In The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, journalist Graeme Wood aligns himself with the Orientalist tradition of Bernard Lewis, who warned liberal students against projecting secular frameworks on contemporary Muslim politics. Lewis believed religion, not secular grievance, was the prime motivator of this politics.
This may or may not be true. In any case, the argument has limited explanatory power. It doesn’t explain why Islamism is more in vogue today than in the 1960s, for instance, or why contemporary extremists are destroying the ancient temples that previous generations left unharmed.
Does scripture account for ISIL’s crimes? It’s a fact that early Muslim rulers took slaves as war booty. The overwhelming majority of contemporary scholars, considering custom (’urf) and public interest (maslaha) as well as learnt precedent, nevertheless see slavery as obsolete, no more relevant to modern warfare than bows and arrows. But ISIL, ignoring these considerations, has proudly revived the practice.
Wood rightly expresses exasperation with Muslim scholars who claim that ISIL’s behaviour has “nothing to do with Islam”. It would be equally wrong to claim that American slavery had nothing to do with Christianity (see, for example, 1 Peter 2:18: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.”) “It is the interpretation,” Wood writes, “not the historical fact itself, that is up for debate.”
His account lacks political (or “secular”) context, but still, with hard-boiled humour, it provides a sometimes fascinating journey through some varieties of Islamic interpretation, from hate preaching to gentle quietism.
It shows how ISIL propaganda, a “savvy packaging of historical precedents”, plays on well-known Muslim themes. None is more resonant than the Caliphate itself, which this strain of Salafi-Jihadism elevates to a position of urgent centrality, making it a panacea for personal and political ills. According to this minority reading, in the absence of a Caliphate, any practising Muslim man descended from the Quraysh (the Prophet’s tribe) is obliged to declare one, and every Muslim is then obliged to declare allegiance.
Unfortunately for Donald Trump’s worldview, you don’t need to be born into Islam to imbibe this ideology. Indeed, most of Wood’s informants are converts, like Musa Cerantonio, an Italian-Australian “advocate of religious genocide but also a huge dork”, or “Yahya the American”, born in Texas and now living in Syria, who once tripped on magic mushrooms with his British-Bangladeshi wife, believing the Prophet recommended it. Yahya, so proficient in classical Arabic he responds to criticism with spontaneously composed verse, combines spiritual blindness with a brilliant textual intelligence. He seeks to revive the tiny, ultra-literalist Dhahiri school, whose last proponent was the medieval Andalusian Ibn Hazm.
Then there’s Hassan Ko Nakata, a Japanese romantic idealist who flirts with ISIL. And the British publicity hound Anjem Choudary, currently imprisoned, not a convert but “born again” from his beer-swilling youth.
Wood observes how each one’s imagined Caliphate is viewed through their own cultural framework – Yahya’s through the prism of Texan libertarianism, Choudary’s as a glorified (British-style) welfare state, while Nakata’s version is “the opposite of a police state”, one that respects private beliefs (“honne” in Japanese). None of these fantasies align with ISIL’s reality on the ground.
Interviewing quietist Salafis, Wood finds that “a literalist, conservative reading of Islamic texts can yield non-violence as well as violence”. Since quietists abhor the social discord born of violence, they are well-placed to debate ISIL.
Finally he draws parallels between the rise of Salafi-Jihadism and of Protestantism in 16th century Europe. Both phenomena accompanied a “democratisation” of communications technology (the internet today, the printing press then) and a concurrent rejection of traditional authority. Protestantism led to decades of blood in Europe.
This provokes a grim conclusion: “The current horror show in Syria is, at best, the beginning of another cycle of religious war.” The trauma there, he continues, has imbued Syrians with the apocalyptic fervour fundamental to ISIL’s vision.
Yet Syrian ISIL members are rarely theologically motivated. Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss’s book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, usefully explains their more pragmatic reasons for allegiance. And The Raqqa Diaries, by an activist known as “Samer”, gives a grass roots Syrian Muslim response to the holier-than-thou foreign occupiers:
“Any true Muslim who has seen what Daesh does knows what fakers they are. They use religion to cover up their criminality, only fooling those who do not know Islam properly. The people who fall for their lies are trying to find a purpose in life.”
Robin Yassin-Kassab is a journalist, critic and the co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (Pluto).