Culture Wars: Poetic Jihad

by William Skink

I went to see The Big Short last night and was not disappointed. The movie takes the purposefully opaque world of Wall Street right as the big banks blew up the economy and renders it approachable to the general public with the help of actors they recognize, popular music and humor. My wife, who has listened to me rant about this over the years (God bless her), said the movie did a much better job of explaining how this shake-down was perpetrated than I ever managed.

When the housing bubble burst terms like mortgage backed securities and credit default swaps provided that nice touch of mystification to confuse the public as to the criminally fraudulent nature of what led to the inflation of the housing bubble in the first place.

While the function of Wall Street jargon is acknowledged in the movie, it’s the following quote attributed to an overheard conversation that got me thinking about language:

The truth is like poetry and most people fucking hate poetry.

I had to laugh reading this on the screen, not because I hate poetry, but because I think, at least in this country, it rings true for “most people”. They read that and laugh, thinking, yeah, fucking poetry.

While the veracity of the above quote is difficult gauge, I think it’s safe to say there are other cultures that view poetry as more culturally relevant to their lives than mainstream American culture. It’s with that in mind that I bring readers attention to this interesting headline from the Guardian: Poetry used as ‘a perfect weapon’ for recruiting violent jihadis, study finds. From the link:

Poetry may be a potent tool in recruiting militant jihadis, a new study by Oxford academic Elisabeth Kendall has found.

In Yemen’s al-Qaida and Poetry as a Weapon of Jihad, published in a forthcoming book, Twenty-First Century Jihad, she writes: “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.”

Osama bin Laden composed an ode to the destruction of the USS Cole in 2000, which he recited at his son’s wedding, and a second example of his verse was discovered in an abandoned safe house in Kabul, having been distributed among trainee jihadis as an exhortation to fight.

“In the quest to understand the hearts and minds of those who practise militant jihad,” Kendall writes, “neglecting to interrogate the poetry that speaks to both would seem a fundamental oversight.”

Yes, you stupid westerners, go interrogate poetry. Or maybe water-board poetry, and if that doesn’t work, send in the drones to take poetry out.

Here’s more from the article:

Kendall’s research is based partly on data collected in conversation with 2,000 people in the sparsely populated but geographically huge Mahra region. Interviewees were asked about the significance of poetry in their lives, as part of a wider socio-economic survey conducted by the Mahra Youth Unity Organisation, an independent non-governmental body.

“The survey was conducted in December 2012 by local fieldworkers, men and women, face to face, to capture illiterate respondents of both genders. A startling 74% of respondents believed that poetry was either ‘important’ or ‘very important’ in their culture today,” she writes.

Have our academic cultural explorers stumbled on to something significant here? Is poetry an art form that really helps the terrorists recruit new terrorists to commit themselves to jihad?

Personally, I think this is fucking ridiculous. Poverty, wars of occupation and regime change, and financing from terrorist sponsor states like Saudi Arabia are the main factors driving young men toward jihad, not poetry.

But in our culture, where deceit has been normalized through our commercialized material culture and vacuous political rhetoric, I can understand the uneasiness that a culture that values poetry may pose. Language in America is so full of deceit the possibility of poetry to illuminate our world seems remote.

I could go on prosaically about this topic, but instead I composed a little poem. Enjoy!


read your silly poems, terrorist
in your sorry sandbox home
dream your dreams of virgins
once your body to bits is blown
no jihad verse will stop
the west’s crusade to kill
you can keep your poems
we have sports and E.D. pills
for our science is superior
and our culture is the best
so read your silly poems, terrorist
before strapping on that vest

–William Skink

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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4 Responses to Culture Wars: Poetic Jihad

  1. steve kelly says:

    Great post. If poetry is about truth, and truth is now (commodity) commercialized, poetry and truth will never be free of attacks by TPTB. Poets and artists must not fall into the trap of giving up because value has been reduced to whatever “the market” says it is worth in fiat currency — or, in reality, unpayable debt. More at :

  2. Hmmm – just got done with a book, The Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders about how CIA via various foundations and a group called the Congress for Cultural Freedom set out to compromise intellectuals, artists and poets. Literary magazines like-Hudson Review, Sewanee Review, Poetry, and Daedalus were on the payroll, along with Alan Ginzberg, TS Elliot and Ezra Pound. It was a massive undertaking made possible in part by kickbacks from various European governments of Marshall Plan money – 1-2% of the money wound up in CIA coffers.

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