The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State

The author of the explosive Atlantic cover story “What ISIS Really Wants” has written the definitive, electrifying account of the strategy, psychology, and theology driving the Islamic State.Tens of thousands of men and women have left comfortable, privileged lives to join the Islamic State and kill for it. To them, its violence is beautiful and holy, and the caliphate a f...

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Title:The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State
Author:Graeme Wood
Rating:
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Kindle Edition
Number of Pages:352 pages

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State Reviews

  • Richard Duncan
    Jan 22, 2017

    An insightful and deep-ranging look into the mind of ISIS jihadists. Wood has extensive connections in the jihadi world. His interviews provide insight into what draws people to ISIS, why so many cross continents and oceans to join the fight (and why others don't.) Mr. Wood's explorations of the intersection of how religion, doctrine, and psychology do much to deepen our understanding of a phenomenon so unfamiliar to the Western mind.

    While the personal stories of would-be jihadists are used to

    An insightful and deep-ranging look into the mind of ISIS jihadists. Wood has extensive connections in the jihadi world. His interviews provide insight into what draws people to ISIS, why so many cross continents and oceans to join the fight (and why others don't.) Mr. Wood's explorations of the intersection of how religion, doctrine, and psychology do much to deepen our understanding of a phenomenon so unfamiliar to the Western mind.

    While the personal stories of would-be jihadists are used to illustrate important points, some go on far longer than they should. And some of Woods' conclusions are stronger than others. But I highly recommend the book for anyone who wants a deeper and more personal understanding than that offered by the media and especially the politicians. (Would that they would read and understand it!)

    One suggestion: unless you have an excellent memory for terminology, I would suggest taking some notes when you come across an important new phrase. Wood often defines a term once, then uses it throughout the book without further explanation, and in my Nook edition, at least, there is no glossary.

  • Ali
    Dec 26, 2016

    In poker, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to underestimate your adversary. The Islamic State (IS) is one adversary that both Westerners and Muslims have underestimated *and* misunderstood.

    ‘Cause let’s face it – who really gets IS anyway? Even to an educated audience, they seem like a jumble of names (ISIS? ISIL? Da’esh? different from Al Qaeda?), leaders, factions and philosophies falling somewhere between incoherence and chaos. How did they come about? Are these guys even Muslim? Wh

    In poker, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to underestimate your adversary. The Islamic State (IS) is one adversary that both Westerners and Muslims have underestimated *and* misunderstood.

    ‘Cause let’s face it – who really gets IS anyway? Even to an educated audience, they seem like a jumble of names (ISIS? ISIL? Da’esh? different from Al Qaeda?), leaders, factions and philosophies falling somewhere between incoherence and chaos. How did they come about? Are these guys even Muslim? What’s up with the beheadings, amputations, and sex slavery? What compels so many seemingly nice young men to leave everything behind and join them in Syria? And why are they so damn mean? “The Way of the Strangers” places IS in an historical, religious, geographic and ideological context so by the end of it we can all say, “Aahh, *now* I get it.”

    First of all, IS is definitely Muslim, even though most Muslim scholars and laymen hate to admit it. Wood shows how IS goes out of its way to justify its odious behavior with Muslim scripture. Its interpretations may be capricious and biased towards bloodthirsty nihilism, but they’re not coming out of thin air.

    I particularly appreciated Wood’s taxonomy of the various interrelated Islamist movements. He does a great job of tracing the IS ideology back to its sources, showing the fault lines that cause communion and clash amongst the extremist factions. The descriptions are precise; never again will you conflate Wahhabis, Salafis and Dhahiris at a cocktail party.

    Where the book really shines is in Wood’s encounters with flesh-and-blood IS devotees, many of them converts. Musa (born Robert) Cerantonio the Australian; Hesham Elashry, the Egyptian tailor; Hassan Ko Nakata, the mild-mannered Japanese academic; “The Avenger” (really); and the family of the gnomic Yahya Abu Hassan, who grew up a mere 20min away from Wood’s own childhood Dallas home.

    Through these characters – mentally nimble but ideologically pigheaded, hospitable in manner but advocating brutish violence – you come to appreciate the internal logic of IS, and how a token bookish, socially awkward young man could get drawn into its certainties. You also apprehend the incredible darkness of it all.

