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Book Review – Islamic State, Rewriting History

Apart from being pointed at as the most credible menace for stability in the Middle East and the West, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (Is) is also a case study for experts in history and political science.

How one among the many militias active in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq could turn into a regional actor capable of revolutionize borders established almost a century ago by the superpowers of the time, in fact, is a question worth asking and which probably has no univocal answer.

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The increasingly big headlines Is keeps making in the news and the thirst of the general public for explanations about this enigmatic group are among the reasons which brought to a proliferation of books having the Islamic State as their subject. Michael Griffin’s Islamic State, rewriting history is the latest product of this interpretive effort. Described by the publisher as “a fast-paced, accessible overview of the dramatic events unfolding in the Middle East”, Griffin’s book has many features in common with those which preceded it but essentially one difference: its length. The author takes a mere 176 pages (including footnotes and maps) to draw what he defines “a contour map” of the movement and “a chronological approach to Is in the Middle East and not in subsequent expansion to Afghanistan and Nigeria”.

boo 4While brevity is certainly one of the factors that makes the book easily readable, it also represents its main weakness. This is quite evident since the first two chapters, which have as a subject the US detention facility of Camp Bucca in Iraq (where some future Islamic State cadres, including the self -anointed ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were detained after the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal) and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordan-born jihadi leader whose organization was the forerunner of Is in Iraq. As important as these two subjects are to explain the rise of the movement that repeatedly threatened Europe in its videos, they are dealt with in just 19 pages in all. Similar consideration can obviously be made for a number of potentially interesting remarks which are present throughout the book: in a few words, therefore,  Islamic State, rewriting history can be described as a chronological approach to the issue, cut to the bone.
Generally speaking, the contents of the book barely differ from those of many others on the same subject (whose best example still is Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s Isis, inside the army of terror). It takes into account IS’s beginnings in Iraq, the regional effects of the so called Arab Spring, the multitude of geopolitical players (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Iraq and Iran) engaged in a power game on the long run and the role that this struggle has played in giving birth to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organization. When coming more specifically to Syria, Griffin, whose chronology ends with the end of the siege laid to the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, retraces the history of the uprising against  the Bashar el-Assad regime and its responses to a growing opposition; the human cost of the war; the role played by the Free Syrian Army, Islamist groups, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia; the chemical weapons attacks in 2013; and the subsequent vote with which the House of Commons decided not to impose a no-fly zone over the country.

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However, all this material is dealt with in a slightly different manner if compared to the already mentioned work of Weiss and Hassan and to similar ones: while these rely on a vast number of both direct and indirect sources, Griffin quotes almost exclusively English-language publications. Also the authors’ profiles  influence the nature of the respective works: in fact, while Weiss and Hassan, but also Patrick Cockburn (author of The Rise of the Islamic State) and Andrew Hosken (Empire of Fear. Inside the Islamic State) are journalists and reporters, Griffin is a political analyst and commentator for BBC World, Sky News and Al Jazeera.
It’s no wonder, so, that in the book a great space is given to the political and strategical background of the rise of Isis and also to its likely consequences. The latter are specifically addressed in a brief postscript, entitled Saddam’s ghost, in which the author advocates for an agreement between two of the most bitter foes in the region: the united States and Iran. In making such a deal possible, according to Griffin, also the Islamic state can play an almost unthinkable yet indirect role: convincing the powers battling in the region of the necessity of reaching a consensus to avoid the worst case scenario. However, the few lines in which this thesis is sketched, while it would have deserved a greater space, are a good summary of both the potentialities of the book and of its main weakness, originating in its lack of in-depth analysis.

Michael Griffin, Islamic State. Rewriting history Pluto Press, London 2015, 176 pp.

(D.M.)

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