Since the rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Britons (and Westerners more generally) have wondered perplexingly: why would anyone from our lands seek to join such a peculiar death cult? Why would British Muslims of different origins go to such lengths, leaving their homes and their loved ones, to join a group that is despised by Muslims and non-Muslims alike?
It is not often that commercial dramas seek to provide deep insight into such serious matters. But The State, directed by Peter Kosminsky and painstakingly researched by the likes of Ahmed Peerbux, meets that challenge, and with significant success at that.
By so doing, it not only manages to provide some discernment in this difficult arena, it also shows something else that is deeply noteworthy. The State shows that it is actually possible to engage in discussing radical Islamism without falling into the traps of Islamophobia or indulging in anti-Muslim stereotypes.
The upsurge in anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain over the past decade is not to be taken lightly. The police, intelligence services and academia all warn of it, and with good reason.
Muslim community organisations that are active in civil society have been cautioning the rest of us for some time about the issue, which surfaces within the media on a regular basis. Only a few weeks ago, a widely read newspaper declared there to be a "Muslim problem", a type of language that evokes images of the ugliest kind of bigotry to be seen on the European continent, which ultimately led to the Holocaust.
It would not have been unusual to see a television series dealing with radical Islamism by playing on feelings of prejudice and chauvinism against the backdrop of such anti-Muslim sentiment. Certainly, it would have made the series instantly popular.
But Kosminsky and his team chose to go down another route. Peerbux, the main researcher behind The State, went to great lengths (in conformity with Kosminsky's vision) to ensure that the portrayal of the radical Islamists in the film were faithful to what the data on these types of individuals actually shows.
Accuracy was important to them, which, in turn, highlighted the complexities of the stories. The response from certain parts of the press was to castigate the series for showing what they saw as sympathy to this maniacal cult.
It is a peculiar accusation to levy at the makers of The State. The series is quite emphatic about the evil that ISIL carries out, so much so that viewers cannot be left in any doubt that these are "the bad guys". Based on the episodes released thus far, it is clearly portrayed as a malevolent cult bent on destruction.
What has probably attracted so much resentment is the fact that the series ventures into showing the human side of the characters. They are not simply wicked automatons who appear like vampires in the night. They are human beings with feelings, stories and lives that exist against the backdrop of their willingness to be part of this group.
They are sons and daughters, wives and husbands, men and women. That, perhaps, is what makes some uncomfortable. The State goes to great pains to show that while, yes, they are engaged in some of the most disgraceful acts we can imagine, it is possible, at the same time, to understand how they got to where they are or what is keeping them there: a sense of community, which is shared by all cults, and common grievance (fighting the Assad regime), all intermixed and intertwined with an array of problems.
None of that means that ISIL ought not to be fought and then consigned to the dustbin of history. On the contrary, if anything, a greater understanding of what attracts such misbegotten recruits to the falsities of the group's rhetoric will allow us to target them more quickly and efficiently.
There is, nevertheless, a complaint or two that might be legitimately made against the series, among them gaps in information that we are left to fill ourselves.
We do not know, for example, the stories of the characters before they went to Syria. How were they recruited? What mechanisms were used? What did recruiters exploit from within their own life experiences? Perhaps that is the subject of another series – but certainly one worth exploring. The same can be said about those who manage to wake up from the evil spell they were under. Do they ever really find paths to redemption? Or are they forever ruined, with such ruination being a kind of punishment for their dalliance with evil?
As a researcher in religion, I often wondered as I watched the series if viewers were given enough information to distinguish between Islam as a religion and what Muslim scholars define as ISIL heresay.
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There are hints of that in the series, though these, perhaps, are not blatant enough. Then again, achieving the distinction without introducing characters opposed to ISIL might be rather difficult (characters opposed to ISIL wouldn't survive very long in a series supposedly showing the lives of ISIL fighters in Raqqa, would they?).
Still, if the series is somehow mistaken for a ISIL recruitment video, the fault hardly falls on the makers of The State.
Rather, that would reveal something about the accuser. Nuance is not an optional extra when dealing with subjects like radical Islamism. On the contrary, it is at once vital and rare. We need more nuance, not less. That does not equate with sympathy. It simply means respecting the old-age wisdom of the sage of war, Sun Tzu: “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.”
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