Skip to content

Peter Kosminsky’s The State – four characters in search of jihad

September 1, 2017

Ep2. Stars Sam Otto as Jalal and Ryan McKen as Ziyaad.

Peter Kosminsky’s four-part ISIS drama, The State, caused a predictable stir when it was screened on the UK’s Channel 4 last week. It’s the story of four young Brits, two men and two women, who join the calpihate in Syria. If you haven’t seen it, you should.

One Times reader said that it should be shown in every secondary school in the country. If the aim is to prevent radicalisation, I’m not sure that such an approach would succeed, any more than Schindler’s List and Downfall would be likely to turn youngsters away from neo-Nazism. A TV series and a couple of movies are hardly an effective antidote to the torrent of stuff flooding the internet extolling the virtues of jihadism and alt-right politics.

Nonetheless, Kosminsky succeeded in his aim to provide a more nuanced view of the people who started heading east three years ago. By casting them as human beings rather than one-dimensional ogres, he reminded us that these are sons and daughters, and that a good few of those who crossed the jihadi Rubicon found themselves caught up in a world they neither expected nor found easy to handle.

I use the past tense because so many of the foreign fighters and jihadi brides are now dead – pulverised by bombs and mouldering in the rubble of Mosul, Raqqa and other former ISIS strongholds. Those who have survived are either hiding out in the desert, have slipped back to their countries of origin or are somewhere in the river of migrants making their way across Europe. The state, as a coherent territorial entity, no longer exists.

The fictional state is set in the early days, conflict-ridden but initially triumphant. The four, newly arrived and full of idealistic zeal, enter a world that has been extensively documented both in the world’s media and by the organisation’s own propaganda resources.

Kosminsky captures all the elements with which those who have closely followed the real-life drama are familiar: the end-of-days ideology, the spirit of martyrdom, the savagery, the plight of the Yazidis, the short-lived jihadi marriages and the origins of the insurgency in post-Saddam Iraq.

What we in the West have not witnessed first-hand is the emotions of the participants – courage bolstered by common belief; fear, bewilderment, shock at the reality of their predicament. We only have the stories of those who survived to draw on, but based on what we know, The State has achieved the nuanced portrayal that Kosminsky hoped for.

I was not shocked by the narrative, perhaps because I’m familiar with nearby states where much of the ISIS ideology prevails, albeit without the jihadist fervour. Saudi Arabia, for example, in which a significant proportion of the population shares the Salafist beliefs of the ISIS cadres, where women are kept apart from men, though not to the same level of extreme impracticability.

But apart from the obvious scenes of extreme cruelty, there were  other vignettes that I found repellent.

The woman’s house where the female arrivals were first taken, for example. It was like a nunnery in a Salafist Glastonbury, ran by a couple of Margaret Atwood’s Aunts from The Handmaid’s Tale – smiling but steely. Then, once the women were married off to jihadi fighters, the knock on the door from the same Aunts announcing the “good news” of their husbands’ martyrdom – a disturbing and dissonant scene.

Some while ago I wrote a piece in which I described the British jihadis as backpackers with attitude. I think I was right in identifying the sense of adventure with which the youngsters took off for Syria, but backpacker analogy breaks down to the extent that for most of them there was no coming back, either through intention or in reality. Some have. Are they the lucky ones? Only time will tell.

One of the four characters in The State does make it back. She makes her decision after watching her young son gradually turning into one of the “young lions of the Caliphate”. On her return, she has a choice: either cooperate with the security services as an informer, or see her son taken into care for ever.

She’s perhaps the most interesting of the four. As a junior doctor, she fights numerous obstacles to be able to work in the local hospital. Early in her stay, she takes part in a promotional video in which she extols the IS ethos in much the same way as any earnest young ideologue might when preaching world revolution – passionate and seemingly rational.

Why, you wonder, would someone who has dedicated her career to saving lives and healing, be so enamoured with a culture of cruelty and endless slaughter? As it turns out, she has moral limits which impel her to escape.

Of the two male characters, the stronger is the one who seeks to emulate his martyred brother, but who finds out that the circumstances of his death were not as he imagined. Like the doctor, he swam against the tide – in his case by purchasing a Yazidi mother and her young daughter in the slave market with the intention of protecting rather than exploiting them. His story, unlike that of the doctor, ends badly.

As a drama, it was intense and compelling. So much so that I couldn’t watch it on consecutive nights as screened. What made it perhaps worse was that at the time I was ploughing through The Holocaust, Laurence Rees’s masterly new history of the Nazi genocides. The parallels between the sadism of the camp guards at Auschwitz and Treblinka and that of the executioners of ISIS are obvious, even if perpetrators desired a very different ideological outcome.

If I have a criticism of the series, it’s that we were not given a context for the journey on which the four leading characters embarked. What were the factors that motivated them? Perhaps it would have taken Kosminsky more than a single episode to explore that aspect. But since he set out to portray them as human beings rather than cartoon monsters, the picture felt incomplete. Each of the characters would have had their own reasons for embracing jihad. It would have been interesting to have understood their choice before we joined them on their fateful voyage. For more on this aspect, see Stuart Jeffries’ review in the Guardian.

The series ends with one of the characters dead, and with the remainder facing an uncertain future. The future of the entity they joined is equally uncertain, but it’s hard to imagine that the franchises it created will fade away any time soon. As one analyst recently noted, ISIS, in its various forms, is now an international terrorist organisation.

It will be part of our social and political furniture for some time to come.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: