Leaving ‘The State’

I have now managed to watch all four episodes of The State. I want to take this opportunity to reflect on my thoughts and observations.

First, one must state at the outset that watching this programme was not easy. But while there is clearly some attempt to normalise existence, with depictions of life as wholesome and every day, the reality of living in Iraq and Syria today, in particular in territories occupied by the Islamic state is arguably far more horrific, destabilised and nuanced than any drama could conceivably wish to depict.

I was keen to understand what personally motivated these young men and women to join the Islamic State in the first instance, but the series did not touch on any of these questions. This was disappointing but not unexpected. All we can deduce is that these four British young men and women were motivated by various aspirations with regards to migration to the self-declared Caliphate, as is presented by certain readings of Islamic scripture. That the Islamic State was self-declared, without consensus or a wider acceptance among the Muslim world seemed irrelevant to these four. It seems that the director’s aims were to depict life in the Islamic State as a horror film, with all the vicissitudes that come with existence in a war-torn part of the world that has seen no political or economic stability for the greater part of the decade and a half.

It was quite difficult to connect with the characters in a meaningful way, apart from feeling sorry for them because of how they had been duped by it all. This is important to appreciate because the general tendency is for individuals inveigled by such Islamic political violence are often the least well versed in scripture, doctrine or theological principles within Islam. Islam has very little to do with any of this, although it is clear that the perception on the part of young people motivated to migrate is that they are acting out what would be expected of them as good, pious and dutiful believers.

Much of scientific analysis in relation to understanding radicalisation or the processes of becoming radicalised appreciates that, often, these young people are clueless about Islam. They are driven by more personal aspirations, generally to do with coming to terms with identities, the lack of political agency or a sense of grievance that is a response to foreign policy failures resulting in the further destabilisation of parts of the Middle East. There are also woeful conditions facing many British Muslim communities. In particular in the older parts of towns and cities across the country, where being trapped in localities is not a choice but the reality of post-war racism, immigration, housing and economic policy. With all of the attention focused on individuals and their personal journeys, many completely omit the structural dynamics that create the environmental conditions that shape the mind to take action in certain ways. Far too much policy thinking focuses on the sharper end of counterterrorism and deradicalisation, which often misses the reality of structural disadvantage, but is necessary in the light of the urgent need to prevent terrorism.

As far as any dramas go, The State is no different from others, as it attempted to add character development into the plot as it was unfolding, while, in this case, also presenting a narrative. But this narrative is unclear with regards to The State. Are we supposed to feel sympathetic towards these characters? Perhaps yes, but we do not know anything about their backgrounds, in particular, their motivations. Are we supposed to demonise the useful idiots who ultimately become vindictive actors at the behest of a cruel, vicious and utterly reprehensible body of people?

In the end, the drama left far more questions than answers, leaving the viewer in an uncomfortable space. Perhaps this was done for effect, but in a world in which nuance is replaced by conformity, where individual thinking is replaced by tribalistic group norms, in particular online, people need to be guided far more. In a climate where the fear, loathing and misrepresentation in relation to Islam and Muslims are very much the norm, my worry is the potential for such dramatised openings to create further misunderstanding rather than enlightenment.