Understanding the Islamic State: The way of strangers

Understanding the Islamic State: The way of strangers
Review: Graeme Wood's latest book, 'The way of Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State', does more than address the shortcomings of his earlier work, writes Gareth Browne in Mosul.
5 min read
06 Apr, 2017
Wood explores the Islamic State group with nuance and context, writes Browne [AFP]
It is two years since Graeme Wood's "What Isis really wants" was published in The Atlantic.

The 10,000-word essay was an attempt to delve intellectually, and with nuance, into a debate often dominated by right-wing bigots and Islamist apologists.

The piece stemmed a litany of responses and debates, and, as compelling as the piece was, there were definite shortcomings - interviews with the likes of Anjem Choudary taking precedence over theological discussions with mainstream Islamic scholars, for example.

Wood's The Way of Strangers: Encounters with The Islamic State is the unabridged 352-page version of that article. It is a scintillating read, and one that does more than address the previous essay's shortcomings.

Wood's frustration is clear when it comes to a public obsession with the novel or bizarre. Here, he cites the attention given to two British recruits - Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Nahin Ahmed - who famously purchased Islam for Dummies before travelling to Syria.

Deniers of any religious legitimacy for the popularity of the Islamic State group ran with clichés like this, refusing to acknowledge that the men were undoubtedly exploring faith to answer questions and concerns that are present in any person sincerely seeking to understand religion, whether a learned scholar or a recent convert.

"The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight," writes Wood, but what is that evidence?

Wood lays out, in great detail, some of this in a pair of chapters based on extensive interviews with an Australian Islamic State ideologue - Musa Ceratino - and with the family of John Georgelas, an American who travelled to fight with the Islamic State group.

He adds a thorough examination of Turki Al-Binali, the Islamic State group's most senior religious cleric. Wood has spent time examining many of the hundreds of fatwas and other edicts released by the likes of Al-Binali, which attempt to justify everything from the taking of prisoners in war to the fiery immolation of those prisoners. 

Here, Wood is on far stronger ground then many of his detractors. John Esposito, professor at Georgetown, for example, gave a lecture on the topic which failed to cite a single Islamic State edict.

The author also emphasises the importance of not confusing religious knowledge with piety. A soldier in the US infantry's 101st airborne division, for example, might not have an in-depth knowledge of the US constitution - but that would not equate with any absence of patriotism or commitment to the founding ideals of the United States of America.

That the religious authorities of the Islamic State group have in-depth knowledge of the Quran and the Hadiths is undeniable - regardless of the fact they hold a fringe interpretation rejected by the overwhelming majority, they are certainly familiar with the texts.

Polls are often cited showing that upwards of 90 percent of Muslims reject the Islamic State group, or consider it "un-Islamic", but as Wood points out, that is not necessarily an argument against the group's religious "legitimacy".

Such logic would also excommunicate the minority Ahmadiya sect, who are often regarded as "not-Muslim" in polls both in the Islamic world, and among Islamic communities in the west. That one is in a minority does not render it illegitimate per se - an obvious, though oft-ignored point when it comes to the Islamic State group.
Special coverage from the front lines of the 
battle to retake Mosul

Wood has also made the effort to consult with mainstream Islamic authorities in the United States.

Yasir Qadhi and Hamza Yusuf both appeared on an Islamic State hit-list of Western Muslims last year, and it is in this chapter that we start to see the ideological refutation of the Islamic State group. 

In some regards, Yusuf is on the same page as Wood: "What we need to counter this plague are the voices of scholars, as well as grassroots activists, who can begin to identify the real culprits behind this fanatical ideology," Yusuf wrote in the Ramadan of 2016.

"What we do not need are more voices that veil the problem with empty, hollow and vacuous arguments that this militancy has little to do with religion. It is has everything to do with religion: misguided, fanatical, ideological and politicised religion. It is the religion of resentment, envy powerlessness and nihilism. It does, however, have nothing to do with the merciful teachings of our prophet, God's peace and blessings upon him."

As Wood states, the vacuous claims that Islam is inherently a "religion of peace", though well-meaning, are every bit as simplistic and pointless as the claims trumpeted by bigots that it is a "religion of war".

Wood, though an atheist, clearly holds an appreciation and fascination with Islam and its adherents around the world.

An Arabic speaker, his research for this book was not merely a transient period in his life but more a compilation of many years spent living and working with Muslims across the Middle East. It is rare that somebody can combine such an understanding of the Islamic State group from a theoretical and academic perspective with conversations on the ground and anecdotal experiences.

His ability to spell all this out in layman's terms - without patronising the reader - is where this book's key strength lies.

Gareth Browne is reporting from the front lines in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group.

Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth

Opinions expressed in this review remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.