Damian Whitworth, in The Times and The Australian, 17 January 2017, with the title in the latter being “The Man who knows Islamic State’s Mindset” … with highlighing being additions by the Editor, Thuppahi
British Prime Minister Theresa May once exposed what she believed to be the basic flaws at the murderous heart of Islamic State. “I will tell you the truth,” she told the Conservative Party conference in 2014, the year that the militant group gained worldwide notoriety. “They are not Islamic and they are not a state.”
Her words echoed sentiments expressed by US President Barack Obama. Today, with Islamic State under pressure from Western-backed forces in Mosul, the debate about whether it has actually succeeded in establishing a caliphate continues. However, on the question of Islamic State’s Islamic credentials, May is plain wrong.
That is the view of Graeme Wood, a man who has met rather more Islamic State sympathisers than the daughter of a Church of England vicar who is now Britain’s leader. Most of us, he believes, fail to grasp what motivates the world’s most infamous jihadis and that this misunderstanding arises from a “kid gloves” approach to discussing Islam.
“My view is that the Islamic State and its followers are Muslim, and they come out of Islamic civilisation just as surely as their Muslim enemies do. To say that they have nothing to do with Islam is simply ignorant. Islam is a big, contradictory tradition — it’s certainly big enough to contain the Islamic State. For presidents or prime ministers to say that ISIS (Islamic State) is right or wrong in matters of religious interpretation is to step well beyond their writ.”
Wood, a professor at Yale University, has no sympathy for Islamic State, but interviewed its enthusiasts around the world for a book The Way of the Strangers, which probes deep into their beliefs. He spoke to supporters of Islamic State ranging from a tailor in Cairo and a famous firebrand in Australia to a Japanese convert returned from Raqqa.
The failure properly to acknowledge the religious fervour of Islamic State followers comes, he says, “from a strategic calculation that we want to make the Muslims of Britain and the United States know that we do not vilify their religion and we want our Muslim allies to know that they are not our enemies. I think in the case of Obama, probably Theresa May as well, there is a tendency towards drastic simplification that we would never permit when discussing other religions.”
When Islamic State seized control of areas of Iraq and Syria and declared the creation of its caliphate, it was hard for us to get our heads around it. “It has been a while since there has been a proper theocratic state operating on the doorstep of the UK,” he says. “When ISIS made absolutely clear in its declaration that it viewed itself as a religious deliverance for the region and the world it didn’t compute. But it’s very clear that a large number of people who have gone there view it in exactly those terms.”
Wood, 37, who holds Canadian and US citizenship, grew up partly in Texas and went to Harvard. He first entered Iraq in 2003 with a convoy of Iranian pilgrims “with a vague sense that if I showed up in a place of immense upheaval and violence, talked to people and wandered aimlessly, I’d find something interesting. I was young and clearly an idiot, but I was also right.”
He hitchhiked and worked for a courier company and then as a journalist. His travels for this book brought him to London, which he regards as perhaps “the world capital for certain types of loudmouth jihadists”.
He warned that presenting stories about jihadis drinking or watching pornography as evidence that they don’t believe their own dogma is an error of interpretation. Whatever other factors motivated them to join Islamic State, from a lust for adventure to poverty, “their own imperfections are one of the drivers for going out there — they see the Islamic State as purging their ongoing sinful natures.
“Islamic State,” he continues. “view themselves as our enemy and they will continue to fight against us as long as they have breath in their lungs. If we think of the recruits being motivated by primarily political questions, then we will be unsuccessful in figuring out how to stop them from going.
“There are some people who are just looking to cut someone’s head off. (But) the population of people who are simply mad men, psychopathic with no set of beliefs that they are fighting for, is probably smaller than we think.”
Wood argues that Islamic State look far back to the time of their Islamic forefathers. In the past he has caused outrage for mentioning that Muhammad owned slaves. In his book he returns again to the tradition of slave-owning by Muslims and the use of slaves for sex, which has been reintroduced by Islamic State. When we speak he is careful to point out that sex slavery has been widely practised by non-Muslims too, and that slavery was an institution in his own country until the 1860s.
He found that the supporters of Islamic State, including Choudary, sometimes seemed as if they were forcing themselves to believe in this monstrous aspect of Islamic State life. “They are coming from cultures where the idea of human ownership of other human beings or sexual enslavement is sickening and there is a deeply instilled instinct of revulsion. They have to overcome that instinct and rationalise acceptance of slavery and sex slavery in particular.”