    Even as they try to invest IS with a patina of their own Utopian desires, Wood shows the underlying ambivalence and disappointment of the IS adherents he interviews. Unfortunately, “the tragedy is that even those inverted visionaries who live to realize their error will never be able to undo the misery the have inflicted on so many others.”

    What’s most remarkable about the book is that it exists all. Wood is apparently fluent in Arabic and conversant in a fistful of other languages, as he goes to Cairo, Tokyo, Oslo, Mindanao (Philippines), Alexandria, London, Dallas and lord knows where else to meet these characters. He’s knowledgeable enough about Islamic history and scripture as to debate, gain the grudging respect and even *befriend* many of these people of odious creed. They pay for his meals and invite him in their homes without even poisoning him once. Maybe they all gave him a pass in hopes of the big prize for converting an atheist. Nevertheless, he probably ended up endangering his life several times to write this book.

    Don’t know about you, but if some faction out there hated me and were hell-bent on annihilating me, my civilization and everything I value, I’d like to know more about them. Graeme Wood gives you an authoritative, level-headed peer into the abyss of IS to better understand the origins and intentions of this formidable enemy.

  • Chris Peterson
    Feb 19, 2017

    Not bad, by any means, but the last hundred or so pages were a bit of a chore to get through.

  • Ray
    Jan 28, 2017

    I’ve been struggling to understand the militant Islamist mindset since 9/11, when supporters of Osama Bin Laden destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon. In time, I learned something about Bin Laden's hatred of America because what he saw as (1) U.S. one-sided support for Israel at the expense of Palestinian concerns; (2) our support of authoritarian regimes in Mid-Eastern countries at the expense of their oppressed Muslim citizens; and (3) our military presence in Saudi Arabia

    I’ve been struggling to understand the militant Islamist mindset since 9/11, when supporters of Osama Bin Laden destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon. In time, I learned something about Bin Laden's hatred of America because what he saw as (1) U.S. one-sided support for Israel at the expense of Palestinian concerns; (2) our support of authoritarian regimes in Mid-Eastern countries at the expense of their oppressed Muslim citizens; and (3) our military presence in Saudi Arabia which is contrary to Islamic doctrines.

    More recently, with the rise of ISIS, I had to work even harder to begin trying to understand the appeal of the Islamic State. Graeme Wood's book "

    ", helped a lot. It may be that "

    " would have been the only book I needed to gain an understanding of ISIS, but it's also probable that previous readings helped provide additional background which helped make Wood's book so insightful. These previous books, such as

    , by Nicolas Henin;

    , by Joby Warrick; and

    , by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. certainly helped by providing key information and background.

    In this book, Graeme Wood shares his understanding of ISIS as obtained by his detailed studies of their statements, as well as insights he gained by his travels through Muslim Countries, and finally through his interviews with a variety of Muslim scholars and leaders. He really did his homework, and instead of simply observing or reading about the reports from the Islamic State, he met with and discussed the workings of ISIS with knowledgeable Muslim leaders. Thus, he was able to provide new insights into ISIS ideology, and the intentions of the new Caliphate. He manages to tell us how ISIS justifies their horrific violence against non-believers, whether Westerners, Christians, or even some Muslim sects as well. Their beliefs are justifiable (to them), and are based on original teachings of Muhammad, as they understand them, reflecting a medieval era of jihad when Islam was being spread by the sword.

    ISIS leaders and fighters are throwbacks to early Islam, following past practices such as slavery and beheadings, as found in the original teachings of Islam from periods of war over a thousand years earlier. Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, preaches the importance of establishing the Caliphate, and how it's the duty of all Muslims to swear allegiance to the Caliphate, become members, and follow the examples of Muhammad. Those who do join the Caliphate, and strictly follow the teachings of ISIS, may find a social welfare system in place which works for them. Those who fail to follow the rules may find themselves subject to medieval style punishments such as amputations, beatings, stoning, crucifixion, or beheadings.

    Wood also points out that if ISIS is to be defeated, those fighting against it must gain a better understanding of their beliefs and intentions. Since they follow strict interpretations of the Quran and Hadith, knowing that should be helpful in understanding what may work in fighting them, and what is likely to fail. Since end-of-time prophecies predict a great war between Islam and the non-believers, making a great war happen by putting troops on the ground against them only fulfills their dogma and may bring in more supporters. And should they lose that great war, it's not likely to diminish their appeal, since prophecies also discuss losing battles before the ultimate victory. Thus, slowly bleeding ISIS over time may be the better choice, discrediting the leaders, bringing dissatisfaction to the followers, and gradually causing the Caliphate to lose ground, and therefore lose legitimacy.

