By Anthony Sattin
Four new books give much-needed insight into a misunderstood religion, from history and philosophy to life under Isis
In the years since 9/11, there has been much talk about “the problem with Islam”. Part of the problem, obvious to anyone who follows the news, is that a very small number of people who like to blow up buildings and sever heads do so in the name of Islam. As if the link between violence and religion was now proven (it is not), the current occupant of the White House wishes to restrict the movement of certain Muslims into the US. If you have a historical view of Islam, you will understand the irony in this because a little more than 100 years ago, many Muslims were seen as sensual, mystical and exotic.
You won’t find much of those three qualities in The Way of the Strangers. Graeme Wood’s book does what it says in the subtitle and offers a series of “encounters with the Islamic State”. Well, not quite the state itself, because the chance of becoming another orange-suited sacrifice deters most western journalists from travelling there. Instead, Wood talks to the state’s supporters and enthusiasts in Cairo, London, New York and elsewhere.
The media has taken to calling Daesh “the so-called Islamic State”, which carries the suggestion that the state is not really Islamic. Many of us assume that people who have rallied to the black flag have done so for reasons other than religion: because it gives them a purpose, because they like to kill, because they perceive an injustice. While these motives might be part of what has persuaded people to join the battle, many Daesh fighters really do seem to believe they are part of an epoch-defining movement that will bring Islam its rightful prominence. That position is stated very bluntly in the opening pages, where Wood reproduces a schematic diagram of “The Islamic State View of Humanity”. Those who have pledged themselves to the state are at the top of the page, close to heaven, while infidels sit at the bottom along with secular humanists, Christians and Yazidis, all of them “eligible to be enslaved”.