Aesthetics, Culture Key To Understanding Jihadists In the West, Muslim extremists are often seen as two-dimensional villains. While groups like ISIS often act in monstrous ways, there are human elements that fuel what they do and believe.
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Aesthetics, Culture Key To Understanding Jihadists

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Aesthetics, Culture Key To Understanding Jihadists

Aesthetics, Culture Key To Understanding Jihadists

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We usually think of jihadi extremists as grim two-dimensional monsters bent on violence and revenge. But Thomas Hegghammer says that thinking makes it hard to really know how these militants operate. Hegghammer is the author of "Jihadi Culture: The Art And Social Practices Of Militant Islamists." And he says jihadists have what he calls a rich aesthetic culture with art, music and feelings. Take Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He was the infamous leader of al-Qaida in Iraq who was responsible for sectarian killings and beheadings. Hegghammer says Iraqis knew him as the butcher, but...

THOMAS HEGGHAMMER: What many people did not know was that on the inside of the movement, he was also known as he who weeps a lot. He was a man who was known for being extremely brutal but yet also very sensitive at the same time. And this is not exceptional in the movement. There are lots of examples of this, of people who kill in the morning and weep in the afternoon, so to speak. There's no contradiction in there.

MCEVERS: Just describe this what you call rich aesthetic culture that these jihadis have. Besides the weeping during prayer, what else are we talking about here?

HEGGHAMMER: Yeah, so it's basically a very sensitive aesthetic universe we're dealing with, with poetry, singing, art, graphic art, visual art and a whole lot of religious rituals - a lot of things that seem to have no purpose, no kind of military function. And this is what got me interested in this to begin with. It was that you had these hunted men - because terrorists are hunted men. They're short on time and resources. And you should expect them to spend all their time on useful things like building bombs or writing propaganda or raising funds. But here they are doing all these seemingly useless things. And that I thought was really, really fascinating.

MCEVERS: I mean, I think one reason this might be surprising to people is we think of jihadis as people who forbid culture, right? No pictures. No music. No - I mean, music in the sense that we understand it, right?

HEGGHAMMER: That is right. And there are some kind of boundaries to the creative expression here. For example, they don't use instruments in their music because instruments are believed to have the potential of arousing sexual desires. So they stay clear of instruments. But they use a cappella voices very creatively so it really sounds like music with instruments. And the interesting thing that we found in this book was that the culture has become more liberal and using more and more music, more and more imagery. And now it's just this sort of big sound and light show. So it suggests to me that the culture is really important to them, that it's doing something useful for them because these guys are not the compromising kind.

MCEVERS: And you write that, you know, this rich aesthetic culture, as you call it, that jihadis have is really key to understanding them and understanding how they recruit, how they get new members. Can you explain that?

HEGGHAMMER: Yeah, so there's been a tendency to think about radicalization as the result of some kind of cognitive process, that they are persuaded by the force of argument of a given doctrine. Whereas what I think I'm showing here is that there's also a sort of aesthetic seduction going on, that there is a process here that doesn't necessarily involve the mind or the cognition as much as the heart and emotions. And that, I think, is an important insight.

MCEVERS: Is there a danger in humanizing jihadis in this way and in showing this side of their culture?

HEGGHAMMER: Well, personally, I don't think so. I struggle to see how we can go too far in sort of understanding the thinking, the mental processes behind the violence. Of course, if it slips over to sympathy and sort of glorification of what they're doing, then it's something else. But I think that it's perfectly possible to show the human side of this and at the same time not kind of justify or embellish it.

MCEVERS: Well, Thomas Hegghammer, thank you so much.

HEGGHAMMER: Thank you for having me.

MCEVERS: Thomas Hegghammer is senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment in Oslo and author of the book "Jihadi Culture: The Art And Social Practices Of Militant Islamists."

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