  • Dante
    Jan 19, 2017

    Graeme Wood does what few authors and commentators would ever deign to do- talk to the people on the other side, our ostensible enemies. He also does a great job presenting the case that ISIS is indeed about religion and that their interpretation of Islam has a textual basis, is not irrational, and stands up to some criticism.

    On the other hand, Wood's attitude towards the people he interview is often condescending and his condemnation of Islamic scholars and academics seems hasty. I have little

    Graeme Wood does what few authors and commentators would ever deign to do- talk to the people on the other side, our ostensible enemies. He also does a great job presenting the case that ISIS is indeed about religion and that their interpretation of Islam has a textual basis, is not irrational, and stands up to some criticism.

    On the other hand, Wood's attitude towards the people he interview is often condescending and his condemnation of Islamic scholars and academics seems hasty. I have little doubt that few of them deign to seriously engage ISIS on religious grounds but Wood's does not go into why they refuse to, perhaps for the same reason the pope does not debate with crazed christian groups (even strong contrary arguments would somewhat legitimize them). Especially given the willingness of the west to believe the worst of Islam I think it is irresponsible and unfair for him not to present the case of Muslims who interpret the Quran differently from ISIS just as strongly.

  • Leslie Ann
    Feb 03, 2017

    This book is fascinating, but not an easy read. I now truly appreciate how the supporters of the Islamic State do not represent the majority of Muslims, but Wood makes an equally valid point that their minority status does not make them illegitimate. Indeed, their very literal approach to the Koran - disregarding centuries of Islamic scholarship - is not different from the way certain Christians read the Bible, and it was interesting to see how difficult it is for respected Islamic scholars to c

    This book is fascinating, but not an easy read. I now truly appreciate how the supporters of the Islamic State do not represent the majority of Muslims, but Wood makes an equally valid point that their minority status does not make them illegitimate. Indeed, their very literal approach to the Koran - disregarding centuries of Islamic scholarship - is not different from the way certain Christians read the Bible, and it was interesting to see how difficult it is for respected Islamic scholars to counter the arguments of supporters of the Islamic State on their terms:

    I was also intrigued by how opinions differed about the construction of the caliphate and end of the world, which to me, only emphasizes how much interpretation matters and who is doing the interpreting.

    Two things would have made this book easier to digest: a chart of the different variations of Islam, and a glossary of Arabic terms.

  • Weronika
    Feb 06, 2017

    You've probably heard this story: ISIS militia stops a Christian family travelling in their car, asking them if they are Muslim. The man says that yes, they are. "Prove it!", demands an ISIS soldier. In response the man recites a passage from the Bible, and the soldier lets them go. The man's wife, scared to death, asks her husband how he could do such a thing and put them at such a risk. "I didn't", responds the man. "If they knew Koran, they wouldn't be doing what they are doing". The tale is

    You've probably heard this story: ISIS militia stops a Christian family travelling in their car, asking them if they are Muslim. The man says that yes, they are. "Prove it!", demands an ISIS soldier. In response the man recites a passage from the Bible, and the soldier lets them go. The man's wife, scared to death, asks her husband how he could do such a thing and put them at such a risk. "I didn't", responds the man. "If they knew Koran, they wouldn't be doing what they are doing". The tale is to teach us, Western liberal progressives, that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, despite its very name. In his book Wood proves that this view on ISIS is just patently wrong.

    Some time ago I asked my friends to recommend me some books/articles that could help me understand the situation in the Middle East. One of my friends responded with a long email listing lots of interesting reads, among which I found Wood's article for the Atlantic of 2015 (

    ). The book actually builds on this article (some passages are directly incorporated into the book), which was not quite what I expected. Throughout the pages of the book, we make a closer acquaintance with Wood's interlocutors mentioned in the article, ISIS ideologues, acolytes or followers, none of whom is ignorant of Islam, Koran, hadiths, islamic history, schools or teachings. Their convictions and beliefs are repulsive and scary, but contrarily to what we are often told, none of them is dumb.

