Graeme Wood is the most prominent media star exposing ISIS today. A Yale professor, Council of Foreign Relations guru, his articles on ISIS have appeared in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and on and on. He has an ambitious agenda, instructing the lay reader in Islamic theology and jurisprudence as he travels from one leading ISIS supporter or fellow traveler to another around the world. While providing a wealth of detail, his American slant, almost entirely overlooking the US as the chief culprit in abetting terrorism, is evident. But his book is worth reading, giving the reader a window into the people behind ISIS. None of them are monsters, but all of them challenge Muslims to better understand Islam and Islamic history.
Wood poses throughout his research as a possible convert to Islam and apparently fools one and all. This deception he would no doubt rationalize using a quote from the Qur’an about lying being okay in a time of war (taqiyya 4:29), but he used it in Egypt merely to string along a modest tailor, Hesham, who was sincerely trying to convert Wood, and believed Wood was genuine. This gave him otherwise forbidden access to Hesham’s personal life, ridiculing him in the account. Others Wood interviewed were not so naive, but politely answered his questions, though his agenda was seen for what it is: a report for use by western academics, media and security forces to better ‘fight the beast’.
Some of his interviews are revealing and colorful. He met multiple times with larger-than-life Muslims based in the West, both pro-ISIS and anti-ISIS activists and theorists. His professionalism as a researcher and writer produced a good overview of the different movements and actors in western radical Islamic circles, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other al-Qaeda factions, and their visions of revolution and apocalypse. He interviews leading western Muslim scholars and activists, mostly American converts, including the Sufi Hamza Yusuf, the Salafi Yasir Qadhi for their critical analysis of ISIS (they are both targeted as apostates by ISIS), and Yahya Michot, who lies somewhere in between.
Musa (Robert) Cerantonio, an ISIS supporter, converted in the 1990s, and saw his Australian imam as suddenly co-opted after 9/11, declaring Islamic marriage invalid, denouncing ISIS and promoting patriotism and secular democracy. In disgust, Musa stopped going to the mosque and eventually went to work for Iqraa cable TV in their Egypt office, returned to Australia and then moved to the Philippines, hoping to help establish a caliphate in the southern area populated by Muslims. He faults Osama bin Laden for thinking you could just attack the West and things will fall into place, with no clear plan for building an Islamic State. ISIS originally focused on building a state, but when it began suffering defeats in Syria and Iraq, it started encouraging attacks abroad like the 2015 Paris massacre.
Yahya (Ioannis) Georgelas, the most brilliant figure, both as theorist and activist, is now somewhere in Syria, alive or dead. He converted in November 2001, went to Damascus where he quickly mastered Arabic, then moved between Texas, London and eventually returned to Syria, leaving behind his wife Tania and four children (now being raised by his Christian parents). He has been the official spokesman for ISIS in broadcasts and on the Internet. Woods couldn’t interview him, as he didn’t dare go to Syria, but he interviewed Yahya’s parents and wife in Texas.
Anjem Choudary is the most famous Islamic State supporter in Britain, one of the founders of al-Muharijun, but is considered by many a clown, appearing on Fox TV as a foil, though authorities link Muharijun to 23 of 51 recent terrorist events in Britain, including the 2005 London subway bombing, which killed 52. Choudary was sentenced to five and a half years in September 2006, for publicly supporting ISIS.
The Sufi Hamza Yusuf (Mark Hanson), president of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, advised George Bush on Afghanistan after the invasion, and is the most mainstream of Muslim scholars in the US. He insists that ISIS is Muslim, but their militancy has little to do with genuine Islam; rather it is misguided, ideological and politicized. Wood agrees that “excommunicating them because you disagree with their version of Islam is to concede the match. After all, takfir is the official sport of the Islamic State, and if you practice it, you become one of them.” Hamza Yusuf agrees that war is a component of jihad, but “is the prerogative of a valid state. To declare jihad is a legal ruling that pertains only to political authority. You cannot have vigilante justice.”
The Salafi Yasir Qadhi, lecturer at Rhodes College in Memphis, compares ISIS to the Kharijites, who precipitated a wave of killing and eventual schism in 657 CE through the murder of Ali and Hussein. Qadhi greeted Wood “icily”, complaining of Wood’s insistence that ISIS is Islamic. “They are Muslim,” but defy teachings at the core of the religion, “including injunctions to show mercy, the historical and legal traditions designed to prevent the very excesses the Islamic State revels in.” He is the only interlocutor who emphasizes the real root of the problem: the sins of the US government, not just its foreign policy but its prison system, its militaristic culture, its drone strikes and its failure to remove money from the political process. Wood seems oblivious but Qadhi makes his point.
