The Way of the Strangers by Graeme Wood
Repulsion and ridicule are two common reactions to Isis, said Christina Lamb in The Sunday Times. Yet according to the US journalist Graeme Wood, both are inadequate (if understandable). Instead, he claims, we should strive to understand the group’s “theological underpinnings”. In The Way of the Strangers, Wood sets out to do this by talking to some of Isis’s “chief apologists”. Though he doesn’t go to Raqqa – such a trip would “almost certainly be fatal” – he tracks down sympathisers in Cairo, London, Melbourne and Tokyo. Generally, Isis ideologues are happy to talk to him, offering him pizza, or lamb, while “smilingly” describing the “coming apocalypse”. Wood emerges convinced that it “makes no sense” to dismiss Isis’s followers as thugs who use religion as a fig leaf. On the contrary, many are clever, and most are genuine believers who strive to follow the Prophet Mohammed’s teachings “in the strictest way”. This is an “important” work. Isis may be losing much of its territory, but as the “zeal” of Wood’s interviewees makes “scarily clear”, its military defeat “will not be the end”.
Most people who read or argue about radical Islam have encountered “what I would call the Karen Armstrong school of religious apologetics”, said David Aaronovitch in The Times. This holds that “malign religious practice” is always the product of “politics or social structures or personal inadequacies”, not of religious belief. In Isis’s case, such a view is especially attractive, because the “last thing the world needs is to lump in 1.6 billion Muslims with a few tens of thousands of murderous zealots”. Yet, as Wood’s “indispensable” book makes clear, “such scruples” have “led to a fundamental misunderstanding” of Isis. All the evidence suggests that those who travel to fight for it are inspired by a coherent, almost respectable, form of Islam.
As well as being “sobering and gripping”, this book also “ranks as the funniest yet written on the Islamic State”, said Tom Holland in the New Statesman. In Australia, Wood visits Musa Cerantonio, the country’s “highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser”, who interjects appreciative comments about Monty Python and Stephen Fry into a discussion of “immolation as a method of execution”. Though darkly comic, the scene is also “terrifying” because, as Wood makes clear, views not unlike Cerantonio’s are shared by “large numbers of Muslims across the world”. This “revelatory” book reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: the Islamic State is Islamic. “Very Islamic.”