Reviewing Graeme Wood’s 'The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with Islamic State'

Ruari Clark

Graeme Wood’s book The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with Islamic State has not yet been received with much fanfare on this side of the Atlantic. Which is odd, because reading it one has the sense that it is a book that ought to be essential reading. It is the latest book which attempts to enter the mind of the Islamic State and should be read by anybody with an interest in Middle Eastern politics. Moments of high drama are interceded with bizarre encounters with strange individuals who nevertheless pose a considerable threat to European and international security. It is the kind of book you imagine being approvingly shared between journalists, knowingly passed around Whitehall corridors, and helpfully given to government ministers. Described as ‘indispensable and gripping’ by Niall Ferguson and positively reviewed by David Aaronovitch, Way of the Strangers should be receiving a lot of attention. It is therefore surprising that it was only recently that Wood was interviewed by The Times.

Any delayed reaction to the book’s publication is probably due to Brexit and Trump dominating the vast majority of media attention. Despite occasional newsflashes from Syria and rather hysterical warnings about the Russian ‘threat’, British Middle Eastern policy is no longer an active concern for most people. This means that a book about ISIS, even one as good as this, will have to be lucky if it is to gain wide media attention. To see how luck can play a part in the success of books one merely has to look at J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which was published at the same time as Trump’s rise to power and so has become the book commentators use to explain that rise.

But it also might be something to do with the book’s central message. Which is this: that, contrary to much of what is publicly said by politicians, the Islamic State is Islamic. This sounds simple enough, and it probably is, but it doesn’t sit well with much received opinion, David Cameron and Barack Obama have both claimed that ISIS is not Islamic. Similar statements have been made by almost all politicians in the Western world. This is understandable, since politicians do not, of course, want to appear to be attacking all Muslims. But, as Wood forcibly points out, it is not true. Indeed, as Way of the Strangers makes clear, there is a grim and hard to deny Islamic logic in much ISIS propaganda and violence. As Wood has said in an interview with NPR, “ISIS has looked into Islamic history with historical accuracy, with intellectual rigour.” This is difficulty for moderate Muslims to accept, and Wood’s work has tended to receive much criticism from those Muslims who are attempting to challenge the theological justifications used by ISIS, but it doesn’t make it any less true.  

It is Wood’s ability to engage seriously with the ideology of the Islamic State that is the most valuable part of the book. Like his original Atlantic piece on which Way of the Strangers is based, Wood has gone around the globe interviewing various supporters of ISIS. From Egypt, to Australia, America and then to London, he is on the trail of those who advocate the creation of a Caliphate through violence. Engaging in conversations with figures like Musa Cerantonio, an Australian supporter of ISIS. In the West ISIS has been able to find a significant number of such converts. Why young men from respectable families (like the American son of a retired soldier) should want to join ISIS is only hinted at by Wood. Though it seems to me that behind many scholarly defences of ISIS is a narcissism and the arrogance of stilted youth. Certain statements bring to mind the kind of teenager who enjoys getting into arcane arguments on the internet (where much of this kind of debate does take place).

Just as interesting – though less bizarre and more frightening – is what Wood reveals about the real players within the Islamic State. Men like al-Zarqawi and al-Baghdadi. These are thinkers who are part of a tradition which in its modern incarnation dates back since the middle of the century. But which is inspired by Wahhabi variants of Islam and has been compared to other sects from as far back as the 8th century. That such a variety of sources and traditions are used by supporters of ISIS demonstrates the difficulty moderate Muslims will have when denying the Islamic nature of their ideology. Their ideology of violence is well thought out and, some say, must be continually carried out if the leaders of the Caliphate are not to remove themselves from their own version of Islam.

Yet most importantly Wood argues that mistaking the Islamic nature of the Islamic State might also be dangerous, since by misunderstanding the nature of ISIS we are unable to find solutions. He writes that ‘pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.’ It is hard to look at such violence without merely recoiling, or denying the nature of its existence, but it is not helpful. Perhaps disappointingly, though perhaps inevitably, Wood himself does not offer any hard and fast policy prescriptions. However, he does say that a military defeat of ISIS would perhaps be a fatal undermining of its necessary claim to statehood, which suggests that a military solution is necessary. Though of course this would not ‘drain the swamp’ completely. This means that Wood is able to avoid the mistake made by many foreign policy commentators of providing ‘solutions’ to various Middle Eastern ‘problems’ which often reveal little more than the ignorance of the commentator.

At the beginning of this review I said it felt like the kind of book that might find its way around various corridors of power and influence. The problem, of course, is that such books do not appear to be required reading amongst those who direct foreign policy. Or, if they are, the perceived requirements of a narrowly defined domestic policy trumps all other considerations, leading politicians to make bland statements which fail to capture the truth. Way of the Strangers at least allows the proper questions to be asked and the most fruitful conversations to be had. Until these things are done, then no serious solutions to the threat of ISIS will be found.