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The Way of the Strangers. Encounters with the Islamic State. Graeme Wood. Reflections on Islamism.

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The Way of the Strangers. Encounters with the Islamic State. Graeme Wood. Allen Lane 2017. La Fracture. Gilles Kepel. Gallimard/France Culture. 2016. Pour les Musulmans. Edwy Plenel. 2015 (2014).

The problem must be posed anew, the hypotheses inverted, for in this domain ‘ideology’ is but another name for ignorance: the religious expression of a social phenomenon is not its disguise, but its unveiling. Gilles Kepel. (1)

From the 7th of January 2015 Islamist murders at Charlie Hebdo and the Vincennes Hyper Cacher to the massacre on the 14th of July in Nice, on the Promenade des Anglais, was for those living in France, Gilles Kepel, begins La Fracture, “une année terrible”. That the anniversary of the 2016 jihadist killings in Belgium was marked last week by the Westminster atrocity has brought the Islamic State, Daesh, back to European headlines. In Mosul and Syria ferocious battles, waged with few scruples, continue against their genocidal tyranny.

Some figures have reacted to the latest tragedy with what Nick Cohen calls the “lies of the right” – Nigel Farage’s tirade against “migration” in first place – “debase civilised society.” (Observer 26.03.17) In Pour Les Musulmans the journalist Edwy Plenel one of the first to signal the dangers of Le Pen and the Front National in the 1980s (L’Effet Le Pen 1984 Edwy Plenel and Alain Rollathas written a generous appeal, in the spirit of Émile Zola’s Pour les Juifs (1896). Against hatred, and the accumulated prejudices against Muslims that makes them a “global enemy” and target in French political life, Plenel offers the British reaction to the 2005 London carnage, “We Are Not Afraid”.

Perhaps now is also the moment to look anew at Jihadism, the most violent wing of Islamism. In his column Cohen reflects a wider dissatisfaction with those who try to explain these outrages as responses to western foreign policy (the ‘anti-imperialist’ left), or the ‘result’ of multiculturalism (the ‘alt-right’).

Kepel was an early critic of the view that political Islam was a “mask” for deeper social causes. Since 9/11 we have heard much of the “religious disguise” that Al-Qaeda and now Daesh presented, while the ‘real’ issue of Western intervention, or more generally ‘neo-liberal globalisation’.  While these abstractions count for little, there are without doubt hard social facts that help extreme forms of Islamism flourish. In France the social divisions that leave many of those of North African descent marginalised, time in prison, and the psychological fragility of individuals, are conditions working behind the acts of individual Jihadists. But “l’idéologie donne la conscience de l’action et en détermine la forme.” Ideology is material, and exists, in ISIS/ISIL, as an organised would-be state, with international offshoots. Daesh, Kepel states, aims to provoke a violent fracture in France, which their ideologues elaborate from Salafist materials, a conquest of Europe, ending in the mass conversion, the enslavement or extermination of the inhabitants. (2)

The Islamic State.
These may be outrageous beliefs, but Kepel does not misrepresent them. The Way of Strangers is a thorough account, first hand evidence, of Islamic State ideas. Those wearied by the media use of the “so-called” before Islamic State will find that, after consideration, Wood, uses the term they use themselves. He shifts the attention to what they are and not to what a ‘real’ ‘Islamic’ state might be. It cannot be grasped as “Jacobinism with an Islamic veneer. It has its own story, the will of god written on the battlefield.

“The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State is belied by the crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight. “(3) Not only does it issue mountains of Fatwas and other pious declarations, but also, Wood demonstrates, the Islamic state cannot be understood without a deep immersion in the ideology of Salafism and a variety of Islamic schools. The “simplest explanation” for their roots is that their founders were “extreme Islamists”. As for effort to dismiss their faith basis, those doing so rarely have any knowledge of the clerics and scholars in its ranks.

