Stathis N Kalyvas
Department of Political Science, Yale University
Culture is the blind spot of modern political science; clearly, this holds true for conflict studies. Notoriously hard to measure, culture (and its sibling, ideas) have often been downgraded or ignored. But as the celebrated quip goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Thomas Hegghammer has assembled a superb group of expert authors to survey a broad set of jihadi cultural practices, including poetry, music (especially the ‘anashid’ or a cappella songs), iconography, video, and film, the interpretation of dreams, and the celebration of martyrs. Jihadis seem to be remarkably prone to emotional and aesthetic temptations, despite (or because of) their violent streak. Their romanticism is unmistakable, a fact that helps make sense of their disregard for risk. At the same time, Jihadi culture is not static; it displays significant variation and is prone to considerable evolution and adaptation. Its scope has expanded to include new technologies, from video to online/social-media tools; and its aesthetics have been highly adaptable to context, as evidenced by the emergence of jihadi rap and hip-hop. Interestingly, its content has become less traditional and orthodox over time. Although this volume is a first-cut survey, some authors venture into the realm of explanation: jihadi cultural practices may be a costly signal to better protect heavily hunted clandestine groups from infiltration; they may serve as an emotional persuasion tool, used to recruit followers; or, they may be deployed to inspire fighters and boost their morale. Naturally, these interpretations only scratch the surface of a highly complex phenomenon. But what a remarkably rich surface it is! It fully justifies a broader research program.