Proper Gander: The Jihadis’ Tale
Through the dramas he has written and directed for Channel 4, Peter Kosminsky has explored the impact which war has had on the people caught up in it. The Government Inspector (2005) dramatized UN weapons inspector Dr David Kelly’s role in undermining the government’s attempted justification for the Iraq War, while The Promise (2011) was set in Palestine, drawing links between the situation under the British mandate in the 1940s with that in the 2000s. His latest drama, The State, tells the stories of young, enthusiastic jihadis who travel from Britain to Syria to fight for ISIS. Over four episodes, we follow the characters from their arrival in an ISIS stronghold to when life under the regime brings disillusionment with what they have committed themselves to.
The characters were based on real people who were interviewed by the programme’s researchers. As most British ISIS fighters who have returned are in prison, researchers largely drew on the experiences of people who were not from the UK. Unfortunately, any research into how they came to believe in ISIS’ interpretation of Islam enough to join didn’t end up in the script. More depth is needed in characters taking up four hours of screen time (including commercial breaks, featuring adverts for enlisting with the army, appropriately enough). Kosminsky explored the journey to becoming a religious fanatic in his 2007 drama Britz, so maybe he didn’t want to repeat himself. But if we can’t understand his characters’ motives, it’s harder to understand the appeal of a barbaric organisation like ISIS, or the mindset it encourages. ‘Radicalisation’ is often talked about in the media in the same way as a disease, as if people become infected with extreme ideas which then take hold much like the flu virus. This approach can simplistically ignore how our views are shaped by our experiences in a divided, competitive society. So, a life of feeling alienated and powerless could push someone vulnerable to swallowing ISIS’ warped worldview to find an identity and purpose there.
Instead of focusing on radicalisation, the drama concentrates more on its reverse, the process of becoming disillusioned with ISIS. One character gets frustrated at how her role as a doctor is impeded by having to wear a niqāb while working and being ordered to harvest organs from injured enemy troops, and when her son becomes drawn in to jihad. Another gets disenchanted with the regime because he doesn’t want to treat ISIS’ prisoners or his slaves brutally. In both cases, disillusionment comes when the characters’ more established values conflict with those of ISIS.
While the lack of background to the characters is disappointing, the programme is more revealing in the details of life in ISIS-run Raqqa. Until they marry off and rent a home with their partners, male and female mujahideen live in segregated, rule-driven shared houses. The men are trained up to be soldiers, while the women are trained up to be wives. The scenes set in and around the women’s house are unsettlingly reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale (see July’s Socialist Standard). In both, women are taught to be subservient to men, women aren’t allowed outside without being accompanied, their clothes have to cover them up almost completely, they’re expected to keep to domestic duties, they adopt new names, and are used as sex slaves. And in both, culture is shaped by fundamentalist religion, Christianity in The Handmaid’s Tale rather than Islam. Religion has long been a way in which power relationships are expressed. In ISIS’ version of Islam, the differences in power between men and women, slaves and owners, believers and non-believers are supposed to be justified by chapters of the Quran. Those in charge choose the quotes which back up their authority. At the same time that it creates divisions between people, the religion can also create a common identity, essential to hold together an organisation as extreme and fanatical as ISIS. It is this blinkered fanaticism towards such a brutal dogma that marks out ISIS adherents as sociopaths.
The State is useful to show how oppression can become normalised for the few who accept ISIS’ twisted ideology, even if it is lacking in the reasons behind this. The latter point was picked up in several other reviews, including that on The Arts Desk website, which summed up the drama’s characters by saying ‘no one is nuts enough’ (21st August). The programme didn’t impress the Daily Mail’s Christopher Stevens, who called it ‘poison’ in his review of 20th August. He accused Kosminsky of interpreting ISIS’ propaganda as an accurate reflection of life under the regime, thereby glamorising jihadis. He adds that ‘this is a recruitment video to rival Nazi propaganda of the 1930s calling young men to join the Brownshirts’, just like the Daily Mail did at the time.