Last week, a new grotesque Islamic State video was released showing a young boy shooting a man tied up in a ball pit in a children’s playground. The child was “the youngest one I have seen”, says Wood.
He says that perhaps the most shocking video he has viewed featured no blood, just the orphans of foreign Islamic State fighters being taken to an amusement park. “The kids are on rides going around in circles carrying the Islamic State flag, drinking out of juice boxes. You think: none of these kids knows anything other than that they were brought to paradise and how does paradise reveal itself? By killing Daddy. And avenging his death is the highest calling they can ever aspire to. That is horrifying to me.”
Some suggest Islamic State should be contained until it burns itself out. “The downsides to letting it persist include the raising of children within its ranks and the normalisation of all manner of insane beliefs.”
They have controlled schools and universities in Raqqa and Mosul for well over two years, he points out. “This isn’t the first case where children have been traumatised en masse. It is the first case in a while we have seen an utterly mad state with a captive audience of children. You have a determined brainwashing effort that is being undertaken on the institutional state level and I have no idea how a generation recovers from that kind of mental violence.”
The official Islamic State line on the US presidential election was that it didn’t matter who won because both candidates were evil and neither of them could beat Islamic State. However, Wood found a clear preference for Trump among some Islamic State supporters. They believed that “he reveals to the world the hatred of Muslims that is at the centre of America and the West.
“When Trump says ‘let’s ban Muslims’, or when his appointees say ‘fear of Muslims is rational’, their message perfectly echoes ISIS’s own message — that any true Muslim should see America as an adversary.”
The struggle to defeat Islamic State will be long. A jihadi doesn’t mind. “He will say, ‘I am one jihadi in a very long line of jihadis who came before and will come after’.” They also revel in their “underdog” status and don’t get overly disheartened by military setbacks. “No matter how bad it gets they can say it has never been as bad as it was for the Prophet who was driven out of Mecca. It’s an all-purpose licence to be in the minority on every issue.”
Islamic State could find homes in places with large Muslim populations where there is religious and political dissatisfaction and poverty, such as The Philippines and some African nations.
Wood is not entirely pessimistic, though. The followers he talked to, he says, are “sick romantics” who will eventually realise they have fallen short of the standards they have set themselves and will “revise their ideals and return to the society of mortals with more modest ambitions”.
Wood likens what is happening in the Islamic world today to the Reformation, which for a long time was also very bloody. “Eventually the violence stopped, but what didn’t stop was the Reformation itself.”
Islamic State is just one murderous part of a broader historical, social and religious movement that includes many people who have access to YouTube and are passionately opposed to the establishment clerics, scholars and autocratic rulers of the Middle East, “but do not want to replace them with a gang of killers”. The nightmare will end. Some day.
- Michael Roberts: “HRW in Syria and Sri Lanka: Moral Fervour generating Political Blindness and Partisanship,” 3 January 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/01/03/hrw-in-syria-and-sri-lanka-moral-fervour-generating-political-blindness-and-partisanship/#more-23792
- Stephen Kalin: “On Mosul frontlines, Islamic State’s local fighters direct the battle,” 14 January 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-civilians-idUSKBN14Y0C9
- Robert Fisk: “An Egyptian Journalist’s Introduction to Jailhouse Jihadism and Al Jazeera’s Partisan Activities 3 January 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/01/03/an-egyptian-journalistss-introduction-to-jailhouse-jihadism-and-al-jazeeras-partisan-activities/#more-23828
- Michael Roberts: “Where In-fighting generates Fervour & Power: ISIS Today, LTTE Yesterday,” 21 July 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/where-in-fighting-generates-fervour-power-isis-today-ltte-yesterda/
- Anthony Loyd, 2014 “Syrian gravesite marks ISIS beginnings,” The Australian, 16 June 2014 … also at https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/american-gaolhouse-conditions-nurtured-the-isis-leaders/
- Military Times 2014 “How did 800 ISIS fighters rout 2 Iraqi divisions?” 12 June 2014, http://www.militarytimes.com/article/20140612/NEWS08/306120062/How-did-800-ISIS-fighters-rout-2-Iraqi-divisions-
- Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich 2014 “The ISIS terrorists and Social Media,” 1 July 2014, http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=features/isis-terrorists-and-social-media.
- Alan Dupont: “ISIS as Fascist and Totalitarian,” 29 September 2014, 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/isis-as-fascist-and-totalitarian/
- ISLAND Editorial: “Island smacks Obama’s bottom,“17 Janaury 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/01/18/the-island-editor-smacks-obamas-bottom/