Jihadi Videos Push Islamic Music's Austere Boundaries

Islamist militants have stepped up their game when it comes to the music and visuals in their videos. NPR's Arun Rath talks to scholar Peter Neumann about today's tech-savvy jihadists.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. Almost as shocking as the speed with which Islamist militants have captured territory in Iraq has been their savvy with the most modern media technology. The Islamic state, formally known as ISIS, has been all over Twitter. And their fighters are producing some slick videos accompanied by Islamic chants known as nasheeds. Endless jihadi videos came out during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. But today, the nasheeds sound strikingly different - more melodic, more catchy.

To understand what's going on, we turned to Peter Neumann, the Director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College, London. He joined us in our studios in D.C. I started by playing him a clip from one of these recent videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

RATH: So it's a sort of thing that, you know, not knowing what they're saying, you would not assume that's religious.

PETER NEUMANN: No, and there is a whole history to these nasheeds. If you are coming from a jihadi prospective, and your religious doctrine is to be very, very austere, you reject music. There was a famous Islamic scholar who said music is like alcohol to the soul, and it shouldn't be permitted at all. And over the centuries, consensus has emerged that even if you're very austere and very traditionalist, some music is allowed. It shouldn't feature certain instruments, and it should obviously not be too stimulating. So 10 years, 15 years ago, a lot of these nasheeds would have been very, very austere. There would have only been singing, typically verses from the Quran. And there would have been no instruments whatsoever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

NEUMANN: Now you see the use of instruments. You see them talking about religion rather than actually directly citing from the Quran.

RATH: And what are they actually singing about?

NEUMANN: Some nasheeds clearly are from the Quran. In other nasheeds, they are singing about victorious battles, about martyrdom. It is always religiously themed, or it is fighting themed.

RATH: And, you know, as you mentioned, there used to be this interpretation or at least - I'd always thought that for strict Islamists, anything except purely a cappella, liturgical music was forbidden, but we're hearing beats and drums and processing. How is that OK?

NEUMANN: In terms of the religious doctrine, jihadists are essentially calling themselves the lafia wahhabis. And they do reject music. They reject film. They reject smoking, alcohol, anything that could take your mind off God and the study of religious texts. But there has been - even amongst wahhabi sheikhs - there has been a discussion as to whether particular instruments should be allowed. And so I guess the people who are using instruments are taking advantage of some of that ambiguity, and they are pushing the boundaries and are using as many instruments as you possibly can.

RATH: And things like the technology - I'm surprised it's not considered to be tainted, in a way, since it's coming from Western source. I think about things like auto-tune which you associate with rappers like T-Pain and not with Islamists.

NEUMANN: So from their point of view - from a sort of very religiously doctrinaire point of view - there has never been an objection to using Western technology, for example, as long as it's use is for a religiously permitted purpose. That's always been the sort of irony and contradiction of this movement - that they are essentially trying to establish states that are following medieval rules, but they are taking advantage of the Internet, of satellite phones, of all the modern technology that wouldn't be possible had it been produced in that kind of state.

RATH: You've studied these videos quite a bit. Do you feel like there is any insight we can get from studying the nasheeds - the songs - that we might not get in other ways about the Islamists?

NEUMANN: Yes. I think it certainly is a reflection of their priorities. It is certainly a reflection of what is in their mind, what matters to them, what they are proud about. For example, we know, right now, from a lot of video publications, but also magazine publications, that ISIS is really keen to establish its legitimacy as the real caliphate. And it perceives itself to be in a sort of competition with other jihadist groups. All of that is about saying to people, look, you should come here and join us. And you should give us your allegiance because we have accomplished something that all of these other groups have always talked about, but have never actually done.

RATH: Peter Neumann is a professor of Security Studies at the Department of War Studies at King's College, London. Peter, thank you so much for being here.

NEUMANN: Thank you.

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