“Islam began as something strange and it will return to being strange, so blessed are the strangers.” — Sahih Muslim
It’s difficult to understand much about the extremist ideology of terrorist groups like ISIS, not least because your average non-Muslim doesn’t understand a lot about Islam itself to begin with. Theology is complex, and understanding the manipulations or interpretations that fringe groups make requires a deeper study that most people understandably aren’t all that interested in undertaking. But without understanding something about it, it’s hard to know one’s enemy and what they want and why, or fully grasp the implications of current events, or find any reasonable answer to that question that arises constantly of how people can turn to terrorism.
The Atlantic correspondent Graeme Wood’s The Way of the Strangers is the best book I’ve read providing insight into the Islamic State and their “view of humanity”, but not only: it’s an incredible parsing of Islam’s position at the current moment, looking at various branches within it and even its parallels with other religions, which of course aren’t without their disturbing fringes.
What worried me about the new overlords of Mosul was the mounting evidence that they—and a growing society of supporters from distant corners of the planet—meant what they said. Instead of talking about imminent death but planning for long life, they talked about imminent death and sought it avidly.
He places all of this in historical and geographical context as well. Does that sound dull, dense, or dry? I suspected it might be, so put off reading this for a long time until I saw an interview with Wood that piqued my interest. And I was wrong, this book couldn’t be more compelling and accessible. As a thorough primer on an area that occupies so much of our current foreign relations, and will for a long time to come, it’s unbeatable.
Wood examines the beliefs that are at the core of IS ideology, arguing that “jihadists can make good tour guides.” The way he distills these is masterful, and he draws on various scholars from different backgrounds to explain how those beliefs and Koran teachings are interpreted and implemented, juxtaposed with how IS has interpreted them. This is all made more readable than I thought possible. It’s a potentially dense and difficult topic, but you wouldn’t know it from his handling. He doesn’t dumb it down either, instead his writing is so clear and engaging — and sometimes beautifully narrative, when he gets to the travels and interviews — that it’s easy to follow and absorb.
Topics do change tack often, which can give the feeling of being loosely structured, skipping between interview subjects and locations, but I found this made it feel more comprehensive than confusing. The interesting thing is how all of these scholars disagree with each other, which I guess is always the problem with religion — you can find justification and contradiction in many of the same places. Wood provides excellent commentary on his subjects’ behavior, speech, and actions, and weaves all of this into research about religious culture as it applies to Islamic State adherents.
Everything that it explains so well about scholarship and theology aside, the “encounters” with members of the Islamic State are really the highlight. He illuminates something around them and their thinking, including how they got on their path, which is always a valuable examination, and he does it even when he can’t interview some of the figures personally. Like Yahya al-Bahrumi, formerly John Georgelas of Texas, who Wood identified as being, at one time, “the most important and prominent American” in IS, “and a speaker whose strengths, weaknesses, personality, and insecurities are deeply American as well.” Others include an Egyptian tailor and multiple unlikely converts, like a Japanese professor and Robert “Musa” Cerantonio, “the Australian”.
And now here’s the part I can’t believe I’m writing but I promise is true: it’s not only incredibly compelling reading, sometimes it’s quite funny. It has a Jon Ronson feel at times: “He was the face of British militant Islamism. The previous face had been hideous: Abu Hamza, the imam at the Finsbury Park Mosque, was a thug out of central casting, with a scowl, a glass eye, and hooks for hands,” or my favorite: “If Islamic State support is a communicable disease, an infection of the mind, then Choudary is its Typhoid Mary.”
And although he stresses that terrorists aren’t always total idiots who know nothing about the religion they profess to follow, but rather have a special skill for exploiting theology for their own purposes, he still shows them at their most ridiculous.
Which is kind of a terrifying risk, when you think about it. I can’t help but be massively impressed that he even managed to write this book, and by the bravery he exhibited in getting so up close and personal with them, openly and transparently. Here he describes the Australian:
Listening to him was at times like watching one of those competitions in which people eat enormous piles of hot dogs in a matter of minutes. He had shed normal inhibitions. The object of his gluttony was purity, vindication, the bliss accompanying banishment of uncertainty and participation in righteous struggle… His appetite was an intellectual and spiritual one, but it was no less saturnalian than the hot-dog eaters’. I was disgusted but also entertained.
Most relevant now is Wood’s warning that defeat of IS isn’t the end of this kind of movement. There’s precedent in prophecy, but more in instability and unrest. In the New York Times podcast Caliphate, residents under IS described how the group had fixed their city’s utility issues. It’s a seemingly small defense, but was a big issue for them. They’d had a grievance; it was addressed. There was something to exploit.
Wherever there is grievance, savagery can be sown. Wherever there is savagery, it can be used and exploited. Wherever it can be exploited, the nightmare can endure.
Remarkably incisive journalism that does more to explain what’s happened and why, and what it means going forward than anything else I’ve ever read, and manages to be gorgeously written at the same time. 5+
When someone says something too evil to believe, one response is not to doubt their sincerity but to expand one’s capacity to imagine what otherwise decent people can desire. That, I have concluded, is the proper response to the Islamic State.
The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State
by Graeme Wood
published December 20, 2016 by Random House