Yahya (Jean) Michot, professor of Islamic theology at Hartford Seminary, is another moderate Salafi, who has devoted his life to the study of the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah, constantly quoted by Salafis, the Saudi Wahhabis, and generally considered the inspiration behind modern political Islam. He argues that Ibn Taymiyyah has been misused. Some of his arguments:
- Ibn Taymiyyah despised idolatry but left individual idolaters off the hook. “The Shias were the hippies of his time. They weren’t following any religious prescriptions or social conventions. And he did indeed say they were nonbelievers.” But rather than condemning them directly, he claimed the disease of non-belief was best treated systemically, rather than through individual takfir (excommunication). “Many people may be growing up in places and times in which many of the sciences of prophethood have faded. Such people shall not be accused on unbelief.”
- A hadith tells of a man who never did a good deed and told his family to burn his body and scatter the ashes to disassemble his corpse beyond God’s ability to reconstruct and punish it. God forgives the man, because the cause of his blasphemy was fear of God. God dispenses mercy freely, if unpredictably, and accusations of unbelief should be made with great caution.
- Ibn Taymiyyah condemned the Mongols even when they claimed to be Muslims, and urged Muslims to resist them. But he never called for armed rebellion against his Memluke rulers. So the assassination of Anwar Sadat and targeting of Saudi and other leaders by ISIS cannot be supported by Ibn Taymiyyah. Bin Laden never called for the overthrow of the Saudi leaders, only asking them to submit their resignation. He considered the Americans to be the modern Mongols (for Cerantonio, it is the Ottomans/ Turks).
Michot does not deny jihad or “a false tolerance, along Sufi lines, which pretends that the borders of the religion are fuzzy.” Better advice to jihadis is “to shut up and tough it out” if they are unhappy with their Muslim leaders, even if it means going to jail, as Ibn Taymiyyah did. It was Ibn Taymiyyah’s follower, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab that selectively picked what he liked of Ibn Taymiyyah’s writings to create his rigid, intolerant doctrine. Only in the 1960s was a full edition of his fatwas compiled, now available online.
Imperial Blowback and Bad Theology
The world as prison
The only way the West knows to deal with the problem of radical Islam is to search out, arrest, and imprison suspects. John Walker Lindh, captured in Afghanistan in 1991, and Choudary became icons of resistance in prison, though they did not carry out terrorism themselves. Similarly, Cerantonio and his four comrades are currently facing 10-year sentences for merely trying to go to Syria, though they never even launched their private motorboat, hoping somehow to miraculously arrive in Syria.
They represent the more famous, the tip of an iceberg of unsung hundreds imprisoned for just wanting something, be it mistaken. The underlying cause behind this ongoing tragedy, which Wood seems uninterested in pursuing, is of course the occupation of Muslim lands, the system of imperialism itself. Sending righteously angry young men to prison just confirms their belief in the injustice of the system.
To at least provide some value to their prison time, Michot told British prison authorities that the best way to deal with radicalization in its cellblocks was to make Arabic compulsory for all Muslim prisoners and provide balanced Islamic sources for study. "Islam has to be understood as a middle way between the spiritual cancer of ISIS and the spiritual diabetes of Hamza Yusuf."
Putting offenders in jail merely reinforces their belief, as John Walker Lindh's 20-year sentence shows. He has been immersed in Islamic and Arabic studies in prison, at taxpayers' expense. Georgelas also made good use of his three-year stint. No doubt Choudary did the same. Prison is an appropriate place to find Islam, as history shows. You have nothing more to lose, lots of time, in need of solace and inspiration, humbled before all, equal to all. It only takes one articulate Muslim to reach out to his fellow inmates. Many Muslims have found Islam in prison, transforming their lives.
To underline the importance of US policies in creating converts committed to establishing a new world order, and turning idealists into convicted terrorists, it is worth considering that both Lindh and Hamza were born and grew up in Marin County, California, Lindh a kind of new generation to Hamza. Growing up in the 1960s made Hamza a Sufi, studying in Morocco with Abdullah bin Bayyah. Growing up in the 1980--90s made Lindh a jihadi, a good American, just taking Reagan's support for the Afghans fighting the Soviet Union at face value.
Love-hate of the enemy
Though Wood pokes fun at most of his characters, his own grudging attraction to much of Islam comes through. He genuinely likes and respects Hamza, Qadhi and Michot as sober intellectuals. He faults Qadhi for countering Hamza's concern for theological grounds by emphasizing political motives. Appearing 'objective', Wood prefers to stir up doctrinal disputes among Muslims, rather than emphasizing their common understanding, even for the 'diabetic' Muslims, that US imperialism is indeed the root of the problem.
He travelled several times to Australia to spend many hours with Cerantonio, attending his makeshift mosque (in the YMCA, as his group could not get permission for establishing a formal mosque), playing football with his collective. Wood was impressed to see they were not super-competitive, playing more for exercise and bonding. He saw them as harmless, and was more amused than worried when Musa and friends were arrested trying to leave northern Queensland by fishing boat, heading for Syria, prompting Wood to call him a dork, though Musa was a generous host, both with his thoughts and as a friendly guide. I met Musa in Cairo and remember him as warm, open, intelligent and a sincere Muslim, not at all a dork.
