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The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State Hardcover – December 20, 2016
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“Masterful.”—The New York Review of Books
“[Graeme Wood] shows, convincingly, that the stifling and abhorrent practices of the Islamic State are rooted in Islam itself—not mainstream Islam, but in scriptures and practices that have persisted for centuries. . . . The Islamic State, such as it is, is a dangerous place, and Wood’s book amounts to a tour around its far edges.”—Dexter Filkins, The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)
“Worthy of Joseph Conrad . . . In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, [Wood’s] book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. . . . Gripping, sobering and revelatory.”—New Statesman (UK)
“The best way to defeat the Islamic State is to understand it. And to do that, the best place to start is [The Way of the Strangers]. . . . A series of gripping, fascinating portraits. . . . Wood has the talented journalist’s skill for interview and observation. He’s an astute psychologist and a good writer to boot. . . . It’s a great read. But more importantly, Wood’s book reveals truths about ISIS that are hiding in plain sight—but that our leaders make themselves willfully ignorant of. They ought to read his book, too.”—The Week
“Indispensable and gripping . . . From Mosul to Melbourne, from Cairo to Tokyo, from London to Oslo, from Connecticut to California, Graeme Wood’s quest to understand the Islamic State is a round-the-world journey to the end of the night. As individuals, the men he encounters are misfits, even losers. But their millenarian Islamist ideology makes them the most dangerous people on the planet.”—Niall Ferguson, senior fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, author of The War of the World
“Over the course of its short life, the Islamic State has inspired millions, thousands of whom have rallied to its cause in search of a glorious death. But why? Are its devotees nothing more than sadists and two-bit mafiosi for whom religion is a fig leaf and who will fade away in the face of military defeat? In this essential book, Graeme Wood draws on more than a decade of reporting to demolish these and other comforting deceptions. The Islamic State’s devotees are true believers indeed, and their nightmarish vision will haunt our world for decades to come, regardless of what happens on the battlefield.”—Reihan Salam, executive editor, National Review
“Graeme Wood is America’s foremost interpreter of ISIS as a world-historical phenomenon. In The Way of the Strangers, he has given us the definitive work to date on the origins, plans, and meaning of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization. Wood is a fearless, relentlessly curious, and magnetically interesting writer who takes us on an intellectual and theological journey to the darkest places on the planet, yet he manages to do this without despairing for our collective future. This book is a triumph of journalism.”—Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief, The Atlantic
“With coolheaded sensitivity, Graeme Wood pulls together history, religion, and shoe-leather reporting to illuminate what will continue to be one the biggest geopolitical challenges of our time, the rise of the Islamic State.”—Admiral James Stavridis, USN, supreme allied commander at NATO; dean emeritus, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University; operating executive, the Carlyle Group; chair of the board of counselors, McLarty Associates
“The Obama administration insisted that ISIS had nothing to do with Islam, and Trump and his advisers say that Islam hates us. There had to be something between these two erroneous extremes, and that something is the scholarship in Graeme Wood’s The Way of the Strangers. It is a balanced account of how terrorists, while in no way representing all of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, take strength from some authentic Islamic narratives. ISIS is down but not yet out. It’s time we understood them.”—Michael Hayden, former CIA director
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‘Cause let’s face it – who really gets IS anyway? Even to an educated audience, they seem like a jumble of names (ISIS? ISIL? Da’esh? different from Al Qaeda?), leaders, factions and philosophies falling somewhere between incoherence and chaos. How did they come about? Are these guys even Muslim? What’s up with the beheadings, amputations, and sex slavery? What compels so many seemingly nice young men to leave everything behind and join them in Syria? And why are they so damn mean? “The Way of the Strangers” places IS in an historical, religious, geographic and ideological context so by the end of it we can all say, “Aahh, *now* I get it.”
First of all, IS is definitely Muslim, even though most Muslim scholars and laymen hate to admit it. Wood shows how IS goes out of its way to justify its odious behavior with Muslim scripture. Its interpretations may be capricious and biased towards bloodthirsty nihilism, but they’re not coming out of thin air.
I particularly appreciated Wood’s taxonomy of the various interrelated Islamist movements. He does a great job of tracing the IS ideology back to its sources, showing the fault lines that cause communion and clash amongst the extremist factions. The descriptions are precise; never again will you conflate Wahhabis, Salafis and Dhahiris at a cocktail party.
Where the book really shines is in Wood’s encounters with flesh-and-blood IS devotees, many of them converts. Musa (born Robert) Cerantonio the Australian; Hesham Elashry, the Egyptian tailor; Hassan Ko Nakata, the mild-mannered Japanese academic; “The Avenger” (really); and the family of the gnomic Yahya Abu Hassan, who grew up a mere 20min away from Wood’s own childhood Dallas home.
Through these characters – mentally nimble but ideologically pigheaded, hospitable in manner but advocating brutish violence – you come to appreciate the internal logic of IS, and how a token bookish, socially awkward young man could get drawn into its certainties. You also apprehend the incredible darkness of it all.
Even as they try to invest IS with a patina of their own Utopian desires, Wood shows the underlying ambivalence and disappointment of the IS adherents he interviews. Unfortunately, “the tragedy is that even those inverted visionaries who live to realize their error will never be able to undo the misery the have inflicted on so many others.”
What’s most remarkable about the book is that it exists all. Wood is apparently fluent in Arabic and conversant in a fistful of other languages, as he goes to Cairo, Tokyo, Oslo, Mindanao (Philippines), Alexandria, London, Dallas and lord knows where else to meet these characters. He’s knowledgeable enough about Islamic history and scripture as to debate, gain the grudging respect and even *befriend* many of these people of odious creed. They pay for his meals and invite him in their homes without even poisoning him once. Maybe they all gave him a pass in hopes of the big prize for converting an atheist. Nevertheless, he probably ended up endangering his life several times to write this book.
Don’t know about you, but if some faction out there hated me and were hell-bent on annihilating me, my civilization and everything I value, I’d like to know more about them. Graeme Wood gives you an authoritative, level-headed peer into the abyss of IS to better understand the origins and intentions of this formidable enemy.
Although probably not the intent I came away feeling sad for these people. They were losers and the forgotten looking for the meaning of life that got manipulated by some shady cats twisting up Islamic thought. As we can see when you add some charlatans and a lost generation you can get some horrific outcomes. I hope we as Christians are paying attention because this could happen to us again as well.
Top international reviews
The only shortcoming of the book is that Wood never manages to get into IS controlled territory. That's hardly a criticism - hardly any western journalist has done so and kept his head on his shoulders.
2 stars as the author costantly pokes personal insults at all he interviews, rather like a teenager trying to win a slanging match. Becomes rather tiring after a while.