Baroness Warsi finds a horrible familiarity in Channel 4’s gripping new drama The State. Contains spoilers.
It is early one morning in 2015 and four British Muslims are preparing to travel to the Isil stronghold of Raqqa in Syria. Ushna, a young single woman in a headscarf, wheels a bright pink suitcase down an uneven pavement. Friends Jalal and Ziyaad clear their computer and phone histories. Shakira, a single mother, Muslim convert and A&E doctor packs medication and her nine-year-old son Isaac into a car.
Their journeys to the Islamic State have started and The State, a drama from Peter Kosminsky which will be shown over four nights on Channel 4 next week, takes you into the heart of these lives which, though fictional, are undeniably rooted in reality.
Ushna is turning her back on a home where she has the privilege of an en suite to become “a lioness among the lions” only to struggle at the first hurdle – the communal toilets. For Ziyaad, who has learning difficulties and always struggled at school, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant seems to offer an adventure, a purpose and a better life. “It’s better than flipping burgers,” he says. Jalal, is an avid reader of Dabiq, Isil’s online magazine and is following after his brother, who was martyred in Syria. Shakira makes a perilous journey to Raqqa to fulfil her “Islamic duty to build the state” with her son in tow.
Each has their own reason for joining Isil and each takes a very different direction once they arrive. Jalal discovers his brother may not have been the hero he was led to believe; Shakira, who came to save lives, finds herself fearing for her own. Timid and naive Ushna is committed to the al-Khansaa brigade, the Isil female moral police, and Ziyaad is committed to becoming a “martyr”.
For me, Ziyaad’s and Jalal’s journeys were the most harrowing because they sounded horribly familiar. Similarly, Talha Asmal travelled to Syria from Dewsbury in West Yorkshire to join Isil. In 2015 he became Britain’s youngest suicide bomber. His family, like the families of so many who leave (like Jalal’s father who travels to Syria to attempt to take him home), never find answers as to why their young choose to live in a foreign land. There are many proud parents who cannot understand why their children find an affiliation with Isil.
The violence depicted in The State is brutal: rape, beheadings and public whippings bring the reality of life in Raqqa to our screens. But what makes the series difficult viewing is not just the violence – especially against children – but the ordinariness of the young Britons who have chosen to make this environment their home.
Sam Otto as Jalal in The State
Sam Otto as Jalal in The State CREDIT: GILES KEYTE/CHANNEL 4
So often we have lazily defined those attracted to violent ideologies promulgated in far-off countries as mad, bad misfits and yet the reality is far more complicated. MI5 set out the telltale signs of what makes a terrorist in 2008 and cited factors such as a history of criminality, experience of discrimination, lack of career prospects (despite often having a degree) and religious naivety. Various academic studies have gone further, one citing 28 factors including identity issues and relationship breakdown.
Death and the glorification of it is the basis upon which the State is built
The State, which is based on a year-long research project by Kosminsky who had first-hand discussions with those that travelled to Syria, brings these factors alive. It takes the viewer on a journey to where the mad and bad become real and human.
At times, it may seem that Kosminsky is an apologist for the terrorists, and the scenes of men at late-night pool parties may even make the Isil camaraderie seem an attractive proposition. The “banter” between the brothers in arms, young men from across the world, may appear like prime time propaganda, but I ask viewers to bear with it. I assure you The State is no recruiting video.
Sam Otto as Jalal and Ryan McKen as Ziyaad in The State
Sam Otto as Jalal and Ryan McKen as Ziyaad in The State CREDIT: GILES KEYTE/CHANNEL 4
Indeed, the drama’s real strength is in laying bare the hypocrisy of Isil, which unfolds slowly over the series. The conflict between the teachings of Islam and the actions of Isil is at the heart of some of the most powerful moments, leaving Jalal “yearning for faith in the Islamic State” and Shakira torn when her medical ethics are put to the test. Her refusal to remove the kidneys of injured enemy fighters for transplants leads to a public flogging and a reminder that the Isil interpretation of Sharia – everything is religiously sanctioned or religiously forbidden if Isil say so – comes first, “not medicine, not health”. It’s a stark moment that summarises how life holds no value in this world where death and the glorification of it is the basis upon which the State is built.
The sexual exploitation is deeply disturbing. The role of women as playthings for men and the now much-documented persecution and violation of Yazidi women (part of a Kurdish religious minority) is another example of how Islam is perverted to justify the Isil narrative.
Shavani Seth as Ushna in The State
Shavani Seth as Ushna in The State CREDIT: CHANNEL 4
For me, this is as familiar as it should be for all policymakers. The lack of religiosity or genuine understanding of Islam is often cited as a characteristic of terrorists. An insight from MI5’s Behavioural Sciences Unit concluded that “many who become involved in violent extremism lack religious literacy and could be regarded as religious novices”.
Those who have studied the lives of terrorists have painted a picture of their hedonistic non-Islamic lifestyles. The 9/11 bombers drank, took drugs and partied in strip clubs. Neighbours of Hamid Ahmidan, the 2014 Madrid train bomber, remember him “zooming by on a motorcycle with his long-haired girlfriend, a Spanish woman with a taste for revealing outfits.” Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Nice truck terrorist, took drugs and, despite being married, used dating sites to pick up men and women. In 2014, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, would-be Birmingham terrorists, purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies before they set out for jihad in Syria.
Karim Kasseem as Abu Akram in The State
Karim Kasseem as Abu Akram in The State CREDIT: GILES KEYTE/CHANNEL 4
The State also explores the issue of converts to Islam, men and women who adopt increasingly authoritarian strands of Islamic thought as a way of life. We see white Europeans, including a former member of the British Army, making up the Isil battalions. The “us and them” of Isil fighters who were born Muslim and zealous new converts is mocked: “These converts know more than us bruv,” says one British-born Muslim.
The ideology of Isil is presented as conflicted, taking historic teachings and superimposing them, illogically and simplistically, onto today’s world while justifying defeat as religious prophecy. There is also its justification of the killing of other Muslims, as well as violations of Islamic rules on warfare of not killing the old, infirm, women and children, and doing no harm to those that surrender. The clear lack of any rule of law subtly reminds us that this is wild, ungovernable territory – it’s not Islamic and it’s not a state. Into this brutal world, however, Kosminsky introduces tender moments of love, romance and marriage.
Shavani Seth as Ushna in The State
Shavani Seth as Ushna in The State CREDIT: ED MILLER/CHANNEL 4
Perhaps The State is too short, but even in four parts it will prove to be a helpful tool in the fight against terrorism. At a time when the war on terror is often rooted in language more suited to fiction rather than fact, The State is a piece of fiction rooted in fact. It should be obligatory viewing for those who seek an answer to: “What makes a violent jihadist?” It is a question government, communities and academics have struggled with for nearly two decades and one which The State unpicks in a very human way.
Baroness Warsi was the first Muslim woman in the Cabinet and is a former Foreign Office minister. Her book, The Enemy Within – A Tale of Muslim Britain, is published by Allen Lane (£16)
The State begins on Channel 4 on Sunday at 9pm