It has its faults, but Peter Kosminsky’s Islamic State drama bravely tackles a difficult subject
You can tell that ideology has twisted your mind if your first reaction to a work of art is to vet its political implications to see whether they meet the politically correct standards of left or right. To prove we are not ideologues, all who write about Peter Kosminsky’s attempt to show life in Islamic State’s dystopia must begin by acknowledging the scale of his dramatic achievement.
There is no need to suspend your disbelief for most of the time you watch The State. You feel you are in Raqqa seeing the morality police patrol the streets, and the slavemasters selling Yazidi women to rapists who consider them the Koranically-approved spoils of war. The apparently innocuous is as sinister as the clearly psychopathic. The sickly sympathetic head of the hostel, where single women must live away from the gaze of men, could not be nicer. She coos, knits and cooks, and calls her charges “sweetie”. Then in a soothing voice full of concern she explains why women can’t work, and how they should rejoice at the great honour of being the widow of a martyr when the husband the state has chosen for them dies.
It would be churlish not to acknowledge too that The State is as much a journalistic as a dramatic achievement. Kosminsky and his researchers spent 18 months reading the transcripts of the trials of IS members who made it back to Britain. The fact that Kosminsky refused to answer questions on the subject suggested to me that they had also used Skype to interview British men and women who are still murdering and waiting to die in Syria.
But you cannot escape politics in a political drama. At the press screening and in his interviews, Kosminsky was aware that he was open to the charge that he had humanised some of the greatest criminals of our time. You can see why the accusation has force. The State shows the camaraderie of IS fighters and the women yearning to marry them. They are at times just ordinary people with everyday worries and pleasures. No one would think of showing the torturers of Abu Ghraib joshing like regular guys or the everyday friendships and good feelings that must exist among Bashar al-Assad’s death squads. If you saw it in August, or catch up now on the Channel 4 player, perhaps like me you find yourself sympathising with the four Britons we follow.
I was almost shocked, for instance, when an MI5 officer tells a doctor (who is superbly played by Ony Uhiara, incidentally) that she proved she was a bad mother when she took her son to Syria. It felt impudent. How dare he speak to her like that when we have seen her get him out just as IS was turning the 10-year-old into a killer?
Nowhere, however, is the danger of focusing on the jihadis rather than the victims of jihad more apparent than in the central character of Jalal. The only time I came close to emitting a guffaw during the screening was when he bought a Yazidi mother and daughter. Not to take them as his sex slaves, good lord no, but to save them. Then — and how touching is this? — the Yazidi woman was so impressed she fell in love with him. Come now. How many gallant British jihadis in Syria have helped kafir women rather than raped and murdered them? One? Two? None at all? For the first and only time in the four-hour show, I was conscious that I was watching a confected drama.
But anyone who wants to accuse Kosminsky of whitewashing misses the dramatic advantages of the decision to tell the story from the point of view of the converts to totalitarianism. Jalal is a good man (too good to be true, perhaps). But because he saves a Yazidi slave, she can tell him how her previous owner would line up eight naked women, smell them, decide which he wanted that day, and throw the rest to his bodyguards. Because Jalal befriends a dissident, we can see how IS persecutes and murders its subjects.
Flip over, and from the other side of “the debate” come accusations that Kosminsky is fuelling Islamophobia. On this reading, The State was yet another “negative” depiction of British Muslims by the media. Such fears have ensured that the BBC refers to Islamic State as “so-called” Islamic State in defiance of all its guidelines against editorialising, and as if the mere incantation of the phrase can wish away the history of religions metamorphosing into theocracy.
It is a little too easy to mock, however. I could, if I were in a polemical mood, point to the contradiction between the assertion that, on the one hand, IS is not inspired by elements within doctrinaire Sunni Islam, and the assertion, on the other, that depictions of its terror demean Muslims. If “so-called” Islamic State is not Islamic, how can this drama or any depiction of IS harm Muslims? The trouble with that pat line of reasoning is that the racist sees no contradiction. To him all Muslims are actual or potential extremists. I can see why, if I were a Muslim, I might wish that The State had not been shown.
To which, the only reply is, “Well, that’s tough.” Religious violence, totalitarianism, misogyny, racism and homophobia are poisoning our world, and we must be able to tell the stories of our time. To date, Western artists have been hopeless at story telling. Writers of potboiler thrillers through to allegedly serious artists have steered clear. They are frightened of ending up like Salman Rushdie. They do not want to be accused of Islamophobia, and, let me be fair, have a principled fear in many cases that their work could be abused.
Perhaps we have just been unlucky. No former MI5 agent or jihadi has turned to fiction. For whatever reason, the war on terror is still waiting for its Le Carré.
While we wait, we have Kosminsky. He has not been frightened. Nor, to its credit, has Channel 4. The BBC may be the national broadcaster but The State shows that Channel 4 is the essential broadcaster, which runs the dramas and documentaries that others run from.