The approach of the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS) is grounded in theological beliefs and tradition from the earliest Muslims of the 7th century, explains journalist Graeme Wood. Mr. Wood, this spring’s Class of 1952 Speaker for Religious Understanding, is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and lecturer in political science at Yale University. His Atlantic cover story, “What ISIS Really Wants,” was the most-read piece on the Internet in 2015.
“Believers in the Islamic State feel that most of Islamic history after the 7th century was a wrong turn,” he said to students and faculty on Wednesday. “They believe they are reviving something that hasn’t existed in a long time.” Mr. Wood spent the last few years reading and analyzing Islamic State propaganda and speaking with its followers from around the world as he tried to understand who they are, what they believe, and where this is all going.
“Out of all the religions, the Islamic State is least interested in diversity of faith,” he said. “They are the most intolerant, and the most desiring to obliterate other faiths. They would say there is only one path.” Mr. Wood also noted that the rise of ISIS has historical parallels in Judaism, Christianity and some secular movements. One example is the Christian Reformation of the 16th century.
ISIS came to the forefront in 2014, when a group of 500 men took over the city of Mosul in Iraq. Since then, they have strategically expanded into depressed areas suffering from war, corruption and poverty. They quickly establish their rule of law and bring some order back to the lives of residents.
Mr. Wood said one of the main differences between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is that while al-Qaeda went to great lengths to conceal itself from the outside world, the Islamic State “went radically public” and “stepped in with a concentrated propaganda effort where they explained what they are all about.”
“Savagery we were unaccustomed to seeing was put on camera. The Islamic State wanted us to see, in high definition, and show the entire world. This was disarming to many in my profession. For media and journalists there has been a learning curve in how we approach this story, this content, and how we cover it as news.”
The Islamic State wanted its message to be accessible globally, in an attempt to recruit Muslims from around the world to migrate to their territory.
“I was puzzled at first as to why someone from the U.S. or London, Japan or Australia would want to be part of this. But some saw these areas in Iraq or Syria as almost a Jurassic Park of early Islam—a fantasy where they could create something unique in the world.”
Mr. Wood recently published his first book, on this topic, titled The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State. He has been a Turkey and Kurdistan analyst for Jane’s, a contributing editor to The New Republic, and books editor of Pacific Standard. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The American Scholar, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune.
The Endowed Speaker for Religious Understanding is a gift from graduates of Milton’s Class of 1952. Each year, the series brings renowned speakers to campus and provides a forum for discussing, and coming to understand, the diverse faiths practiced in our country and around the world.