constructed of a language that largely points to itself. When it comes to free speech, I’m an absolutist. I believe that free poetic speech should represent a front line—an avant-garde, one might say—against totalitarianism of every kind including, in Salman Rushdie’s phrase, “religious totalitarianism.”

But let’s not kid ourselves either. The differences may be measurable but the phenomena are not unrelated. Jihadists have adopted the zeal of deconstructing language, meaning, and metaphor. I mean, how I just snatched some language off an internet search engine to poetify that gross little parody a few paragraphs up is an act of imaginative gouging through and through. Same goes for those jihadi jingles and their hip-hop-esque scratching of modern day military operations with ancient images of martyrdom. Next time you wonder what oppression-loving, surface-to-air-missle-toting reactionaries with their entrenched tribal values of honor and shame stand for regarding the transparency of speech and language, have a listen to the way they love to glom onto the propaganda of anti-globalism. Recall, too, for example, Osama bin Laden’s annual letter from the manor to his followers in November 2007 when he was holed up in Pakistan that includes the following:

…as soon as the warmongering owners of the major corporations realize that you have lost confidence in your democratic system and begun to search for an alternative, and that this alternative is Islam, they will run after you to please you and achieve what you want to steer you away from Islam. So your true compliance with Islam will deprive them of the opportunity to defraud the peoples and take their money under numerous pretexts, like arms deals and so on…beware the deception of those with the capital.

Now that’s quite the little prose poem.

Manifestos of every variety have always taken the tone of “expansionist militancy, enforcing an aggressive divide-and-conquer framework,” Cathy Park Hong wrote last year in “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant Garde” in Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion. She was speaking about her perceptions of racism in the avant-garde, you see, not bin Ladenism. And she goes on to say, the “classic function of the avant-garde has been, according to Renato Poggioli, ‘not so much…an aesthetic fact as a sociological one,’ interrogating the very role of art as an institution in a bourgeois society and seeking to collapse artistic praxis with daily life…The avant-garde’s ‘delusion of whiteness’ is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be ‘post-identity’ and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are.”

Well no wonder that when Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were murdered by a pair of front-guard, rabble-rousing neo-fascists posing as devout Muslims I didn’t rush out and look for a contemporary, experimental, avant-garde postmodernist poem that slips in and out of identities to give me some much needed honest clarity and insight about violence and shame and murder. What’s my problem, right?

No, I turned to W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” that begins:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

And I turned to Adrienne Rich’s “What Kind of Times Are These?” that begins:

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I turned to Robert Penn Warren’s “Founding Fathers, Nineteenth-Century Style, Southeast U.S.A.” and Derek Walcott’s “Hotel Normandie Pool” and Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” and Czeslaw Milosz’s “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” as well to a few things by Adam Zagajewski, C.K. Williams, Natasha Trethewey, Miroslav Holub, Terrence Hayes, and Osip Mandelstam, all poets who confront violence and extremism through cohesive argument and metaphor that is drawn from insight into shared human experience. When the world feels like it’s fragmenting into a million pieces, I don’t look for poetry of fragmentation. I don’t look for an aesthetic of discombobulation. Instead, I look for poetry of persuasive metaphor and communion and renewal—such as the best hashtag haiku I’ve read in the Twitter era: “Bring Back Our Girls”—and I look for poetry that contains at least the possibility, necessity, and essential spirit of coherent empathy and understanding.

Now that’s just me because I feel that practitioners of neomodernist and postmodernist poetry would easily argue through their poems that even fanatical jihadism is a project of postmodernism for its refusal of modernity as a battleground against Western imperialism and global markets. If only this vision of postmodernist jihad didn’t include preventing merchants in repressive countries from rejoining the world marketplace. If only this vision of postmodernist jihad didn’t include attacks on schools, especially schools for girls. If only this vision of postmodernist jihad didn’t include, month after month, acts of kidnapping, rape, bombing, stabbings, shootings, and massacres. If only once we would hear violent religious fanatics drop the doctrinal mask that never allows for compromise to say one word, just one word in favor of pluralism or individual liberty that is actually the foundation of experimental art and literature and music. No, these postmodern jihadists favor and take advantage of disruption and fragmentation. They favor the denial of authority and the reduction of content to an austere minimum. They regard life and art as unreal. They repudiate harmony and promote the arbitrary in order to avoid responsibility. And they create chaos and disorder so that zealots can rush in.

Well you can count me as one poet who is not reluctant to ask questions about the capriciousness of both postmodernist poetics and also violent extremist mayhem based on a similar affection for disintegration. And you can count me as one poet also who is throwing his lot in with Milosz and Rich and other poets looking to make poetry that’s an antidote to the cynical manipulation of language for murderous purposes.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →