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The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State Hardcover – 20 Dec 2016
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Gripping, sobering and revelatory ... Unrivalled (Tom Holland New Statesman)
[A] hugely important book ... Indispensable (David Aaronovitch The Times)
Fascinating ... Highly readable ... The western military with its superior firepower can bomb Isis out of existence in Raqqa and Mosul as much as it likes, but we won't destroy the ideology if we don't understand what it is. This book goes a long way towards filling that gap (Christina Lamb Sunday Times)
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, and yet he manages to do this without despairing for our collective future. This book is a triumph of journalism. (Jeffrey Goldberg, Editor in Chief Atlantic)
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)
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 over 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)
From the Inside Flap
Based on his extensive time reporting throughout the region, and his unprecedented access to ISIS recruiters and supporters, Wood explores how the Islamic State's apocalyptic worldview informs their global media strategy, solidifies their authority, and dictates their geographically precise battle-plan. By accepting that ISIS is, at heart, an apocalyptic religious movement that truly believes the end is nigh, we can understand their strategy -- and predict what they will do next.See all Product description
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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.
He finds a twilight world of former Christians, intellectual Islamists and idealistic twenty-somethings impatient for the apocalypse, as promised by the social media networks of twitter and youtube. Attracted by fundamentalism and a dissatisfaction with the conservative and – to them – revisionism of the middle-class Sunni/Shiite Muslims, the IS Sunni fundamentalist revert back to the literal writings of the Qu ‘ran and the ‘Companions of Muhammad’, whilst rejecting the scholastic traditions handed down over the ages.
We meet Musa Cerantonio, born into an Italian Catholic family, who lives in Australia and commutes between there and the South Philippines. Although a fundamentalist, he somehow has never got around to making his way to Syria – Wood notes dryly - as required by caliphate law. He is highly learned, speaks Arabic fluently and has a deep understanding of the Qu ‘ran. Banned from almost every mosque in his home town, and on charges of supporting an illegal regime, Musa soon found himself as a guru who could translate ISIS propaganda into English and interpret the Qu ‘ran.
Then there’s Yahya the American, from Texas, from a military upper-middle class home, whose conservative Cypriot-descent parents have little idea how deeply involved their rebellious son is in the ISIS order, working as an English language translator, churning out recruitment material for the cause.
Wood isn’t so foolhardy to step foot in Syria itself, given the fate of many a foreign journalist or aid worker there who are rich propaganda material for the jihadists. However, he travels as far as Cairo and acquaints himself with Hesham, once a tailor in New Jersey, now operating in the back streets of Alexandria, who explains the various upheavals in Egypt and the Islamist scholars behind the rise of the Islamic State.
Wood writes in an investigative journalist style, in direct plain English. Whilst never losing his objectivity and scepticism, he yet never crosses the line into disrespect for other’s beliefs, although once or twice he does come close to looking down on ‘the little man, with his hypocritical beliefs,' so passionate is he about the injustice of the IS atrocities. Wood writes in a way that reveals the subjects of his investigations as fully rounded and even endearing (in some ways; for example, Musa, with his Monty Python memorabilia) which makes what they advocate via social media and the IS propaganda channels all the more chilling. The message is, the ISIS are ordinary people, like Musa, Yahya, or Hesham.
The reader comes away from this absorbing and fascinating book with a good understanding of the various factions of Islam and the philosophy behind ISIS. The names and theories of fundamentalist Islamists scholar such as Wahhabi, Zarqawi, Maqdisi and the 'brains' behind ISIS in Syria - Baghdadi - are discussed.
Wood explains the Islamist apocalypse theory and how ISIS’ strategy is to bring it about by following the prophecies in the Qu ‘ran. For example, seizing the town of Dabiq and inviting the infidels (Russia, USA, Turkey, etc.) to come and do battle with it. We come away understanding why there is a battle for Mosul, and why young radicalised Muslims from the UK and Europe are flocking to join ISIS. It’s almost as though it is a re-run of the romantic aspirations of those who flocked to join the Spanish Civil War in the 30’s. To the rest of us, the barbarity and atrociousness of the group is incomprehensible. Wood makes sense of it for us.
All in all, a brilliant book. Often a book with a good subject matter will falter two-thirds of the way through, but Wood keeps up the pace and interesting detail right up to the very last page.
Wood is clearly highly qualified in his field. However, his intellectual learning and his obviously enormous research into the topic, never gets in the way of a good direct narrative free from turgidity and academic jargon.
Wood is clearly a god writer, but it is not just his worldview that you are drawn into, because he has clearly done a lot of first hand research. Initially, he sets the scene - this book is not about Islam, but rather Islamic State. Wood defines terms and sets I.S. in an historical perspective.
Then Wood proceeds to share what he has learned, often through recounting conversations with Muslims who have tried to convert him. He gives insight into the fundamental beliefs that drive this branch of Islam and tries to help you see their point of view (without agreeing with or endorsing it). He even goes into some depth on their eschatology (doctrine of 'end-times'). As you follow the book through, which although it consists of 317 pages, you will find yourself absorbed by it, you will find that the author sees these people as sick romantics.
This book is a powerful view of Islamic State to the uninitiated, and I commend its good research and the excellent storytelling skills of the author!
I was disappointed that the book didn't really seem to bounce off the page. I expected it to bring to life personal histories as a way of giving insights into the rise of a global phenomenon - as Ben Judah did brilliantly in This is London: Life and Death in the World City. Graeme Wood seems to have the credentials and experience to have done this - he's had the kind of access to Islamic State-affiliated people that newspaper reporters don't always have - but unfortunately he too often retreats to an academic retelling of history, and his character studies feel dusty and two-dimensional rather than vivid and nuanced.
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Graeme Wood is a very good writer, himseld an expert in modern jihadism who certainly has done all the background needed to write a,...Read more
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