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The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State Hardcover – December 20, 2016
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“Readers are taken on a global journey to meet the frothing fans of ISIS. . . . [Graeme] Wood wants to know these people, to get in their skin, to understand how they see the world. Unlike most journalists writing about Islam today, there is no partisan axe to grind here, no hidden agenda to subtly advance. . . . To these troubled men, Islam is not an opiate of the masses; it is a euphoric, reality-bending, and ultimately self-annihilating psychedelic.”—New Republic
“[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
“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
Praise for Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants”
“An intelligent and detailed account of the ideology that animates the Islamic State.”—Fareed Zakaria, CNN, author of The Post-American World
“One of the most important essays this year.”—David Brooks, The New York Times, author of The Road to Character
“Fascinating, terrifying, occasionally blackly humorous.”—Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature
“Mr. Wood’s piece is bracing because it is fearless. . . . It is going to change the debate.”—Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal, author of What I Saw at the Revolution
“A rare, genuine must-read . . . I felt challenged, even provoked, through it all.”—Shadi Hamid, the Brookings Institution, author of Islamic Exceptionalism
About the Author
Graeme Wood is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has written for The New Republic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, The American Scholar, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and many other publications. He was the 2014–2015 Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and he teaches in the political science department at Yale University.
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To begin digesting the origin of ISIS (or Daesh, or ISIL, or Islamic State: choose one), some background on the origins of the two major Islamic sects is in order. These are Suni and Shia Islam. Of course, there are various offshoots too, some of which he introduces and discusses, if necessary. Wood presents the topic in a palatable and interesting fashion and supplies just enough Arabic (in the text and in a "glossary" introductory section) and Islamic theology to permit rudimentary understanding...which is basically all that's needed to grasp the essence of the story.
Wood evidently speaks German, Arabic and other languages. Those are useful skills for the on-the-go journalist visiting the poly-lingual Middle East and are particularly so for ISIS, which sucks in recruits from around the globe. He conducts interviews with a variety of weirdo ISIS acolytes, sympathizers, fellow travelers, adventurers, agitators and nascent miscreants: these are genuinely fascinating. The insights he derives are simultaneously frightening (most of these characters are probably true believers in the Eric Hoffer sense of the term) and provide a useful platform for generalizing the story. Although interviews are by nature anecdotal, Wood carefully integrates nuggets of information/disinformation/propaganda and motives with the overall ISIS saga.
Perhaps Wood's most disputatious claim is that ISIS is -for better or (far more likely) for worse - not some singularly perverted, grotesquely deviant and tangential offshoot of Islam (though it's certainly all but the last of these) but rather the central tenents are part and parcel of the religion. They might be zealously applied, but they're there. He acerbically notes that, unlike in the natural sciences, there is no objective standard of any sort with Islam or any other religion by which "The Truth" can be validated. Wood cites plenty of well-referenced evidence from Islamic texts and the Koran to buttress his claims. Unpalatable as that politically incorrect and difficult to digest observation is, it's incontestable. Wood considers a candid acceptance of this fact a requisite to dealing with the problem. Of course, "dealing with the problem" is a null set at this point and the author avoids prescriptions on solving it.
The writing style is engaging and - following modern fashion - Wood revels in juxtaposing some humorous (and occasionally amusingly crass), snappy and pithy sentence after a windbag Islamist has vented his bilious, revanchist and condemnatory summary of the human situation (all bad except ISIS-derived orthodoxy). For instance, he calls one interview subject "dickish": it's true enough, but unexpected in a book of this type. Regardless, reader interest snaps sharply back into focus when a comment of this sort unexpectedly appears.
All told, this is one of the most interesting and engaging books of any sort I've chanced upon during the last several years. It's certainly the single best and most approachable history of the schism between Sunni and Shiite. It's also the best platform for understanding the execrable and violent ISIS movement. One thing Wood wants the reader to understand as the last page is turned: this isn't over and it certainly will not end either soon or well. It may be Islam's equivalent of the Thirty Years War.
The beginning of the book gives us historical background that explains the rise of the Islamic State and also their perspective. Since most Westerners are not necessarily well verse with Islam and radical Islam Wood’s discussion is helpful. But it is the main part of the book that features various personalities who support ISIS that is the most captivating. We see “evangelists” for the Islamic State trying to convert the author. At times we also see them explaining the people in the book being suspicious of the author as an outsider but opening up to what they believe and why they believe what they believe. Of course the author did not go to the Islamic State for these interviews but the bulk of the people interviewed are those who defend and advocate for the Islamic State. Though the author did not enter the Islamic State nevertheless he traveled quite a bit for the research of this book ranging from New York, Egypt, London, etc. While many people know of ISIS through their slick and dark internet propaganda videos nevertheless from this book we discover that the kind of men ISIS draws from also have their own quirkiness. I thought the “evangelist” who tried to convince the author to become a Muslim was quite memorable; the author certainly writes with a great sense of humor and insight of these guys’ personality but lest we think this is just fun and games and ISIS and their ilk are not that evil but it is all a big misunderstanding this “evangelist” has a dark side when the author noticed that one of the women that was at the man’s house looks like she was distressed. It turned out that under the veil was a Japanese woman who didn’t wanted to be there and wanted to leave which the author later helped escaped. That was a moment in the book that made me realize that radical Islam’s theology has consequences in terms of how they treat women within their own faith. The book’s inside look at the radical Anjem Choudary is equally memorable. Choudary is infamous for his wild interviews with the media stating all sort of outlandish and extremists things. Here in the book we also see that there is many side to this man and again also his quirkiness and inconsistencies. The author challenged him why was he still in England and haven’t gone to the Islamic State yet and the author’s theory is that guys like Choudary isn’t willing to leave the good things in the UK behind for an Islamic State that they are not ready to fully embrace. While there might be something to the author’s opinion, nevertheless we must not forget that these men and their influences are dangerous.
Overall an insightful read; however if there is one thing I must say critically of this book is that the author unnecessarily attack Christianity even when his discussion didn’t warrant a tangent to Christianity. For instance in talking about an American member of the Islamic State the author noted that the man has a wife and child that is living with his parents. His parents are not Muslims but are Conservative Christians with the father being a military man himself. It was weird that the author had to talk about how the guy was going to also raise up his grandson under Republicanism as if being a Christian Conservative or a Republican is equivalent of being a radical Muslim.