Playwright Javaad Alipoor on new play that explores online radicalisation

The play uses a mixture of story-telling, social media, YouTube videos and even video games to examine what drives British Muslims to travel to Syria to fight

Theatre director,  writer and actor Javaad Alipoor Bronwen. Courtesy Bronwen Sharp
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The Believers Are But ­Brothers follows the paths of three men who are susceptible to radicalisation: two Muslims from the United Kingdom, who eventually travel to Syria intending to fight the Assad Regime and one in the United States, a gamer who gets caught up in the Alt Right political movement.

Using a ground-breaking mixture of story-telling, social media, YouTube videos and even video-game playing, playwright, director and star Javaad Alipoor examines what has driven hundreds of young British Muslims to travel to Syria and Iraq to fight.

A former community worker in Bradford in the north of England, Alipoor witnessed the divisive results of the UK government's anti-terrorist Prevent strategy that launched in 2003 and expanded after the 2005 London bombings. It seeks to identify individuals who are susceptible to radicalisation and controversially asks community leaders to flag potential "suspects".

The Believers Are But Brothers invites audience members to join a WhatsApp group in which they are sent a series of increasingly dark propaganda messages designed to bring followers to the cause.

How did you get involved with theatre?

I used to be a youth and community worker in ­Bradford, focusing on anti-­racist and community-­building work, we used ­cultural tools to help us do that work. When the Prevent anti-terror agenda came in, me and my colleague Imran Manzoor were very critical of it and tried to challenge the criminalisation of young Muslims and Muslim communities.

After our funding was cut, inspired by Madani Younis – who at the time was running the [UK] arts council-­funded Asian Theatre School, where I did my initial training – I naively decided to get into making theatre. I don't define myself as a playwright. I direct as often as I write and I perform too.

What made you decide to take on such a complex topic?

The DNA of theatre is a space where the most complex topics can be analysed. This is especially true when it’s a question of how we physically and digitally relate to each other: after all, that’s what theatre is, people together in a space.

Have you felt frustrated by the narrative in Western media about Muslims and extremism?

Absolutely, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to make this play, to upset the dominant white driven narratives about Muslims and people of colour. And I think internationally I wanted to get my hands on that narrative that has reduced all of the Arab spring to religious and sectarian extremism of various kinds, which only works to the benefit of the most backwards and undemocratic regimes in the region.

You mention during the performance that you planned to make a play about so-called ISIL brides but they were unwilling to speak to you. Were you able to reach out to any young men who had been radicalised online?

For me, one of the things that the play is most profoundly about is a certain inability to communicate. Actually, most of the extremist groups I talk about have open social media channels that anyone can look at, we often just choose not to.

What did you hope audiences would get from the WhatsApp element of the play?

For me, this is central to what I think theatre can do as an art form. As a live medium, it can play really effectively with presence and absence. I wanted the audience to feel implicated in this online space, that sometimes feels off in the distance.

Our job as artists isn’t to teach, but rather to complicate people’s assumptions about things. 

An important part of the play is social-media, do you have your suspicions about it and the dangers it poses?

Of course, but at the same time, I think it’s not about taking a “good” or “bad” view of it, rather looking at the possibilities it opens up and then ones it shuts down. ISIL use it but so did the revolutionaries who brought down Ben Ali’s regime.

What do you think of the UK government’s anti-­extremism efforts?

The efforts have been almost entirely harmful. British Muslims have built a historically vibrant civil society, with arts organisations, charities and civil society groups in which these efforts have had a genuinely chilling effect. The reality is, and this is a point I try to make in the play, that the whole discourse around "extremism" misses the point. We need to be talking about how we empower and seek allies within the progressive and authentic leadership that all our communities naturally develop, not making life harder for them.  

As audiences enter, you’re seen playing a computer game – was that real or just acting?

Indeed, I do and I had to learn to play it for this show, I hate computer games!

The Believers Are But Brothers is playing at the Bush Theatre in London until February 10


Read more:

How Abu Dhabi’s Sawab Centre stops the flow of extremist propaganda 

If you want to beat ISIL online ... fight them offline

Al Qaeda's 're-radicalisation' schools lure ISIL fighters in Syria