“Since 2010, tens of thousands of men, women and children have migrated to a theoretic state, under the belief that migration is a sacred obligation and that the state’s leader is the worldly successor of the last and greatest of prophets. If religious scholars see no role for religion in a mass movement like this, they see no role for religion in the world.” (4)

In meetings, across the world, with those in sympathy with this goal Wood talks to figures, many of them converts, Musa Cerantonio, ‘Yahya’, Anjem Choudary, and some with decided distance from the Islamic state, such as Hamza Yusuf. The Way of Strangers melds these encounters, invariably over Halal food, with considerations on Islamic history, above all the legal school of Dhaharism, which rigorously bases its rulings on the Qur’an and the prophet, and no additional material or judgements. Parallels with the seventh century Kharijites, a vicious Muslim splinter group who practised mass excommunication, and denied all authority but their own, are dawn.

As one reads The Way of Strangers happy talk about Islam as a “religion of peace” quickly evaporates. The ‘literalist’ Islam of the Islamic, baked by scriptural authority, state sanctions the most severe forms of Hudud punishment, slavery, infamously including sexual captives, and the regulation of all aspects of personal life fused around loathing of the non-licit and the ‘kuffer’. It is obsessed with, The Way of Strangers continues, the takfir¸ the “sport” of declaring those who disagree with them and claim to be Muslims “apostates” under sentence of death. It has genocidal intentions, already put into practice against Yazidis. Wild dreams of a worldwide apocalypse the Islamic state’s followers, to come in decades not months, round off the picture.

Religious Genocide.

Most people do not want, Wood writes, to be part of a religion seen as “fanatical and bloodthirsty.”Most religions have zealots that the mainstream would prefer to make disappear and the Muslim bind is not unique”. Yet, is the Islamic State Muslim? “Whether it is ‘legitimate; is a question other believers answer for themselves, overwhelmingly in the negative” That can be said of any minority, “the group led and supported by Muslims albeit Muslims with whom they vociferously disagree.” To say that it has “nothing to do with Islam” is to deny that they “cite Koran, hadiths, and carefully selected thinkers within the Islamic tradition.” In brief, the denial of the Muslim roots of Daesh is a way of avoiding answering uncomfortable questions, starting with the fact that the Qu’ran does contain verses that support slavery, sexual oppression, and is riddled with ideas that are hard to reconcile with democratic values. Word for word reading shows them, and reasoning by analogy, historical context, and other methods used to adjust Islam to today, on the model perhaps of Saint Augustine’s 5th century reading of the Bible in On Christian Doctrine  always runs up against the problem that the book is claimed, however bizarrely, to be the inerrant word of god. (5).

The Way of Strangers is not just an important and brave book. It is a way of confronting difficult issues about religious politics above all religious genocide based on a form of spiritual racism. The immediate response to defend universal human rights a point of unity between people. Yet Wood leaves us with multiple dilemmas. If the Islamic State is now facing defeat in its Caliphate, will it be able to retain and rebuild support in other violent conditions? What will happen to those who have joined its genocidal regime? Will they return home, or will they, like the butchers of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen be tried and imprisoned?


(1) Page 234. Gilles Kepel. The Roots of Radical Islam Saqi 2005. Originally published as Le Prophète et Pharaon. La Découverte. 1984.
(2) Pages 47 and 256 – 8 La Fracture. Gilles Kepel.
(3) Page 73. The Way of Strangers. Encounters with the Islamic State. Graeme Wood.
(4) Page 77. The Way of Strangers.
(5) Pages 217 – 8 .The Way of Strangers.



2 Responses

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  1. With this — ‘ the religious expression of a social phenomenon is not its disguise, but its unveiling’ — are we not in danger of mystifying things? Surely, a rationalist must view religious beliefs and actions that staunch religious believers predicate upon those beliefs — from ultra-violence à la ISIS to ultra-pacifism à la Quakers, and all points in between — as human inventions and human choices, predicated upon socially-determined conditions (that is, conditions created by humans), responding to them? If not, then how do religious beliefs emerge and develop? Rationalists do not consider them to be the ‘Word of God’ as we do not acknowledge the existence of any supreme being: so they can only be the product of human beings as they try to come to terms with the social world they have created around them and the physical world in which they find themselves and with which they try to deal in a social manner.

