Jürgen Todenhöfer


down with the idiots

[note: I’ve been reading the German original]

The story: Jürgen Todenhöfer is a German journalist with a background in politics and law who takes a strong interest in the Muslim world, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the winter of 2014/2015, he decides to contact members of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) in Syria in order to do some on-the-ground reporting.

It takes a while for him to establish a basic level of trust, but he eventually receives an official invitation by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the organization. He travels to Turkey with his son, and they get taken across the border to Syria. They spend several days there, carrying out interviews and learning about the lives of the ordinary people. This book came out a few months after all this.

why talk about this book?

This is obviously not a travel book in the original sense. And while large parts of Todenhöfer’s account are made up of interviews and political commentary, there is actually some traveling going on as well: he shares his doubts and concerns before departing from Germany to Turkey (providing himself with a dose of poison intended for suicide in case IS should want to kill him), and he vividly describes the border crossings into Syria and back.

He also shares some of his observations of every day life within the so-called “Islamic State”, making it a relevant piece of journalism.

Jürgen Todenhöfer’s message

There’s so much talk going on about IS these days, so it felt good to have access to a first-hand account of what might be going on on the ground. Some of the interviews are real eye-openers when it comes to the hubris and idiocy of the members.

You have to applaud Todenhöfer’s bravery for even going there in the first place. His writing is a bit dry at times, but the parts where he is talking about his “travel” experience are fast-paced and interesting to read.

But make no mistake: Todenhöfer is a man with a message: he sees the emergence of IS mainly as a failure of Western politics in the Middle East, and he makes a strong point in distinguishing between regular Muslims and the terrorists of IS.

You can choose to agree or disagree with Todenhöfer’s opinions, but this is still a valuable book to read. That being said, it owes most of its value to its relevance – as soon as IS becomes a less powerful factor in the Middle East, this book will probably feel a bit outdated.

who might want to read this

Todenhöfer’s feat of visiting IS is very impressive. His writing style is okayish, and his storytelling is good. Some of his observations and insights are very interesting, but they seem to be valuable mainly because of the historical moment.

Read this if you are interested in (Islamic) terrorism, specifically IS.

Also read: Tuvia Tenenbom, for a perspective on a similar (if only less radical) problem – German antisemitism.