That the great political and dramatic tropes of our age have converged in the subject of terrorism is unsurprising. The 9/11 attacks reconfigured the international geopolitical order, and the Western response to them: the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has become an enduring leitmotif of our age.
As the author Yuval Noah Harari has argued, terrorism is above all a spectacle. Terrorists must ‘put on a show’ to instil as much fear into as many people as possible. Performance is everything. For John le Carré, both terrorism and the counter-terror operations mounted against it occupy a specific space in our world that in his novel The Little Drummer Girl, he describes as “the theatre of the real.” In both the creative and political imaginations, then, the language of terror can never be divorced from that of drama.
Since its capture of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul in June 2014, so-called Islamic State (IS) has become a synonym for terror. And now, with Peter Kosminsky’s The State, which airs in the US this week, it has become, ineluctably, a subject for dramatic TV.
Modern dramatic portrayals of terrorism have evolved through three phases. In the 1980s and 90s Western audiences, familiar with the perennially strife-ridden Middle East, were offered cartoonish films featuring bearded terrorists itching to blow things up; there was little regard for subtlety or truth. 1994’s True Lies is a perfect example. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the film featured Arnie battling a Palestinian terrorist named Salim Abu Aziz, played by a British actor of Pakistani heritage. A series of improbable events involving the attempted nuking of entire cities duly followed. The film was, it is true, an action comedy – and this is instructive. This was a time when it was possible to make comedies (as opposed to satires) about terrorism.
Then came 9/11, and the wars and terror attacks that followed. TV and film producers upped their game. Sleeper cells, suicide bombings, the emergence of so-called ‘home-grown’ terrorists began to feature on our screens as the dramatic lexicon of terror increased along with our own familiarity with it. But plotlines still largely centred on the ‘good guys’ trying to prevent terrorists seizing nuclear weapons (24) or attempting to blow up the US President (Homeland). These were shows that dealt not with what terrorists actually did but with the West’s worst fears of what they could do.
The third and final stage is the arrival of IS – the most media-savvy terror group in modern history. IS changed terrorism – and how we view and consume it – forever. Gone were the grainy videotapes of al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden droning on in Arabic. Instead highly stylised, professional videos of sadistic killings thrust their way onto our screens. Masked terrorists speaking not in Arabic but in perfect English with British accents threatened us.
The State begins in 2015, near the height of the group’s success following its capture of Mosul. Recruits are flocking to Syria to join the Black Flag. The series follows four British characters, Shakira, a doctor and single motherwho has brought her nine-year-old son Isaac along with her. Jalal, who has come, along with his friend Ziyad, to join after his brother became a martyr for the group, and finally, Ushna a teenager dreaming of being a Jihadi wife.
From the beginning it is clear that we are dealing with a series that knows its subject. From characters restoring their phone to factory settings to crossing into Syria through the border fence near Gaziantep in Southern Turkey, Kosminsky captures perfectly the trek so many have made to ‘the caliphate’.
On arrival, the women are taken to a Madaffa, a house for unmarried women, and relieved of their phones. The men, meanwhile, are taken to see an IS commander. When asked what he can do Jalal says he is there to fight – a notion the commander quickly disabuses him of – and it is here that The State captures perfectly the essence of the IS. Jalal automatically assumes he will be a fighter. But the group is, above all else, a state building project. Video editors are just as important as soldiers.
While media attention has always focused on the group’s ultra violence its real strength in recruitment lies in something far different. It is a narrative built around an alternative way to live and a chance for potential recruits to be part of something greater than themselves. While CNN carried reports of IS beheadings the group spent much of its time pumping out videos showing its soldiers distributing charity to the needy, or drinking tea and laughing together.
The series’ first episode garnered criticism for showing Jalal and Ziyad laughing in a swimming pool with other new recruits (including the inevitable convert – an utterly Aryan-looking German) but this is to miss the point entirely. For these recruits, they can now be something more than they were, and it exhilarates them. Stay in Wembley, UK and work in McDonalds or join IS and become a warrior.
It is a similar impulse that brings Shakira, a doctor, to Syria. She has been “told online” that she can practise in the hospital where her skills are badly needed. She, like the others, has left Jahiliyyah (the pre-Islamic age of ignorance that has become a byword for secular modernity) behind her in dar al-kufr (land of the unbeliever) and once to make her contribution in dar al Islam (the land of Islam).
From this initial point comes the inevitable awakening of Jalal and Shakira to the horrific world of ‘the caliphate’. Shakira cannot work at the hospital without the permission of a male guardian; the prohibition against surgical scrubs shows that sharia law is more important than preventing disease.
The research Kosminsky has undertaken shines through in every scene. A recurring trope is the writing of Arabic words on screen when they are spoken (Dunyah – the material world, Murtaddin – apostates) which gives the series a documentary quality that is fitting for its gritty subject matter.
Equally, Kosminsky makes good use of certain narrative devices: notably leaving sections of Arabic un-subtitled, to best effect during Ushna’s first meetings with her husband whom she cannot understand, which enables the viewer to share in her sense of isolation and estrangement.
As a work of drama The State is more problematic. How can the viewer have sympathy for Jalal as he undergoes his gradual disillusionment? We see him wince at a public beheading (which Ziyad gleefully films on his phone). Later on, in a harrowing scene despair crosses Jalal’s face as he is brought to a female slave market.
But it rings untrue. The viewer’s only possible response is: well, what did you expect? IS is the ‘digital caliphate’: its every sadism broadcast globally. When it comes to violence it does not pretend to be something it is not. So who is Jalal in the end? The ‘good’ IS fighter? This is both an oxymoron and an impossibility.
Kosminsky deals with Jalal as David Chase, showrunner of The Sopranos dealt with Tony Soprano, who despite being a psychopath, was only ever shown killing others gangsters while being a doting father. Jalal never commits any acts of brutality and saves a Yazidi slave and her young daughter.
But the disconnect is still too strong. Several of the characters consist of little more than indigestible Styrofoam – especially Ushna and Ziyad who stand as cyphers: the unthinking fanatic and ignorant jihadi respectively. In the end, The State succeeds as a gripping and highly realistic account of life under IS but fails at the human level. In this account of the most articulate terror group in modern history too much is left unsaid.
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