Graeme Wood’s The Way Of The Strangers

In the short interim between my completion of Graeme Wood’s The Way Of The Strangers, one journalist’s account of his encounters with ISIS members and sympathizers and the belief system that informs their worldview, and my beginning this blog post, France has once again been rocked by a string of terrorist attacks, chief among them the beheading of a teacher, Samuel Paty, for the “crime” of defending free expression – including the cartoon depictions of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. The perpetrator of that beheading, Abdoullah Abouyedovich Anzorov, expressed support for ISIS across social media, as well as the hope that he would be accepted as a “shahid” (martyr) for his actions. And in a pattern that has been depressingly familiar in these gruesome attacks throughout the world, Anzorov followed up his murderous act by taking a photograph of Paty’s severed head and sharing it to Twitter, along with a foreboding message: “In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful …. to Macron, leader of the infidels, I executed one of your hellhounds who dared to belittle Muhammad, calm his fellow human beings before a harsh punishment is inflicted on you.” A curious public, long fed up with being cowed into fear and silence in their own lands, might well wonder what frightening ideology motivates this kind of murderous hatred, and how it seems to easily cross borders, languages and cultures, infecting men and women in far off lands and inspiring them to fight a holy war against an unsuspecting public.

Graeme Wood, an investigative journalist turned Yale poli-sci lecturer, spent years interviewing ISIS members and sympathizers from across the world: a fire-and-brimstone preacher in London; a Texas-born computer whiz, a convert to Islam from Catholicism, who becomes proficient in classical Arabic and proselytizes for the Islamic State, first online and later in Raqqah; an Egyptian tailor, who once made suits for Paul Newman, now acting as an intermediary for Westerners aspiring to take up arms for the cause in Syria; and an Australian recreational soccer league, where young Australians learn the finer points of fundamentalist theology between footie sessions. The sheer variety of these people testifies to the magnetic power of ISIS, and part of Wood’s aim with this book is to dash the optimistic but foolish idea that the tens of thousands of Westerns who voluntarily flew half-way across the world have been duped or kidnapped. Rather, they have felt a powerful summons, and violence – the opportunity to fight and die for a cause they believe in – is a fundamental aspect of that appeal.

The letters they send home combine quiet dignity with complete moral insanity. In May 2015, twelve members of the Mannan family of Luton, England, traveled together to Raqqah, Syria, the de facto capital of the Islamic State. They ranged in age from one to seventy-five, and an open letter from the family rebuked anyone who suspected they had been tricked into going. “Don’t be shocked when we say that none of us were forced against our will,” they wrote. “It is outrageous to think that an entire family could be kidnapped and made to migrate like this.” They had made their journey “by the command of the Khalifah [caliph] of the Muslims.” And they found what they wanted – “a land that has established the Shariah, in which a Muslim doesn’t feel oppression […], in which a parent doesn’t feel the worry of losing their child to the immorality of society […], in which the sick and the elderly do not wait in agony.”

It’s worth dwelling, for a moment, on that phrase “complete moral insanity,” for despite the publicity ISIS has received, the specifics of their crimes are often glossed over. To begin with, when ISIS carries out punishments, they do so publicly, in full view of their communities, and often in the presence of cameras. This isn’t merely a PR move (though, perversely, it is also that) but a matter of adherence to Koranic law: “Let a party of the Believers witness their punishment.” The darker corners of the Internet are now littered with scenes of ISIS beheading infidels, stoning adulterous women, and throwing “sodomites” off of tall buildings (one of the Hadiths mandates that sodomites be “thrown headlong from the highest summit”). But the moral insanity doesn’t stop there. It often transpires that ISIS conducts these punishments against their fellow Muslims, for some cardinal sin against the faith, and these poor souls, facing a gruesome death, nonetheless welcome their suffering. One of Wood’s interviewees explains:

Musa said the punishments purge criminals of their sin and allow them to meet God with a clean record. “You may have seen images from the Dawha,” he said, “of people who looked happy to be receiving their punishment.” What he said was true: some victims are smiling. In what strikes many outsiders as the sickest of scenes from the Islamic State, condemned sodomites are hugged and congratulated by their executioners as they are led to their deaths. Blindfolded, the victims are marched up to the roof of a tall building and pushed off the edge. They, Musa would say, are truly blessed: they spare themselves worse punishment in the afterlife, having paid the price for their crime in this one. And they go to God as Muslims, with the last words on their lips praise for their creator.

Needless to say, that level of religious conviction isn’t just foreign to much of the secular West, but incomprehensible.

The Way Of The Strangers is thus a necessary corrective to Western minds eager to rationalize away or reinterpret the stated aims and motivations of ISIS and its sympathizers. Bypassing the opinions of the bien pensants, Wood does the uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous work of taking his interlocutors seriously, allowing them to present their beliefs unfiltered, often in the hope of seducing him into the cause. In practice, that meant endless hours listening to the punishments awaiting unbelievers (which, by the lights of ISIS, includes most practicing Muslims), the rewards of death in service to the cause, and lengthy disquisitions on the ethics of sexual slavery – another ISIS specialty. The inevitable conclusion he draws is that the enemy we face is not a people but an idea, and like all ideas, it is impervious to bullets. Traditional warfare will not work. The enemy we face has chosen a battlefield we have long since retreated from.