Review: The State

Shakira, a black woman wearing a black gown and veil which is flipped back over her head, embraces Isaac, a young boy in a green-and-white striped T-shirt who is facing away from the camera. Dust is visible as it follows a bombing.The State is Peter Kosminsky’s four-part drama series on a group of young people from western Europe (the two central characters are British) who travel to Syria to join ISIS. It was shown on four consecutive nights at 9pm starting last Sunday night. Peter Kosminsky previously directed Britz, a mini-series from 2007 about two young British Muslims, one who kills herself after being subject to a control order and one who becomes a suicide bomber as a result. That was widely criticised for its unconvincing storyline and manipulative plot devices as well as the use of language Muslims would not use. The State, although it had its unconvincing parts and annoying details, clearly shows that Kosminsky has done quite a bit more research this time around; the two central characters are ‘believers’ in the mission of ISIS on arrival, but gradually come to understand the dark side of life in Raqqa and the corruption of its leaders; one escapes while another comes into conflict with the leadership and at the end is on the verge of imprisonment or execution.

In episode 1, a group of westerners arrives in Raqqa, among them Shakira (Ony Uhiara), a young black woman doctor fluent in Arabic who has a young son named Isaac, as well as a young man named Jalal (Sam Otto) whose brother had supposedly died fighting for ISIS and who wanted to know what had happened to him. There was also a former British Army soldier as well as a woman who wanted to be a “jihadi bride”, and was (briefly) satisfied. The women are greeted by an unattractive American woman who for some reason always wears a red hijab when not in front of men and has an annoying habit of calling everyone “sweetie”. She tells them that they will have to get married before very long, will not be allowed out without their husbands or a male relative, and will be expected to ‘support’ the fighters but not to do any work outside the home. All of them are provided with black gowns and niqaabs with a headband saying “there is no god but Allah” and the “seal” symbol of ISIS; the men are all issued with assault rifles and engaged in military training almost immediately and offered the prospect of slave-girls seized in battles in Iraq. The scene where the women don their niqaabs is drawn out and given dramatic effect as if this would be a wholly foreign experience to them; in fact, many Muslim women in the UK wear it and more did before a tabloid hate campaign in the mid-2000s.

Shakira is initially frustrated by being told she would be unable to work in the hospital, despite having been given the impression that they need doctors. She uses her knowledge of Islamic law to persuade the American to allow her out as well as the hospital administrator (a cold and contemptuous ISIS placeman) to allow her to work there. She finds that the hospital is critically short of resources, that babies are dying because there are no incubators, and that she is forced to wear her black gloves (which all women are required to wear in the streets) including when treating patients, which is obviously unsafe. It is suggested that she marry the placeman, a powerful man who lives in a very spacious house, to facilitate her working in the hospital, and she initially agrees but her son objects; instead, she marries a male doctor who is known to be gay and who is regarded as a disbeliever by the ISIS heavies (the placeman returns his salaam with “wa ‘alaikum”, as is often done when answering a salaam from a non-Muslim), and is thus able to work alongside him. However, the male doctor is then sent off to the front line and the placeman she had earlier rejected repeated his offer; it was implied that he was behind the decision to send Shakira’s husband away. She is told her husband has died, although she demands proof and is not given any.

Jalal, a South Asian man with a black beard wearing a blue or grey turban wrapped around his head holds a mobile phone to his left ear.Jalal (left) is under the impression that his brother had died as a martyr in battle. While working repairing weapons with an older veteran (who had earlier served in Saddam Hussain’s army), he is told that his brother had in fact been executed for desertion. He gradually grows more concerned about the behaviour of the other fighters, especially their treatment of the locals for whom they have obvious contempt. He befriends a pharmacist who told him that he had helped his wife, who is a Christian, to escape; the man also said that it was nice to see one of the mujahideen with good manners as most of them have none. He later buys a slave woman and girl (a mother and daughter) who had been seized in Iraq to cook for the jihadi bride who had married a man who spoke no English and had complained that she could not cook; the mother wore a green gown that was very reminiscent of the clothing of the “Marthas” in The Handmaid’s Tale. There have been some claims that ISIS has been doing this, but this report notes that the accusation is in a document in which someone from ISIS provides a “religious justification” for the practice but does not actually prove that it is going on. It seems that ISIS are considered so beyond the pale that it doesn’t matter whether the details of this atrocity or that are accurate or not when really truth always matters. (More recently, it was alleged that they had been harvesting organs from their own fighters.)

Shakira ultimately decides to escape when she sees her son Isaac in a boys’ training camp playing “football” with a human head and taking it in turns to stab a “kaafir” who is pinned against a wall; she realises he is being brainwashed by the regime into something unrecognisable from how he was when he arrived. She finds a hole in the border fence and somehow makes her way to a village which we are not told if it is in Syria or Turkey, then takes a trip on a refugee boat to another unnamed country, before arriving at a British airport where she is arrested at passport control. (You’d have thought she’d have tried to reach Ireland, from which she could have passed straight over the border into the UK.) Isaac is taken into care; she is threatened with arrest and an extended separation from him and offered a deal to pass information about the Muslim community periodically to the police, which she was told would do more good than some articles for the Guardian. The fate of both — whether Jalal was killed or not, what course of action Shakira chose — was not revealed.

Apart from the inclusion of what may well be a myth about ISIS harvesting organs, another major weakness of this programme is the lack of any backstory about any of the characters except Jalal. We saw nothing of their lives back home and no scenes of debate between them and other Muslims (or others) about the legitimacy of ISIS or its behaviour, or about the Muslim leaders who encouraged a climate of disbelief about the Taliban and al-Qa’ida ten years ago but who now believe everything the media tells them about ISIS. We thus know little about either Ushna’s or Shakira’s life before leaving to join ISIS (becoming a doctor is quite an achievement when someone is a single parent, yet this is never mentioned) or anything about the reason they may have left — was it just about having believed propaganda about life in Raqqa, or whether there were problems at home or recent encounters with racism, Islamophobia or both? To imply that the answer is irrelevant, or that there is no answer other than ‘radicalisation’, plays up to the government, right-wing media and “Prevent” narrative, and we cannot persuade young people not to support or join ISIS by telling them that they are young, stupid and easily brainwashed and should just listen to their elders.

The lack of backstory is particularly telling on Shakira’s character, which a friend told me she found the most unconvincing part of the story: it is possible to interpret her as a “hardcore salafi”, yet this term is never mentioned in the film, nor is there any incident of discussion or debate about some point of doctrine (both would be the case, if this were about real ‘salafis’; there’s a brief exchange about sex with slave women when one of the western fighters calls it rape, but the fact that Yazidi women are off-limits to Muslims because they’re not Jewish or Christian is not raised, as I’m certain it would be). Still, within days of arriving she marries a gay male colleague (without the requisite beard) and seems to have no problem with this; it is also unconvincing that the authorities allowed it given that they appeared to regard him as an unbeliever. While it is understandable that she resisted marrying the ISIS placeman, surely there would have been another male doctor in the hospital that would have been a suitable match for her. I personally didn’t read her as a “hardcore salafi” but that’s perhaps she didn’t behave like the “salafi” men I used to bump into all the time; perhaps the women are different. I wondered if her motive was a genuine if naive belief that she was helping to build up a proper Islamic state, or if she was running away from something or someone. Again, without any backstory we don’t know. On top of this, I wondered why her son was still called Isaac when an Arabic version of this name exists. The State is in some respects a passable drama with fewer obvious clangers than his previous series and he knows his terminology (or some of it), but his ignorance about Islam and the Muslim community still lets him down when it comes to writing convincing Muslim characters.

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