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A Tradition of Looking Behind the Curtain
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 Post subject: the way of the strangers
PostPosted: Thu Apr 06, 2017 10:03 pm 
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Location: Broomfield, Colorado
Author Graeme Wood is primarily a journalist (although he’s done some teaching in the political science department at Yale); thus this book approaches the Islamic State using primarily journalistic methods – first person interviews. Further, most of Wood’s interviewees are Muslim converts and all live outside the Islamic State area; when one asks why Wood doesn’t go to the Islamic State and see how things are in person, he replies “Because I’m afraid I would be enslaved or beheaded”, which strikes me as a reasonable excuse.

Wood does do some explication of Islamic history and theology – perhaps not quite enough, as he seems to assume his readers are familiar with the basic tenets of Islam and some of the finer points of Islamic law – the difference between something from a hadith and something from the Koran. There are liberal transliterations from Arabic, which really can’t be helped given the material – a single Arabic word can be used to summarize something that would take a whole English sentence to explain. (Interestingly enough, Wood notes that the IS does the same thing in their English language publications, apparently with the hope that the reader will gradually be converted to Islam by such exposure). One such key transliteration is takfir – accusing another Muslim of disbelief. There’s a hadith that explains the problem (paraphrasing): “If one Muslim accuses another of disbelief, then one of them is not a Muslim” – i.e., takfir is dangerous to the accuser if they’re wrong. This explains the superficially puzzling tendency of “moderate” Muslims to refrain from criticizing the IS, regardless of whatever atrocity is on YouTube today. The IS, on the other hand, is fully confident of the correctness of their religious interpretation and has no problem at all accusing other Muslims of takfir; the disbelievers include all Shiites, and any Sunnis not fully committed to IS – including the Taliban, Al Qaida, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, the government of any nominally Muslim state, etc. In fact, Wood points out that in theory you are better off being an infidel or a “person of the book” than a Muslim who disagrees with IS; in the first case you have a chance to be merely enslaved or subject to the jizya but in the second you’re an apostate and deserve death (Wood does stress that this is theory and what IS actually practices may be different).

And death is what IS is all about. In their interpretation of Islam, you are not assured of salvation and the houris until the moment of death; if you make a mistake and have a BLT just before getting hit by a drone strike, it’s off to Jahannam for you, regardless of your piety for your precedinglife. One way to avoid this problem is martyrdom; you affirm the unity of God just before setting off your bomb vest and your home free. Paradoxically, another way is to be executed; repentance gets you credit. Wood notes a rather creepy hadith illustrating this situation (and making an interesting contrast to Jesus’ reaction to the woman taken in adultery). A woman approached the Prophet, said she was a fornicator, and requested punishment. He tried to dissuade her but she was persistent. Finally he told her to come to him again when her child was weaned. She did so and was duly stoned to death; however the Prophet remonstrated with one of the stoners who was insulting her, noting that the woman had made a great repentance. Wood also claims that this explains why many of the victims in IS videos seem to be cooperating or even rejoicing over their fate, just before they are beheaded or thrown off a building or burned alive or chopped up with an antiaircraft gun or hanged from a construction crane or (well, it’s pointless to go on – google “ISIS executions” if you’re morbidly curious) – they’ve repented and are now assured of salvation since there won’t be any possibility of backsliding.

Wood is pretty hard on Western commenters (he explicitly cites the New York Times) that try to explain IS as some sort of national liberation movement and therefore “not really Muslim” rather than what they actually are – religious fundamentalists that make the Westboro Baptist Church look like Unitarians. He tries a couple of analogies, neither of which work very well: one is it’s as if people who had never read anything by Lenin or heard of Stalin were claiming that the former Soviet Union was “not really Marxist”; the other is comparing IS to a “strict constructionist” who only accepts the 1789 version of the Constitution, without the Bill of Rights or any of the subsequent amendments or court interpretations.

Wood’s interview subjects are an interesting lot; one of his theses is that each of them sees IS through the lens of their own political views. For example, Yahya Abu Hassan, a person Wood spent considerable time tracking down, espouses a sort of libertarian Muslim legal tradition called Dhahirism. The example Wood uses of Dhahiri thinking is a hadith saying “If a dog licks your bowl you should wash it seven times”. Other Muslim legal traditions expand this into a general condemnation of dogs as unclean animals; i.e. they are not allowed as pets, if a dog licks you, you’re ritually unclean for prayers, etc. Dhahiris say that if a dog licks your bowl, you should wash it seven times but otherwise dogs are OK – i.e., anything that is not explicitly prohibited by the Koran or hadith is allowed and you shouldn’t overthink the text. Yahya Abu Hassan turned up on many Islamic internet sites and was frequently cited by other Wood correspondents as an authority on IS; he eventually turned out to be John Georgelas, son of a retired US Army officer and born in Plano, Texas. Wood attributes Abu Hassan’s religious theories to a libertarian upbringing; Wood notes parenthetically that Abu Hassan’s spent considerable online and publication effort arguing that marijuana is not an “intoxicant” and therefore not prohibited to Muslims.

A counterpoint to Yahya Abu Hassan is Anjem Choudary, of Pakistani ancestry and now living in the UK. Choudary. Choudary sees IS as a welfare state where everything the believer needs is taken care of; Wood notes that this may be a reflection of Choudary’s life in London, where he reportedly collected ₤25000/yr in welfare benefits – before he was sentenced to prison for complicacy in the 2005 London bombings. Choudary has attracted quite a following – who Wood calls “Chouderheads”; Wood also notes that Choudary is a frequent television guest, where he adopts a “clownish, weird-beard” personality that is inconsistent with his more serious and therefore more frightening behavior in a personal meeting with Wood.

Wood has several other subjects; an Egyptian tailor who lived in New York and made suits for Paul Newman; an Australian of Italian ancestry who wants to convert part of the Philippines to a caliphate, a Japanese who converted to Islam, an American convert to Sufism (who is under an explicit death sentence by IS for apostasy) and an American “moderate” Muslim (who’s also under an IS death sentence) who blames IS on – George Bush. Their stories are all interesting but I would have preferred more analysis and less anecdote; however this does illustrate the wide variety people who find some sort of appeal in IS.

Wood discusses a couple of things I didn’t know anything about; there’s sort of a Muslim Purgatory – “The Punishment of the Grave” – where the souls of the unrighteous have various unpleasant things happen to them while the souls of the righteous are shown their place in Paradise (you don’t actually get to Paradise – unless you are a martyr – or Hell until the Day of Judgement, but apparently you get to read the brochures). There was also considerable explication of the Muslim Apocalypse, where there are various battles with the infidels, the Antichrist (who is currently imprisoned on an island in the Red Sea), and Gog and Magog (who are subterranean-dwelling subhumans rather than individuals and are imprisoned inside a mountain in Central Asia). The Muslims will be reduced to a tiny holdout taking refuge in Jerusalem until Jesus returns to lead them to victory. In a strange resonance with Christian apocalyptic groups, Muslim fundamentalists keep finding signs in current events indicating the imminence of the Apocalypse, and as Wood notes are not discouraged when prophecies fail to fulfill (Wood comments that this is a general characteristic of apocalyptic groups).

Wood’s a good writer with a dry sense of humor. No illustrations except a Venn diagram in the front matter showing the attitude of IS toward various other groups. Good and useful endnotes but no bibliography (although most references can be picked up from the text or notes). The index seems sparse but I didn’t have any trouble locating things I was looking for. Recommended.


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