The violence that we call terrorism has always been surrounded by a curious paradox. On the one hand virtually every terrorist emergency in history has declared terrorism to be a unique threat to society, yet the societies under threat are generally not encouraged and are even actively discouraged from thinking about what terrorism is, who terrorists are, what they want, and why they are inclined to do the things that they do.
This reluctance is often fed by the belief that terrorism is so toxic that it cannot be analysed without its toxicity spreading. Thus Conor Cruise O’Brien once said that no one should try to understand the IRA, because even trying to understand its motivations was the first step towards legitimisation. And when the Spanish filmmaker Julio Medem made his remarkable documentary The Basque Ball: Skin Against Stone about ETA, he was vilified by the Spanish government and also by the Association for the Victims of Terrorism, which accused him of ideological collusion with terrorism.
Such reactions are on one level entirely ridiculous. Terrorism is a human activity and it should be liable to intellectual scrutiny, like any other activity. It should also be possible to look at imaginatively, as writers do. Crime writers do this every day without being accused of intellectual collusion with rape, gangsterism or paedofilia or serial killing. Armies seek to understand the tactics and strategies of their opponents and assess their strengths and weaknesses.
None of this should be rocket science. Yet it’s amazing how unwilling we are to do this when it comes to terrorism. Too often we allow governments and dubious ‘terrorism experts’ pushing very specific ideological agendas to interpret terrorist violence for us. They use terms like ‘radicalisation’ when we have no idea what this term really means or how it takes place. They wage ‘wars against terror’ with no strategic coherence and no clear goals that only make the problem worse.
They use banal tautologies such as ‘the aim of terrorism is to terrorise’, when often it is quite clear that ‘spreading fear’ is only one component – and often quite a minor one – in the strategic intentions behind such violence. They describe atrocities as wars on ‘our values’ when it is quite obvious that such crimes have a very different motivation and target.
Given this context, Peter Kosminsky has performed a valuable service in writing and directing a drama about the most vilified of all terrorist groups. I am only two episodes into it, but it’s already clear that The State is a compelling and deeply disturbing journey into the nightmare caliphate created by Daesh/ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which should leave no discerning viewer in any doubt that this ‘state’ is an abomination.
The Islamic State that Kosminsky describes is savage, reactionary, misogynistic, tyrannical, and cruel, fanatical, dishonest and manipulative. It chops off heads and hands in front of young children and exposes its recruits to high-production atrocity videos in order to condition them to the cruelty that it expects.
All this is depicted from the point of view of four British Muslims who make the journey to Raqqa. Kosminsky does not spend much time on the personal back stories that motivated them to leave the UK. He is more interested in exploring how Islamic State was able to manipulate them into embracing its vision of religious purity, by presenting itself as a defensive jihad on behalf of oppressed Muslims and as a rebellion against a supposedly corrupt and immoral world, that can only be purified through the most fanatical and reductionist version of the Sharia.
In one scene, the cult-like ‘mother superior’ who inducts the women volunteers lectures them on divorce, immorality, and commercialised sex of the world of jahiliya – Sayyid Qutb’s modern reworking of the state of pre-Islamic ignorance. In another, a military trainer hectors the male volunteers on the evils of women who urinate and bleed. Even in hospitals, ISIS is so obsessed with female behaviour that the British doctor-volunteer can only treat women and cannot be left alone with a man.
Kosminsky also shows the ‘positive’ appeal of ISIS: the ‘band of brothers’ bonding between the young fighters who receive their kalishnikovs; the yearning for a religiously pure and morally-unambiguous Islamic life; the sense of comradeship that comes from fighting in a meaningful cause; the artful propaganda; the teams of ISIS men who try and seduce women over the Internet into becoming ‘lionesses’; the eschatological and millenarian fantasies of the end of the world and the day of judgment that ISIS seeks to bring about through war.
So this is a serious – and in fact the first – attempt on television to imagine what ISIS is like and why people have been attracted to one of the most horrific political movements in modern times. Kosminsky and Channel 4 ought to be congratulated for that. But no one will be surprised that he has been vilified by the Sun, the Daily Express and the Mail. The Sun quotes the Zionist neocon and former British army colonel Richard Kemp as a ‘terror expert’, who has called the drama ‘the jihadist equivalent of inspiring war epics such as Band of Brothers or Dunkirk. ‘
The best that can be said about this is that it is not a very intelligent observation, because it ought to be quite clear to anyone with a pair of eyes that Kosminsky’s characters are embarked on a journey to the heart of darkness that is not inspiring at all. Kemp’s comments are not as dense as the witless Christopher Stevens in the Daily Mail, who has described the series as ‘pure poison – like a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s.’ Well those films may have worked for the pro-Nazi Daily Mail at the time, but the comparison bears no scrutiny in relation to Kosminsky’s film.
Watson is shocked – shocked I tell you – that one of the characters refers to ISIS as ‘ ” a real supercool club”. There is no irony in her voice.’ Goodness, no irony. Don’t Daily Mail critics actually learn how to analyse a text or a film? Apparently not, because the ‘irony’ may not be in the character’s voice, but it is made obvious by the glaring discrepancy between the expectations of Kosminsky’s naive recruit and the horrendous reality all around her.
Stevens has little time for nuance or dramatic subtlety. He wants his messages served up on a giant platter with a large sign pointing to them, and so he works himself up into the lather of Dacre-suppurating moral indignation that Daily Mail writers just can’t help, and describes Kosminsky as ‘the epitome of the London media luvvie who is desperate to demonstrate that he is less racist than anyone else at his Hampstead dinner party. He’s been the subject of a South Bank Show profile by Melvyn Bragg. You get the picture.’
In fact we don’t. And Stevens’s insistence that ISIS is a ‘death cult’ is not enlightening. It is just an insult and a cliché that explains nothing except what Stevens thinks ISIS is. Kosminsky’s drama, on the other hand, attempts to understand what ISIS itself thinks it is, and any viewer with any serious interest in understanding this malignant phenomenon should pay it serious attention.
The Sun, the Express, and the Mail are written by people who don’t want to think and clearly don’t want their readers to think either. But given the magnitude of the mess we’re all in, we need writers who do, and The State is a rare and brave attempt to ask serious questions about something that is really too serious to leave in the hands of the likes of Christopher Stevens or Richard Kemp.