    One of the topics in Wood's book is the unwillingness of islamic scholars to intellectually engage in a critique of the teachings of ISIS. The reasons we are nudged to deduce from his interviews range from moral repulsion, to the fear of political damage to Muslim community to the awareness of the proximity of ISIS's dogmatic position to one's own. I wish the author elaborated on this subject a little more. It is one of a few interesting adds-on to the original article.

    I hesitated between four and five stars, but in this age of fake news, alternative facts and falshoods giving one extra star seems the least one can do to appreciate solid research and fact-based reporting.

  • Tiffany
    Feb 13, 2017

    An explanation of the Islamic State--its goals, its supporters, its detractors--for an audience unfamiliar with all of the above. Unfortunate that some use this author's work to support their own bigotry.

    When I read about the latest attack on an abortion clinic by someone claiming to be be acting in the name of Christianity I always roll my eyes at the people who say that act has nothing to do with "real Christianity." Um...yeah it does. And as someone raised in a Christian tradition, I can exp

    An explanation of the Islamic State--its goals, its supporters, its detractors--for an audience unfamiliar with all of the above. Unfortunate that some use this author's work to support their own bigotry.

    When I read about the latest attack on an abortion clinic by someone claiming to be be acting in the name of Christianity I always roll my eyes at the people who say that act has nothing to do with "real Christianity." Um...yeah it does. And as someone raised in a Christian tradition, I can explain to you why. When I hear people tell me that the Islamic State has nothing to do with "real Islam" I suspect that is inaccurate but can't quite explain why as I have a far less comprehensive understanding of Islam than I do of Christianity. Enter Graeme Wood, who explains the connections.

    Bigots have taken his work to mean they can attack all Muslims and all of Islam. These are clearly not Woods's views. He simply makes a strong case that the Islam of the Islamic State is not wholly disconnected from the Islam of the majority of Muslims. I don't think that is any more controversial than saying the Christianity of Scott Roeder or the Westboro Baptist Church is not wholly disconnected from the Christianity of Rick Warren or even Jimmy Carter. It is uncomfortable for practicing Muslims and practicing Christians but that doesn't make it less true.

  • Andy Lopata
    Feb 19, 2017

    An excellent book and essential read. The insightful interviews with a range of Muslim scholars and IS activists gives the reader a much greater understanding of what is happening in the Middle East than our politicians and media even aspire to deliver.

    Reading this makes you realise just how little we really know about what drives IS and the people who leave the comfort of their homes to travel and fight in the desert. The current lack of understanding can only lead to misguided attempts to dea

    An excellent book and essential read. The insightful interviews with a range of Muslim scholars and IS activists gives the reader a much greater understanding of what is happening in the Middle East than our politicians and media even aspire to deliver.

    Reading this makes you realise just how little we really know about what drives IS and the people who leave the comfort of their homes to travel and fight in the desert. The current lack of understanding can only lead to misguided attempts to deal with the issue and that's why a book like this is so important.

    Well written and surprisingly funny in parts, you're left with a clearer picture of the challenges we face as a society, if not a brighter vision of what's still to come.

  • Omar Ali
    Feb 16, 2017

    Graeme Wood is one of the most clear eyed and sensible observers of Jihadi Islam working today. This book is, at one level, straightforward reportage. He meets people who support ISIS and/or Salafist Islam and just lets them talk. But at another level it is quite sophisticated, since he has read very widely about Islam and his own comments add a very intelligent and well-informed gloss to every encounter. Graeme is neither an ignorant Islamophobe (like America's recently removed National Securit

    Graeme Wood is one of the most clear eyed and sensible observers of Jihadi Islam working today. This book is, at one level, straightforward reportage. He meets people who support ISIS and/or Salafist Islam and just lets them talk. But at another level it is quite sophisticated, since he has read very widely about Islam and his own comments add a very intelligent and well-informed gloss to every encounter. Graeme is neither an ignorant Islamophobe (like America's recently removed National Security Adviser), nor an ignorant apologist/obfuscator (like many shariah-friendly Western postmarxists and their desi acolytes). He knows what he is talking about, and he has a wicked sense of humor and a very engaging writing style. All this makes the book a surprising page-turner, even if you are already familiar with a lot of the material.

    Well worth a read. As are Graeme Wood's various articles on this subject.