The ignored, inconvenient truth about the Islamic State (Book Review)
Title: The Way of the Strangers - Encounters with the Islamic State; Author: Graeme Wood; Publisher: Penguin Random House; Pages: 352; Price: Rs 499
It is very easy to dismiss terrorists especially those of a fundamentalist religious persuasion as a group of savages in unstable or failed states distorting their faith for their own purposes. But can this approach be applicable to the Islamic State (IS) or suggest how we can tackle its growing global threat?
The approach is totally wrong argues journalist and academician Graeme Wood -- and not only for the IS. As we have known from the "Global War on Terrorism" America and its allies ignored the fact that ideologies cannot be fought militarily but by proving they are wrong or that better ideas are available.
However in the case of the Islamic State says Wood it is not that its adherents view of Islam is wrong for all its usual activities -- slavery mutilation and extreme violence against non-Muslims and "apostate" Muslims (Shias Sunnis Sufis secular "insufficiently Islamic" etc) who oppose them -- are based on Islamic scripture and practice (in the faith s initial days though).
Though a minority uncompromising and apocalyptic view it is Islamic -- though a mindset not shared by the vast mainstream of Muslims who seek to describe it as a travesty of their religion he shows.
Then given the number of educated professionals the IS has been recruiting from affluent and modern Western societies and elsewhere it definitely strikes a chord among some in the Muslim community at large he says.
"The breadth of the appeal of the Islamic State was shocking as its depth. Three generations of conservative Muslims from outside London a skirt-chasing bachelor from South Australia and tens of thousands of others had drunk their inspiration from the same fountains. In addition to the physical caliphate with its territory and war and economy to run there was a caliphate of the imaginations to which all these people had already emigrated long before they slipped across the Turkish border..."
And all these had been "persuaded by the same propaganda and in many cases the same people" argues Wood.
It is accounts of interactions with some of these people -- spread over Egypt Japan Australia the Philippines Mindanao Britain the US including in Dallas (a short distance from the author s own childhood home) and spanning an Egyptian tailor who once worked in New York and stitched a suit for Paul Newman an Italian-origin Australian who is now the top Islamist firebrand Down Under a mild Japanese academician a British IS apologist -- though with no intention of travelling to its territory among others he uses in his bid to explain the IS phenomenon.
Woven in are the theology and theologians of the Islamic State the role of former Baathists its difference from its jihadi forebear Al Qaeda and other Islamist parties and a concise but incisive narration of Islam s rifts and challenges that helped give birth to such ideologies.
Furnishing his accounts of interactions with these characters the "visible surface of a cause that was stirring emotions and convictions of tens of millions of others and that would continue them for decades to come even if it lost its core territory in Syria and Iraq" Wood also provides insights into IS influencing and recruiting techniques -- e.g. focussing on the most incongruous not pious possibilities and others.
While he wonders at the jarring prospect of smart even gentle and well-mannered intelligent people with the most wicked beliefs" he however tells us that "when someone says something too evil to believe one response is not to doubt their sincerity but to expand one s capacity to imagine what otherwise decent people can desire".
That he holds is the "proper response" to the Islamic State but while stressing understanding what primes it rather than advocating steps to combat it Wood also admits that "the tragedy is that even those inverted visionaries who live to realise their error will never be able to undo the misery they have inflicted on so many others".
However despite Wood s thesis of how the Islamic State has its roots in Islam this is no anti-Muslim rant but rather a warning -- for other Semitic as well as other faiths -- on how an uncompromising attitude on reprising past practice of a religion even in different contemporary circumstances is a definite recipe for bloodshed and strife.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)