Wood's prestige in the US academic world gave him access to these prominent Muslims -- Cerantonio, Georgelas, Lindh and Hamza --, white American and Australian converts. Interestingly, there are no European figures who have gained such fame/ notoriety. Wood does not reflect on this, nor much on the real reasons for the spectacular success of the al-Qaeda brand-name, 25 years after the CIA and Pentagons' campaign against them began. Afghanistan barely gets a mention. The CIA boasts that Americans going to fight in Syria dropped to one a month from 10, but that more than 10,000 Europeans and others have flocked to Syria since 2014. I suspect that number is inflated, useful for 'fundraising' at Langley, Virginia.
Growing up in the 1980s, as the US starting promoting the Salafi-inspired jihad in Afghanistan, made Lindh a Salafi, who jumped at the opportunity of adventure and revolution in Afghanistan. Wood was only able to write to Lindh in prison (Lindh could be out in 2019), and received understandably guarded replies, telling Wood to read the Palestinian American Ahmad Musa Jibil, and to go to Syria as a journalist to meet with ISIS and find out himself. Wood demured, saying he feared execution. Lindh countering that a journalist who went there as the guest of ISIS would be treated well.
There have been dozens of intrepid journalists who have made it in and out of ISIS territory, especially Norwegian, a Swedish and Danish tv journalists. Some of the documentaries included:
Dugma: The Button (2016) by Norwegian journalist Paul Refsdal, who embedded with al-Nusra Front in Syria.
Nowhere to Hide (2016) by director Zaradasht Ahmed, produced by Norway and Sweden, showing how a male nurse's daily life is scarred by war in Iraq .
There are several documentaries at ahlulbayt tv (ISIS: On the Frontline, ISIS - "Islamic" Extremism?
Heaven (2014) by BBC, showing life behind the lines.
The theological weaknesses of ISIS are clear. There is no outstanding scholar among them, and by erasing virtually all Islamic legal thought and theology since the age of the Righteous Caliphs, relying almost entirely on the Quran, ignoring its historical context, its calls for compassion and forgiveness, and many instances of Allah's own compassion as examples to emulate. ISIS condones slavery simply because it is not forbidden in the Quran. But neither is it supported. Humane treatment of them is part of sharia, and there are many instances of freeing slaves.
The chief mistake of ISIS is the same one that the Zionists have made. They both see themselves as speeding up God's work, achieving a state on their own, something that in both Islam and Judaism should happen when God wills it. Creating a man-made caliphate through violence is perverting the will of God.
Another cross-religious comparison is the schisms within the Jewish and Christian religions, each torn apart "roughly 1,500 years after their foundings."
- The Jewish religion was split apart with the failed Maccabean revolt in the first and second centuries BC, the destruction of the second temple in 70AD, the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135, and the founding of Christianity, dwarfing Judaism.
- Christianity was torn apart by the Reformation, 1,500 years after Jesus. Christianity arose in the Roman empire, the first global world order, rejecting Jewish tribalism. Protestantism arose with the new technology of the printing press, giving the masses access to the scripture, democratizing freedom to interpret the religion, going back to its origins 1,500 years ago, with the good and bad that that entails.
- 1,500 years after the rise of Islam, it too is going through a period of upheaval, rethinking, with al-Qaeda and Wahhabism the movements of rejectionism within Islam that stand isolated. As with the Protestant reformation, literacy and technology are now allowing Muslims to know much more about Islam and debate how it relates to the crises they face in the world of imperialism. Both schisms weakened the religions. But then Judaism and Christianity are also in upheaval today, Judaism split sharply over secular Zionism, and Christianity looking for the "historical Jesus".
Yet another strange theological twist, to do with the apocalypse, explains ISIS's lack of interest in Israel. In Islam, the return of Jesus and his triumph in Jerusalem is necessary before the Day of Judgment will begin, much as the Evangelicals believe. So for apocalyptics like ISIS and Christian Evangelicals, there's no point in fighting Israel before Jesus comes back. The only difference, really one of semantics, is that for Muslims, Jesus will return as a Muslim. Thus for ISIS, Hamas is misguided in fighting Israel and demanding a Palestinian state. ISIS argues that they must 'clean up' the Muslim world first.
Will Islam's divisions lead to further splits and continued upheaval?
Islam has a firmer foundation that Judaism and Christianity -- the Quran. Issues of interpretation and adaptation to the needs of the real world involve qiya (example), urf (tradition), maslahah (social needs), and ijtihad (reasoning). There are limits to this; the sharia (hadd, bay'a) is the foudation, the Quran the ultimate arbiter. The Kharijites did not destroy Islam, and neither will ISIS, but we have a responsibility to keep the faith alive.
Graeme Wood: The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State
Random House, December 2016. 352 pp.