The Way Of The Strangers: Encounters With The Islamic State by Graeme Wood

The Blurb On The Back:

Graeme Wood’s The Way Of Strangers is a riveting, intimate journey into the minds of the Islamic State’s true believers, one which up-ends our understanding of their psychology, character and aims.

From the streets of Cairo to the mosques of London to the suburbs of Melbourne, Wood, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, interviews supporters, recruiters and sympathisers of the world’s most infamous jihadist group.  We meet an Egyptian tailor who once made bespoke suits for Paul Newman and now wants to live under Sharia; a garrulous Australian convert who translates the group’s sermons and threats into English; and a self-taught Muslim cleric who is now determined to see America, the nation of his birth, drenched in blood.  Drawing on insights from a wide spectrum of Islamic scholars, Wood explores the group’s apocalyptic dogma and the theology that influences its expansionist project.

The Islamic State is bent on murder and apocalypse, but its recruits find meaning and fellowship in a utopian dream.  This appeal of the Islamic State is key to understanding it – and predicting what its followers will do next.

With on-the-ground reporting, vivid character studies and clear-eyed analysis, The Way of Strangers uncovers a movement that has inspired tens of thousands of people to abandon or uproot their families.  It will shape how we see a new generation of terrorists.  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Graeme Wood writes for The Atlantic and is a political science lecturer at Yale University and in this book he interviews a number of Islamic State supporters, recruiters, sympathisers and promoters, setting his discussions and research against the theological background to and political rise of the organisation and its methods of recruitment in a fascinating but disturbing read that gives real insights into the group and its thinking.

Wood has clearly done a lot of research and his discussions with Australian convert Musa Cerantonio, Hesham Elashy (an Egyptian tailor who once made suits for Paul Newman), Anjem Choudary (the notorious British face of militant Islamism) and Hassan Ko Nakata (a Japanese convert who travelled to Islamic State territory) are fascinating and frightening as Wood gently prises open the hopes, fears and contradictions within each man and how their faith links them to Islamic State while also making sure to point out the small details that make them human.  There is no doubt that the men genuinely hold true to an extremist view of Islam but what’s truly frightening is that there are arguments that suggest the Koran can be used to support their repugnant views and Wood raises the reluctance and difficulties faced by other Islamic scholars (including those who themselves hold strongly conservative interpretations) to challenge the Islamic State’s theological arguments.

Where the book was less successful for me was in Wood’s account of the background of Yahya Abu Hassan (an American convert born to a solidly American family who became a jihadi) mainly because the story comes very much from other sources rather than direct interview with the man himself and although Wood does talk to his parents, he doesn’t seem to have been able to make contact with his wife (a fellow Jihadi who became disillusioned with life in Islamic State and returned to the US) to discover her views.  In fact, this is a very male look at Islamic State and although Wood does mention his encounter with a woman who had fallen in with Islamists and wanted to escape and Yahya’s wife, I would have been interested to know what draws women to the cause and to that interpretation of Islam given that it’s so repressive of them.

That said, this book did keep me fascinated from beginning to end and I think that if you have any interest in trying to understand what draws people to Islamist causes, then this is a really informative read.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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