Jürgen Todenhöfer (Greystone Books 2016)
Since we all know ISIS has a gruesome track record of beheading journalists, I couldn’t help but think this book might be a tribute posthumously to the German author who was either crazy or terribly brave to venture into Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq … both held by ISIS (al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham) or the acronym Daesh. Thankfully, Jürgen Todenhöfer, his son, and another young German made it out alive to share this story which is both about their journey but also a warning to the West (especially the United States).
Frederic went along with his father to serve as his photographer after he couldn’t convince his father to back out. Some of his photos are here.
Todenhöfer went to the so-called Islamic State for 10 days in December 2014 after lengthy negotiations for some type of assurance from ISIS that he would return safely to his home in Germany. Before he traveled, he shared with his ISIS contacts on the Internet his objection to the violence perpretated by ISIS. But he promised to report honestly what he saw and learned. ISIS took great pains to ensure that he saw only what they wanted him to see, and spoke with only those whom ISIS approved. Before they returned to Germany, ISIS confiscated their camera and recording equipment to review everything they shot, keeping the original and returning copies to them.
The Guardian published some excerpts from his book here, the Independent here, and Huffington Post here, but I had never heard of him until I came across the book at the Enoch Pratt Library in March 2017.
Some of the insights Todenhöfer learned on his journey: Everyone is selling weapons to ISIS because money corrupts. Even the weapons that Western powers are providing to “moderate” factions are ending up in the hands of ISIS fighters.
The Emir of ISIS approved of President George W. Bush’s maxim — either you are with us or you are against us. Makes me wonder if the innocent Arabs being slaughtered by US airstrikes and drones think Bush-Obama-Trump are the western version of ISIS.
Todenhöfer spent alot of time questioning his guide, Abu Qatadah, whose birth name is Christian from Germany. He met with Abu Qatadah’s mother in Germany and learned that he was a gifted student, always asking questions.
Author: Most of the Muslims I got to know in Germany were very dedicated Muslims.
Abu Qatadah: What were they dedicated to?
Author: Perhaps not to the same Islam as you but to the belief in one God, the belief that you should do good and avoid evil. That, as a Muslim, you have certain duties. There are many people I admire for the strength in their beliefs.
Abu Qatadah: If a person like that strives to do good and to do nothing bad and maintains he’s doing this in the name of one God and so on and so forth but, in the end, votes or encourages people to take part in democratic elections or submit to democracy, then this person has clearly committed apostasy and betrayed Islam. This person is no longer living according to a belief in one God, but giving someone else the right to make laws. But this right is Allah’s alone. That is apostasy against Islam. These people are no longer Muslims. As I said, most people decided long ago which side they belong to.
According to ISIS, the presidents in the Arab world are not Muslim presidents but Western presidents. They might have a lot of money but they’re following the wrong path. Everyone who accepts democracy and its laws is following the wrong path. They are putting man-made laws above God’s laws. The right to pass laws doesn’t lie with any parliament “but with Allah alone.”
Many of the descriptions of Mosul under ISIS rule seem eerily normal. Weddings, markets and many of the street scenes could be from any Arab country, not the hell we might envision. ISIS even has its own license plates and is working on establishing its own currency tied to the gold standard.
We drive to a restaurant. While we eat lamb kebabs, rice, and bread, Abu Loth [another ISIS guide] tells us he doesn’t believe IS [the Islamic State] can be defeated. He personally has given up all his worldly goods and left his family so that he can die here in IS. The pull is just that great. Everyone here is ready to give the shirt off his back. “We go into battle wearing explosive belts. We want to fight to the last shot. You don’t.” He wants to face the ultimate enemy soon. The Americans. “They cause us so much misery. In jails like Abu Ghraib, in Guantanamo, in Afghanistan, here.” Obama is just clueless. All he wants to do is pacify his people. That’s the reason for the hesitant air strikes he uses in Mosul, which kill mostly civilians. Every strike is a cowardly murder of civilians. But the bombing raids are a gift that draws more and more people to IS. And a new desire to engage with the Americans very soon.
In Mosul, the author describes their growing fear of the American fighter planes and drones circling overhead. As a former pilot, he knows their vision is good and that they’re watching people on the ground. They decide to go sit next to a field where young people are playing a soccer game. Surely, they wouldn’t target them there, he thinks. That reminds me of Gaza, and the Palestinians living beneath the sound of Israeli planes and drones, and the four Bakr boys killed on the beach with air strikes in 2014.
My Journey into the Heart of Terror is worth reading for anyone curious about life in the Islamic State, despite the extreme lengths that ISIS went to shape the propaganda. I suspect that Todenhöfer stuck to his end of the bargain and faithfully reported what he saw and learned, just as ISIS wanted. He then went one step further and shared a warning to the West in the last chapter. If you don’t want to read the entire book, I commend the last chapter as a MUST READ. Todenhöfer doesn’t hold back.
First he explains history and our hypocrisy. In gory detail.
According to the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the West has always dealt with Arabs as though they were lesser humans on a level with the higher apes. They were the “inhabitants” of Arabia but not the real “owners” of the land. Even the great French politician and journalist Alexis de Tocqueville stated: “If we reason from what passes in the world, we should almost say that the European is to the other races of mankind what man himself is to the lower animals: he makes them subservient to his use, and when he cannot subdue them he destroys them.”
In the past two hundred years, an Arab country has never once invaded a Western country. The aggressors have always been the European superpowers. Millions of Arab civilians have been brutally murdered in these conflicts. Talk of the cruelty of the Muslims turns all the facts upside down. The West has been far more cruel.
It is difficult for the Western public to see through such cynical Western political maneuvers. They really believe we are on the side of “good”. The bogeyman of Islam, as portrayed by the West for hundreds of years, has made a deep impression. But it is a manipulated image.
Terrorists see their attacks as a justified answer to the aggressively exploitative policies of the USA, which treats their countries as though they were nothing more than American gas stations. And employs the most brutal methods. Day after day, year after year, young Muslims in Germany and in Iraq see how Muslim men, women, and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine are severely wounded or killed by Western weapons, Western allies, and soldiers from the West. Until some of them, at some point, react. No one comes into this world a terrorist.
The West has learned nothing from the disasters in domestic policy resulting from its military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Not even from the simultaneous explosion in terrorism. As a rule, children burn their fingers on a hot stove only once. The West, however, initiates its counterproductive bombing strategy time and time again. Einstein supposedly once said two things are aparently infinite: the universe and human stupidity. And he wasn’t completely sure about the universe. The unfathomable depths of human stupidity are no longer a matter for debate. All you have to do is look at the American war on terror.
Jürgen Todenhöfer has a very clear recommendation for U.S. foreign policy going forward. I won’t give it away, but to simply note that the current policy under the Trump Administration appears to be headed diametrically in the opposite direction. If we ask our military and the military industrial complex for recommendations regarding foreign policy, undoubtedly we will get more of the same — bombs, drones and an escalating military defense (offense?) budget. Maybe we should listen to this journalist.