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Book Review: "The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State"

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A look inside ISIS
A look inside ISIS
(Image by Graeme Wood)
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[Review of Graeme Wood, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, Random House, 2016]

Wood is the most prominent media star exposing ISIS today. A Yale professor, Council of Foreign Relations guru, his articles on ISIS have appeared in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and on and on. He has an ambitious agenda, instructing the lay reader in Islamic theology and jurisprudence as he travels from one leading ISIS supporter or fellow traveller to another around the world. While providing a wealth of detail, his American slant, almost entirely overlooking the US as the chief culprit in abetting terrorism, is evident. But his book is worth reading, giving the reader a window into the people behind ISIS. None of them are monsters, but all of them challenge Muslims to better understand Islam and Islamic history.

Wood poses throughout his research as a possible convert to Islam and apparently fools one and all. This deception he would no doubt rationalize using a quote from the Quran about lying being okay in a time of war (taqiyya 4:29), but he used it in Egypt merely to string along a modest tailor, Hesham, who was sincerely trying to convert Wood, and believed Wood was genuine. This gave him otherwise forbidden access to Hesham's personal life, ridiculing him in the account. Others Wood interviewed were not so naive, but politely answered his questions, though his agenda was seen for what it is: a report for use by western academics, media and security forces to better 'fight the beast'.

Some of his interviews are revealing and colourful. He met multiple times with larger-than-life Muslims based in the West, both pro-ISIS and anti-ISIS activists and theorists. His professionalism as a researcher and writer produced a good overview of the different movements and actors in western radical Islamic circles, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other al-Qaeda factions, and their visions of revolution and apocalypse. He interviews leading western Muslim scholars and activists, mostly American converts, including the Sufi Yusuf Hamza, the Salafi Yasir Qadhi for their critical analysis of ISIS (they are both targeted as apostates by ISIS), and Yahya Michot, who lies somewhere in between.


Musa (Robert) Cerantonio, an ISIS supporter, converted in the 1990s, and saw his Australian imam as suddenly co-opted after 9/11, declaring Islamic marriage invalid, denouncing ISIS and promoting patriotism and secular democracy. In disgust, Musa stopped going to the mosque and eventually went to work for Iqraa cable TV in their Egypt office, returned to Australia and then moved to Philippines, hoping to help establish a caliphate in the southern area populated by Muslims. He faults Osama Bin Laden for thinking that one could just attack the West and things will fall into place; with no clear plan for building an Islamic State. ISIS originally focused on building a state, but when it began suffering defeats in Syria and Iraq, it started encouraging attacks abroad like the 2015 Paris massacre.

Yahya (Ioannis) Georgelas, the most brilliant figure, both as theorist and activist, is now somewhere in Syria, alive or dead. He converted in November 2001, went to Damascus where he quickly mastered Arabic, then moved between Texas, London and eventually returned to Syria, leaving behind his wife Tania and four children (now being raised by his Christian parents). He has been the official spokesman for ISIS in broadcasts and on the internet. Woods couldn't interview him, as he didn't dare go to Syria, but he interviewed Yahya's parents and wife in Texas.

Anjem Chaudary is the most famous Islamic State supporter in Britain, founder of Muharijun, but is considered by many a clown, appearing on Fox TV as a foil, though authorities link Muharijun to 23 of 51 recent terrorist events in Britain, including the 2005 London subway bombing, which killed 52. Choudary was sentenced to five and a half years in September, 2006 for publicly supporting ISIS.


The Sufi Yusuf Hamza (Mark Hanson), president of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, advised George Bush on Afghanistan after the invasion, and is the most mainstream of Muslim scholars in the US. He insists that ISIS is Muslim, but their militancy has little to do with genuine Islam; rather it is misguided, ideological and politicized. Wood agrees that "excommunicating them because you disagree with their version of Islam is to concede the match. After all, takfir is the official sport of the Islamic State, and if you practice it, you become one of them." Hamza agrees that war is a component of jihad, but "is the prerogative of a valid state. To declare jihad is a legal ruling that pertains only to political authority. You cannot have vigilante justice."

The Salafi Yasir Qadhi, lecturer at Rhodes College in Memphis, compares ISIS to the Kharijites, who precipitated a wave of killing and eventual schism in 657 through the murder of Ali and Hussein. Qadhi greeted Wood "icily", complaining of Wood's insistence that ISIS is Islamic. "They are Muslim," but defy teachings at the core of the religion, including injunctions to show mercy, the historical and legal traditions designed to prevent the very excesses the Islamic State revels in." He is the only interlocutor who emphasizes the real root of the problem: the sins of the US government, not just its foreign policy but its prison system, its militaristic culture, its drone strikes and its failure to remove money from the political process. Wood seems oblivious but Qadhi makes his point.

Yahya (Jean) Michot, professor of Islamic theology at Hartford Seminary, is another moderate Salafi, who has devoted his life to the study of the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah, constantly quoted by Salafi, the Saudi Wahhabi, and generally considered the inspiration behind modern political Islam. He argues that Ibn Taymiyyah has been misused. Some of his arguments:

*Ibn Taymiyya despised idolatry but left individual idolaters off the hook. "The Shia were the hippies of his time. They weren't following any religious prescriptions or social conventions. and he did indeed say they were nonbelievers." But rather than condemning them directly, he claimed the disease of nonbelief was best treated systemically, rather than through individual takfir (excommunication). "Many people may be growing up in places and times in which many of the sciences of prophethood have faded. Such people shall not be accused on unbelief."

*A hadith tells of a man who never did a good deed and told his family to burn his body and scatter the ashes to disassemble his corpse beyond God's ability to reconstruct and punish it. God forgives the man, because the cause of his blasphemy was fear of God. God dispenses mercy freely, if unpredictably, and accusations of unbelief should be made with great caution.

*Ibn Taymiyyah condemned the Mongols even when they claimed to be Muslims, and urged Muslims to resist them. But he never called for armed rebellion against his Mameluke rulers. So the assassination of Sadat and targeting of Saudi and other leaders by ISIS cannot be supported by Taymiyya. Bin Laden never called for the overthrow of the Saudi leaders, only asking them to submit their resignation. He considered the Americans to be the modern Mongols (for Cerantonio, it is the Ottomans/ Turks).

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Eric writes for Al-Ahram Weekly and PressTV. He specializes in Russian and Eurasian affairs. His "Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games", "From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization" and "Canada (more...)

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