In the Critics this week

Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the crisis of Zionism, Stuart Maconie on the Smiths, Helen Lewis on Fifty Shades, Kate Mossman on pop music's nerds and John Sutherland on English studies.

The leader in this week’s New Statesman warns that the window of opportunity for a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly imperilled. Many figures on both sides of the debate have moved towards favouring a single binational, secular state. In the Critics section, Geoffrey Wheatcroft reviews Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism, which charts the former New Republic editor’s increasing disenchantment with Israel - typical of the problematic relationship between American Jews and Israel. Wheatcroft writes: “The settler and Palestinian populations are now so mixed up that a rational and fair partition is practically impossible.” Beinart remains a Zionist who believes that “the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection in their historic land” and as such, Wheatcroft observes, makes for a rather unlikely dissident. But a gulf has opened, Wheatcroft writes, “between the broadly liberal Jewish-American mainstream and the ferociously, uncritically pro-Israeli official “Jewish establishment””. In many ways, the reaction to Zionism means we have come full circle, Wheatcroft writes. “A hundred years ago Zionism was an esoteric doctrine, little understood by most Gentiles and of little appeal to most Jews”. Wheatcroft notes that Beinart belongs to a line of thinking which believes “that there was a decent Zionism and a decent Israel in the state’s early decades when it was ruled by Labour” – a view that Wheatcroft is keen to dispel.

Wheatcroft also examines Norman Finkelstein’s Knowing Too Much. Finkelstein writes that the problem for American Jews is that they “can no longer reconcile their liberalism with what they have come to know about the Israel-Palestine conflict”. Wheatcroft finds that Finkelstein makes for a vexing writer, “who treats fraught or delicate topics such as Zionism or what he calls the 'Holocaust industry' in a sarcastic and rebarbative tone”. But Finkelstein does remind us that “the triumph of Israel was once not only a source of healing pride for American Jews but paradoxically made it easier for them to remain American”. “Gradually, from being a boon, Israel has become a burden for many Jews,” Wheatcroft observes. 
 
Also in Books, Stuart Maconie reviews Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: the Severed Alliance – 20th Anniversary Edition. Rogan’s 1992 biography of the Smiths “astonished most with its Herculean endeavour”, despite having one especially prominent critic – Morrissey. Twenty years later, Maconie still finds the book “the definitive if daunting account of the most romantically mythic band of those times”. Given Morrissey’s mythologising approach to his upbringing, Rogan takes an almost paleontological approach to the Smiths’ prehistory, tackling the group’s family histories in detail. And while Morrissey’s brushes with scandal today border on the absurd, “Rogan reminds us of how genuinely subversive the Smiths were at the time, both musically and ideologically”. Most telling, perhaps, is how the Smiths’ “tortured, arcane financial arrangements underpin the whole narrative”. Far from a story of artistic detachment, “there is much that reads like accountancy here,” Maconie writes, with “many a page given to bank statements, receipts and the labyrinthine ways that the money was (unevenly) split between the members”.
 
Also in the Critics, John Sutherland wonders if change has been good for university English studies. “Centrality is the principal issue,” Sutherland writes. “Departments of English now occupy a position in the university constellation comparable to Uranus in the collar system.” Universities caused political alarm through the 1960s and 1970s as centres of protest. “One way to bring them to heel was to use funding as a short leash drawn throttlingly tight”, Sutherland observes, “less for frugality than to show who was in charge”. Extra-departmental management followed, aimed at introducing “that idolised thing at the time, 'competition'”. The mandatory PhD for entry-level academics and field specialism have produced a shift in which “a subject that had hitherto fostered the undoctored jack of all trades gradually fragmented into a mosaic of doctored specialists”. Heavy undergraduate fees have merely capped off what Sutherland sees as the inexorable deterioration of English studies.
 
In this week’s Critic At Large essay, Helen Lewis looks at how E L James's erotic bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey can be better understood as a throwback to the 18th century. Lewis looks back to 1740, with the publication of Pamela by Samuel Richardson – the first bestseller. Just as James’s work began life in the “slash fiction” genre, with its inferior and feminine associations, Richardson worked “in the upstart novel genre at a time when the heroic couplets of Alexander Pope were regarded as literature’s finest form”. And in many ways, the tame sex and minimalist plotting make Fifty Shades a deeply conventional story. “The “mummy porn” label applied by the media might not be as dismissive as it initially sounds”, Lewis writes.
 
Also in the Critics, Kate Mossman looks at how a generation of nerds is writing music for grown-ups. “Interesting things happen at the point where ambition meets anonymity”, Mossman writes, “you can be a fully formed artistic product before the world even knows you exist”. Mossman examines the Belgian-born Australian singer-songwriter Gotye, responsible for the biggest-selling song in the world this year – “Somebody That I Used To Know”. Gotye spent his twenties living in a former family home in Melbourne “rent-free, tooling around with vintage synths to his heart’s content”. Gotye, along with Kimbra and Monáe – musicians who sound like 1980s pop stars – have been defined above all by an isolated upbringing.  The reach of the internet and laptop technology mean “there’s a new route for the old-fashioned pop star”. It’s all about perfectionism, Mossman argues: “The more nerdy you are, the more artistic control you retain. The penniless, jack-of-all trades musician can take punk’s DIY ethic and reach the world with it now”.
 
Elsewhere in the Critics: Suzy Klein on the great conductors; Yo Zushi on the rise of David Bowie; Leo Robson on Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia; Rachel Cooke on Wallander; Antonia Quirke on the final broadcast from Bush House; Ryan Gilbey reviews the latest Batman film, and Will Self is seduced by his new smartphone.
 
One half of a severed alliance: Morrissey (Photo: Getty Images)
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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era