I watched the first episode of The State on Channel 4, aired on 20 August. I was mildly satisfied with the details in relation to aspects of life in the so-called Islamic State, but, after all, it a drama, which means that fictionalisation is necessary in order to introduce character development and change. While some reporting suggests the research behind this programme has been comprehensive, and while this seems to be borne out in some spheres, in others, there are clearly some omissions.
First, some aspects of the representation suggest a smoothing over of certain realities. The searing heat would make life unbearable for many with Western European backgrounds. Clean water, sanitation and general living difficulties have been patched over. Second, there is nothing on the backgrounds of the four Brits that end up there – perhaps this is what we will learn later. There is also nothing on the origins of The State – and how these British misfits have come to want to be there. Perhaps there is more on this later, too. We know nothing of the stories of the zealous Islamic State chief propagandists who are tooled up ideologically. What are their stories? Were they born brainwashed?
Watching the first episode felt like an advert for a free Butlin camp with military training for the boys and mastering cooking skills for the girls, replete with (alcohol-free) pool parties, invariably setting up the bromances (or sister rivalries) that inevitably will be tested later. But what is the aim of the programme? Is it to explain that the bond of humanity remains in spite of all the pressures on it from those who would wish to separate themselves from the rest of us? Does it want to say that it takes all sorts to join the Islamic State, which consists of a renegade bunch of freaks, hell-bent on avoiding hell in the life hereafter, thus normalising radicalisation? What was interesting to see was the unpapering of the ideology itself – these united colours of behead-a-ton have an eschatological dream to be defeated in Sham, only to rise up in Jerusalem, rallying behind Jesus, who will defend all the God-fearing people of the world against the anti-Christ… This felt like a revelation for the researchers behind the programme more than anything else.
It seems both The State, and the previous Peter Kosminsky Islamist radicalisation dramatisation for Channel 4, Britz, from 2009, has similar starting points. Normal, even professional, people can be drawn by a warped ideology and the lure of violence – violence that is legitimised ideologically and militarily. Perhaps it is better to say that anyone can be inveigled by a so-called cause because they lack something in themselves or their immediate surroundings pushes them psychologically, politically or culturally. One of the major problems with trying to understand extremism and the processes of radicalisation is that there is no single overarching explanation. Different factors operate in different contexts for different people, depending on different circumstances. But there is a particular problem with Islamist radicalisation. The dominant paradigms focus on Islam and radicalisation influences within the reading of the religion as demonstrated in utterances of the ideologues, the commanders and the hardened foot soldiers of The State. The extensive academic research on this topic demonstrates that there are many different issues at play, including the very possibility that religion and faith identity are the least important of all factors.
In a much-politicised sphere of intellectual and policy thinking, as well as community responses, the common approach tends to single out deradicalisation through re-conceptualisation of religious identity, with the idea to limit resistance that might lead to violence by channelling these cognitive fissures into a more progressive reading of the faith. While all of that empowers individuals away from a proclivity towards violence, it does nothing to alter their material realities, which are often the precursor to resistance and then ultimately violence. Racism, discrimination, stigmatisation, vilification, misrepresentation and misrecognition in relation to being a Muslim and a minority, in particular in the UK context, are rarely addressed, and specifically in relation to radicalisation. The problem with thinking that a deeper understanding of Islam would lead to the cure suggests that the problem is entirely one of the religion. The other problem is to think of Islam as a universal, singular concept when the reality is a coming together of disparate interests, perspectives and readings of the faith among populations variously differentiated by ethnic, national and postcolonial realities.
The Islamic State did not materialise in a vacuum. It emerged in the context of the conflict, polarisation, a lack of governance, law and order, and a deep sense of loss at the hands of invading powers whose interests were not political but more material. Moreover, this foreign force dismantled the institutions of the state of Iraq, inverting the power structures, suppressing individuals associated with the previous regime by locking them up in prisons, where they faced extensive dehumanising torture. Many who became significant players in the emergence of the Islamic State, were indeed radicalised in the prisons of Iraq that were under the administration of the US after the invasion in 2003 and beyond. Of course, these are important historical facts in determining a greater understanding of the rise of Islamic State, but it does not absolve the rest of us from working towards achieving solutions that are inclusive, engaging and holistic in design, delivery and impact.