    So why should ISIS be seen as any different to any other form of religious group that uses violence and tries to justify its acts by way of reference to holy texts? Is ISIS qualitatively essentially different to the Christian rightists’ assassination of abortion clinic staff, Hindu and Buddhist monks and their respective attacks on Muslims in India and Burma, West Bank frummer settlers… and so on? Or different from violent religious manifestation of the past, such as the Christian Crusades or the various bouts of anti-Jewish violence run by Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians?

    Is ISIS immune from a rationalist analysis? If its religious expression is its essence, then a rationalist analysis is impossible, it’s a tautology. Would one try to explain, say, Christian anti-Semitism without looking at the specific social role that Jews tended to play in Christendom? Or the rise of Protestantism outwith the socio-economic changes affecting northern Europe? Or the rise of millenarian Christian groups in the English Civil War outwith the fundamental changes occurring in English society?

    The rise of a violent, millenarian form of Sunni Islam has to be investigated in a rationalist way, rooting it in the various social factors at play in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. These factors are manifold and complex, and I don’t feel that there is any one single cause for its rise as a current, nor for the attraction it has for its recruits: there are various stages of mediation between those often mundane, earthly causes and both the rise of a social movement and the believer’s acceptance of the beliefs firing him or her. I think that there is a rational explanation for even the most irrational examples of human behaviour: and the discovery of that explanation for irrational religious manifestations is impossible unless one goes outwith the consciousness of its believers to the real, material, social world in which they live.

    Dr Paul

    March 28, 2017 at 5:11 pm

  2. Gilles Kepel’s argument was part of his book, Le Prophète et Pharaon, about the Muslim Brotherhood, the nexus of a large part of Islamism – although clearly not the element inspired by Iran. It is against reducing religious movements to economics and class causes., in favour of explaining its internal ideological and political dynamic.

    The quote is part of a response to Engels on peasant millenarianism (The Peasant War in Germany). This is famous for saying that, ““in the popular risings of the Christian West…the religious disguise is only a flag and a mask for attacks on an economic order which is becoming antiquated”. In fact the attack, while very relevant as a warning against this tendency, and the allied claim that Islamism is an attack on “imperialism”, fails to deal with the more numerous modern Marxist approaches which look further, in the words of Graham Mustin in the SWP journal International Socialism. (Issue: 147. July 2015) that,

    “A a point in history in which religious belief was ubiquitous it would be surprising if those involved in popular movements of revolt did not justify their rebellion, to themselves and others, in religious terms. Their understanding of religion provided an ideological framework through which they perceived the social and economic situation in which they found themselves. Religion, in particular the apocalyptic prophecies in the Book of Revelation, also gave them hope in their conflict with the superior military forces they faced. Only a genuine belief in the intervention of God on their side could have encouraged such large numbers of the poor to risk revolt.”

    Religion and revolution in the Middle Ages.Graham Mustin


    The religious expression is open to a rationalist analysis, that is the work of ideological, ‘discursive’ study. That it should include the social explanations you talk of Paul is indicated by Kepel’s present-day formulations, such as the social ‘fracture’ in France.

    That he says of Jihadism that “l’idéologie donne la conscience de l’action et en détermine la forme”, he is obviously pointing to an important fact: religious ideology is determinate in selecting the targets for murder, the obsessive regulation of the world in terms of pure and impure, and the excommunication of those who deviate from their ‘line’.

    If only the SWP applied Mustin’s views on medieval Christian revolts to Islamism they would of course run up against the difficulty that Daesh and other forms of violent Islamism are not revolts against ‘imperialism’ but bound to totalitarian mechanisms of oppression against all but the pure believers.

    Andrew Coates

    March 29, 2017 at 11:27 am

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