Incarceration, meant as punishment, is turning out to be a medium of education for victims.
The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood; Random House, 352 pages, $15.98 hard cover; 2016.
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 2001, and Anjem Chaudary (in Britain) became icons of resistance in prison, though they did not perpetrate any terrorist acts. Similarly, Musa Cerantonio (in Australia) 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 Graeme Wood seems uninterested in pursuing, is of course the occupation of Muslim lands and territories, 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, Yahyah 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. John Georgelas also made good use of his three-year stint. No doubt Chaudary 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 Yusuf were born and grew up in Marin County, California, Lindh a kind of new generation to Yusuf. Growing up in the 1960s made Hamza Yusuf a Sufi, studying in Morocco with ‘Abdullah ibn Bayyah. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s made Lindh a jihadi, a good American, just taking Reagan’s support for the Afghans fighting the Soviet Union at face value.
Though Wood pokes fun at most of his characters, his own grudging attraction to much of Islam comes through. He genuinely likes and respects Yusuf, Qadhi and Michot as sober intellectuals. He faults Qadhi for countering Yusuf’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 traveled several times to Australia to spend many hours with Cerantonio, attending his makeshift masjid (in the YMCA, as his group could not get permission for establishing a formal masjid), 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 Cerantonio 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 — Australian — Georgelas, Lindh, and Yusuf — white American converts. Interestingly, there are no European figures that 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 Pentagon’s 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 started 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 Jibril, and to go to Syria as a journalist to meet with ISIS and find out himself. Wood demurred, saying he feared execution. Lindh countered 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:
1. Dugma: The Button (2016) by Norwegian journalist Paul Refsdal, who embedded with al-Nusra Front in Syria
2. 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 (https://www.oneworld.cz/2017/news/224-nowhere-to-hide-named-best-film-at-one-world-2017);
3. Heaven (2014) by BBC, showing life behind the lines
4. There are several documentaries at ahlulbayt tv
Will the Muslims’ divisions lead to further splits and continued upheaval? Islam has a firmer foundation than Judaism and Christianity — the Qur’an. Issues of interpretation and adaptation to the needs of the real world involve qiyas (example), ‘urf (tradition), maslahah (social needs), and ijtihad (reasoning). There are limits to this; the Shari‘ah (hadd, bay‘ah) is the foundation, the Qur’an the ultimate arbiter. The Kharijites did not destroy Islam, and neither will ISIS, but we have a responsibility to keep the faith alive.