Jihadi ideology and culture

Thursday June 20, 11.15 - 12.45

Session 1, Auditorium 3, Eilert Sundt building

Chair: Chelsea Daymon

Paper presenters

  • Purity and violence: the case of the Islamic State - Pieter Nanninga
  • Miracles in Jihad - Alexander de la Paz
  • Common psychological traits of right-wing and Islamist extremists - Milan Obaidi
  • Jihadi Weeping - Thomas Hegghammer     


Purity and violence: the case of the Islamic State

Pieter Nanninga, University of Groningen

Research on jihadism is dominated by the policy and security perspectives that characterise terrorism studies, leaving jihadist culture underexplored. As a result, jihadist violence is typically studied as instrumental actions related to the organisers’ strategic objectives. This paper argues that jihadist violence should also be studied as a cultural practice, focusing on its symbolic aspects and cultural meanings for the actors involved. For this purpose, it focuses on the case of the Islamic State (IS) and, particularly, on the theme of purification. Purity and violence is a longstanding research topic in cultural anthropology, religious studies and research on mass violence, yet these studies have hardly been integrated into research on jihadism. This paper builds on theoretical insights from these studies, as well as on the author’s extensive archive of IS media releases and internal documents, to examine IS’s discourse on public executions, destruction of cultural heritage, slavery and ‘martyrdom operations’. Based on these cases, the paper argues that the perceived necessity to cleanse the land, community and individual from pollution is central to IS’s discourse and practice. The theme of purity thus illustrates that studying the cultural aspects of jihadist violence is crucial to understand the bloodshed and its appeal.

Miracles in Jihad

Alexander de la Paz, Columbia University

The battlefields of jihad abound with reports of miracles and marvels. Across decades of campaigns, fighters dream prophetic dreams and behold otherworldly visions. Corpses emit divine light and scents, smile, fail to decay, and even reanimate. Animals and angels intervene in battle. Scarce rations feed multitudes. Enemy weapons malfunction, and friendly arsenals work wonders. Though pervasive, such reports remain poorly understood. Integrating insights from psychology and anthropology, this paper describes the sources, prevalence and content of miracle reports, and evaluates models of their selection and spread. The paper draws on a wide range of primary sources, including the media productions of dozens of groups, as well as newspaper articles, letters, memoirs, diaries and biographies, and also original interviews. Miracle reports offer a window into the wonders fighters see, hear, taste, smell and touch—or at least wish to experience, or believe others wish to experience. Their study yields insight into cultural transmission within and across jihadist groups, and forms of intergroup competition that have hitherto been paid little notice.

Common psychological traits of right-wing and Islamist extremists

Milan Obaidi, C-REX, University of Oslo

Many scholars have theorized that extremists are psychologically inflexible, dogmatic, rigid and intolerant of ambiguity. Empirically, there are studies showing an association between extreme political standpoints and dogmatism as well as low openness to experience. When it comes to violent extremist behaviours, however, there is a dearth of data. However, anecdotal accounts suggest that an increased search for order, structure and a simplified worldview mentality seem to be at play among all types of extremists and particularly right-wing and Islamist extremists. Hence, there are good logical and theoretical reasons to believe that right-wing and Islamist extremists may share similar psychological traits.

In this project we aim to go beyond anecdotal, logical and theoretical reasons and conducted a pilot study to infer and compare the personality traits of right-wing and Islamist extremists using text analysis. The result of expert judgments suggests that right-wing and Islamist extremists may have similar psychological traits. So cues to such dispositions could be things to look for in prevention efforts. Broadly speaking, in the guessing game of who might become a terrorist, these findings suggest that with stable traits associations we might be able to pick up signals of online radicalization before typical “warning behaviors”.

Jihadi Weeping

Thomas Hegghammer, Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, FFI 

This paper describes the practice of weeping (bukāʾ) in contemporary jihadi groups. Using a wide range of primary sources, it shows that weeping is widespread and encouraged in militant Islamist groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State.Modern jihadis weep in at least six main types of situations: during prayer, during sermons, when listening to hymns, pre- and post-combat, on losing comrades, and upon seeingcivilian Muslim suffering. Weeping is socially appreciated; it often happens in groups, it is rewarded with praise and honorifics, and it is advertised in propaganda. Weeping for more mundane reasons is also reported, but not similarly valued. The findings add to other recent evidence suggesting modern jihadis are influenced by Sufism. Today’s weeping practices also suggest a long historical association in Islam between asceticism and military jihad going back to 8th-century fighter-ascetics such as Ibn Mubārak.


Published Apr. 23, 2019 1:21 PM - Last modified June 12, 2019 10:40 AM