An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State

Brian L. Steed

ABC-CLIO Press, Santa Barbara, California, 2016, 197 pages

Book Review published on: August 18, 2017

ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State delivers precisely what the title suggests—a well-organized primer that escorts readers through the complex task of understanding a “state” very different from their own. Since the inception of the Islamic State (IS), the media has offered the American public an enormous amount of information to digest. Brian Steed masterfully distills this information into a “so what” reference guide for anyone wanting to make sense of the conflict or understand the salafi-jihadist narrative.

Organization of the book is in two major parts. The first consists of a set of short chapters orienting the reader to the composition, history, and ideas of IS. The second part is essentially an encyclopedia of IS related terms. With fifty-nine entries that encompass over 50 percent of the book, this section is a brilliant reference guide that emphasizes the importance of places (Mosul), people (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), groups (Khawarij), ideas (Bay’ah), and events (Battle of Tikrit). Each entry concludes with a concise but enlightening section titled “Why does it matter to ISIS?” Readers at all levels of knowledge will likely experience moments of connection and clarity.

To illustrate, westerners view slavery and evil as inextricably intertwined. In this matter, humanitarianism demands freedom and requires justice. However, this argument misses the fact that IS does not consider all humans equal. Nonbelieving women, for example, are considered chattel and can be bought and sold accordingly. As the author shows, this belief is not arbitrary but has basis in the hadith.

Why did IS bulldoze the berm dividing Iraq and Syria? It was erasing the lines drawn by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and rejecting the Western notion of statehood. This is another sample of the clarity this book provides. IS rejects the Peace of Westphalia (1648 CE), the United Nations Charter, and the Western idea of government separate from religious guidance. In this way, Steed argues, they are a “post-state” with a narrative of returning the global governing paradigm back to caliphate. Therefore, the standard tools of diplomacy—economic sanctions, trade agreements, global recognition, etc.—have little utility.

The book enables a reader to appreciate, or at least understand, the narrative of IS. One will better grasp the humiliation of the Ottoman Empire collapse, more fully understand the hatred Sunni jihadists have for Shia, realize the significance of the caliphate, and marvel at the attractiveness of Salafi ideology for a generation of disenfranchised youth. Consequently, the reader is armed with essentials to evaluate the West’s countermessaging.

This book could have been improved with the inclusion of maps. The author introduces the reader to places like Palmyra, Kobane, and Dabiq without any visual or graphic orientation, leaving readers without tools to relate locations spatially. Nevertheless, the author’s unique contribution to the field is his ability to synthesize key ideas and make them accessible to ordinary readers. ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State is a “one-stop” reference guide suitable for both commanders and those wanting to make sense of the nightly news. It would be an excellent addition to any battalion or squadron library.

Book Review written by: Chaplain (Maj.) Joshua J. Gilliam, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas