The Way Of The Strangers: Encounters With The Islamic State
By Graeme Wood
317 pages $28
What’s the big deal about this book?
There are at least two important reasons for reading it.
First, Canadian author Graeme Wood makes the case that “The Way of the Strangers” outlines “the definitive, electrifying account of the strategy, psychology, and theology driving the Islamic State.”
Second, Wood is also a national correspondent for “The Atlantic.” He reveals here, and in a recent piece at Atlantic.com called, “The American Leader in the Islamic State”, the identity of Yahya Abu Hassan – an ISIS scholar and propagandist, and perhaps successor to its second most-powerful figure – as an American.” That article by the way, was the most read in the history of that publication.
Wood graduated from Harvard and lectures at Yale. He was the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations two years ago and has also written for “The New Yorker,” among other publications.
So who is Yahya Abu Hassan in simple English? According to Wood, he is John Georgelas, a military brat, a drug enthusiast, a precocious underachiever born in Texas.
Wood’s narrative is an exhaustive look at what the Islamic State’s "true believers" think, after two years of conversation with them across the globe – from Cairo to London. As an investigator, Woods was understanding but unyielding in his opposition to them. He described these men and women not as psychopathic automata – indeed “they were often smart, at times even gentle and well-mannered … the cognitive dissonance still jars me,” he writes. “These are intelligent people with the most wicked beliefs.’”
Wood also documents the beliefs of the dangerous characters that make up the Islamic State. Its leaders know the Quran and the Sayings of the Prophet. Keep in mind that peaceable Muslims, the huge, overwhelming majority, don’t agree with “Daesh”, “ISIS”, or “The Un-Islamic State.” But in a world where so few can be sent out to kill so many with bombs and trucks, this hardly seems a difference that makes a difference anymore.
One ISIS supporter told Wood, “As long as you’re talking about that (the various names of the group),” he said – “and not about theology, politics, or military operations – we know you’re not taking us seriously.”
“The way of strangers” is a phrase taken from a Muslim holy book, the Sahih Muslim, one of the Kkutub al-Sittah in Sunni Islam. It is by Muslim ibn al-Hajjah. The full quote goes like this: “Abu Hurariri reported, ‘The Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him,’ and said, “Islam began as something strange and it will return to being strange, so blessed are the strangers.”
(Having read this last paragraph, you can see that it is important to acquire a bit of Arabic, something that The Islamic State doesn’t want you to pursue.)
Dennis Ross, former U.S. Envoy to the Middle East, makes an important point about Graeme Wood’s abilities and intent in “The Way of Strangers”: "Wood knows what he is talking about; if you want to read in one place a discourse on the competing branches of Islam, an explanation of its different legal schools, a dictionary of its essential terms, why Sunnis see Shia as having "left the faith," and how Salafi and Sufi Muslims differ, this is your book. But that is not the reason to read it — and that is certainly not why Wood wrote it.”
Wood wants to show the celestial importance that the conquering of Mosul on June 10, 2014, ISIS – with a force of between 500 and 1,000 men, took on among jihadists. He notes that the population of the city, mostly Sunni Arab, greeted ISIS’s Sunni fighters with trepidation, then terrified acquiescence. ISIS imposed Shariah law. An attempt to take back the city is in motion now.
But dedicated scholars of jihad saw more in the conquering of Mosul. It was not to them a local victory. Wood writes, “they insisted that ISIS’s ascent was an event of world-historical import … the entire cosmos was in play. They suggested that ISIS was fulfilling prophecy; that it was resurrecting law and forms of government that lay dormant for more than a thousand years; and that it would continue to vanquish the enemies of Islam until Jesus himself returned as a Muslim warrior to slay the Anti-Christ.”
Does this caliphate of the imagination sound crazy to you? It does to me. But it doesn’t to hard-core jihadist Muslims. It evokes, according to Wood, a collective memory of an imagined Islamic past – the courts of Baghdad, the Arabian Nights, scientific and philosophical triumphs like the invention of algebra and the first theories of optics.
Wood keeps things in perspective, noting that “Every generation of Christians and Muslims yields up its crop of madmen and howlers at the moon, and they always spook the rationalists of their eras.” But here is where rationalists’ capacities to deal with such crazy ideas go off the tracks. One adherent wrote Wood afterward, “The enemies of the Muslims may be aware of what Muslims are planning, but won’t benefit them at all as they prefer to either keep their heads in the sand, or to fight their imaginary war based upon rational freedom-loving democrats vs. irrational evil terrorist madmen … We know that those in charge will ignore [you] and screw things up anyway.”
How do you cope with people who believe this jihadist philosophy? They really want to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, and they mean it.
Wood gives some examples of ostensibly sensible people who swallowed the Kool-Aid.
- “The letters they send home combine quiet dignity with complete moral insanity. In May of 2015, twelve members of the Mannan family of Luton, England, traveled to Raqqah, Syria, the de fact capital of the Islamic State. They ranged from age 1 to 75 and wrote to friends, “Don’t be shocked when we say none of us were forced against our will … they wanted a land that has established the Shariah, where Muslims don’t feel oppression."
- In June 2015, an Australian doctor, Tareq Kamleh, appeared in an Islamic State video extolling the health system in Raqqah, Syria. Australia health officials wrote him, suggesting that he had violated his medical license with this ethical breach. Dr. Kamleh wrote them back saying the Aussies had more blood on their hands than ISIS “on their knives.”
- In December 2014, Woods says he got answers from “one of the most prolific of the Islamic State’s defenders, Musa Cerantonio, a 32-year-old convert from Catholicism. “His lectures, essays, and translations litter the jihadi Internet: and make him one of the key on-line influences.”
- Yahya, a prolific Islamic State polemicist mentioned at the top of the review, was born John Georgelas, in Plano, Texas. His father, a doctor and grandfather served in the U.S. military and his grandfather on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Yahya was Greek Orthodox, and converted after 9/11. He had a talent for languages, mastered Arabic, and found his calling in studying Islam and then being attracted to its most extreme, intolerant form. Today, he is known as Raqqa, the voice of the Islamic State in English.
There is a huge dissonance between two worlds at war with each other here. Woods quotes Matthew Arnold on the futility of this point, who wrote, “wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.”
Woods concludes his important work not positively but realistically, writing, “This impasse, already fatal to too many, will have grave consequences for decades.”
Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News. After a government career that included serving as senior adviser to the U. S. Treasury Under Secretary for Enforcement, Langan served as the U.S. senior expert with the United Nations Monitoring Group dealing with al Qaeda and Taliban issues.