Graeme Wood: The Islamic State and the roots of its ideology

It isn't pure Islam, and it isn't not-Islam. So what is ISIS, and why should you care?

And what is ISIS?
And what is ISIS?

CHARLOTTE, N.C., February 25, 2015 — Not long ago, Graeme Wood wrote a cover story for Atlantic Monthly that was a truly eloquent analysis of ISIS and the roots of their ideology.

Since that article was published Wood has received significant feedback. So much so that he felt the need to respond to it.

According to Wood, his purpose was to research the subject of the Islamic State in order to uncover its true message. As Wood put it, when he began his search, “the dominant cliché about ISIS was that it was thrill-kill group that had hijacked Islam for its own ends.” What he discovered was that the Islamic State is anything but a thrill-kill execution squad that has hijacked a religion.

Wood completely contradicts the message being put out by the White House and most of the mainstream media that “ISIS is not Islam.”

His research seems to have surprised him. “The investigation yielded something like the opposite conclusion: ISIS had hijacked secular sources of power and grievance, and was using them for religious ends—ends that are, at least among some supporters, sincere and carefully thought through.”

Graeme Wood is the sort of writer whose intelligent interpretations must be read two or three times to comprehend the full weight of his meaning. As a result, the responses he received, both pro and con, were equally well expressed. This put the debate on an intellectual plane that requires close attention.

Wood writes, “the type of religious ideology ISIS espouses is remarkably well-adapted for brutal enforcement of group membership. This type of jihadi-Salafism, unapologetically aimed at purifying Islam through killing, was obsessively policing its adherents well before the rise of the Islamic State. Understanding that sect is a way to understand its associated identity.”

Islamic practice was brutal long before ISIS came into being. Some 14 centuries before, in fact. But Wood points out that Andrew Anderson prefers to use the Middle Ages as the point of inception for Islamic barbarism rather than the 7th century, which still leaves 700 years of atrocities against mankind with which to contend.

Both Anderson and Frank Griffel, a colleague of Wood, emphatically believe the ideology of early Islam is substantially different from medieval Islam in several important ways.

While that may be true, there can be no denying that the Koran is the road map for ISIS and that it is the product of one individual, the Prophet Muhammad.

Among the reactions from the Islamic State itself, Wood reported multiple tweets which gave him a back door sense of satisfaction.

“Those whose comments I saw,” writes Wood, “were delighted that I had taken their ideology seriously and concluded that ISIS is an Islamic group. Their delight pleases me only because my intention was to describe the group in terms it recognized and considered fair. I suppose at least some supporters thought I succeeded, or at least came closer than the last infidel who tried.”

Legitimacy is a huge factor for the Islamic State and other terror organizations, and so far we have done very little to counter their claims.

Citing an Islamist supporter who responded to him, Wood writes, “The enemies of Muslims prefer to fight their imaginary war based upon rational freedom-loving democrats vs. irrational evil terrorist madmen.”

As the respondent points out, if the road map does exist for extremists who are following it to the letter, then why doesn’t the West develop legitimate strategies to defeat them?

“What stands out to me that others don’t seem to discuss much, is how the Islamic State, Osama (bin Laden) and others are operating as if they are reading from a script that was written 1,400 years ago. They not only follow these prophecies, but plan ahead based upon them. One would therefore assume that the enemies of Islam would note this and prepare adequately, (emphasis added) but (it’s) almost as if they feel that playing along would mean that they believe in the prophecies too, and so they ignore them and go about things their own way.

“With this in mind, maybe you can understand to some degree one of the reasons why many Muslims will share your piece. It’s not because we don’t understand what it is saying in terms of how to defeat the Muslims, rather it’s because we know that those in charge will ignore it and screw things up anyway.”

Wood concludes that, as might be expected, the truth lies somewhere in the middle between the idea that ISIS “has nothing to do with Islam” and that ISIS is “Islam in its purest manifestation.”

Unfortunately, for the moment the West is still mired in ignorance, and until that changes, there is no hope for true victory.


Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News. Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod


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