Notes From the Margins…

Peter Kosminsky’s Islamic State

  • August 22, 2017
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The violence that we call terrorism has always been surrounded by a curious paradox. On the one hand virtually every terrorist emergency in history has declared terrorism to be a unique threat to society,  yet the societies under the threat of terrorist violence are generally not encouraged and are even actively discouraged from thinking about what terrorism is, who terrorists are, what they want, and why they are inclined to do the things that they do.

This reluctance is often fed by the belief that terrorism is so toxic that it cannot be analysed without its toxicity spreading.  Conor Cruise O’Brien once said that no one should try to understand the IRA, because even trying to understand its motivations was the first step towards legitimisation.  When the Spanish filmmaker Julio Medem made his remarkable documentary The Basque Ball: Skin Against Stone about ETA, he was vilified by the Spanish government and also by the Association for the Victims of Terrorism, which accused him of ideological collusion with terrorism.

Such reactions are as predictable as they are ridiculous. Terrorism, however outrageous and repellent,  is a human activity and it should be liable to intellectual scrutiny, like any other activity.

It should also be possible to look at imaginatively, as writers do.  Crime writers do this every day without being accused of intellectual collusion with rapists, gangsters,  paedophiles or serial killers.    Armies fighting terrorist organisations seek to understand the tactics and strategies of  their opponents and assess their strengths and weaknesses, and often have a better understanding of these organisations than the public does.

This shouldn’t be controversial.  Yet it’s amazing how unwilling we are to do this.  Too often we allow governments and ‘terrorism experts’ with dubious credentials and specific ideological agendas to interpret terrorism for us.

They will use terms like ‘radicalisation’ without defining what it means or how it takes place.   They use tautologies such as ‘the aim of terrorism is to terrorise’, when often it’s quite clear that ‘spreading fear’ is only one component – and often quite a minor one – in the strategic intentions behind such terrorist violence.   They describe atrocities and massacres as an assault on ‘our values’ when such crimes have an entirely different motivation and objective.

Given this background, Peter Kosminsky has performed a valuable service in writing and directing a drama about the most vilified of all terrorist groups.  I’m only two episodes into it, but The State is already a grimly compelling and disturbing fictional exploration of the nightmare caliphate created by Daesh/ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which should leave no discerning viewer in any doubt that this ‘state’ is an abomination.

The Islamic State that Kosminsky describes is savage, reactionary, misogynistic, tyrannical, cruel, and manipulative.   Its an organisation that chops off heads and hands in front of young children and exposes its recruits to high-production atrocity videos in order to condition them to murder and atrocity.

Kosminsky explores this world from the point of view of four British Muslims who make the journey to Raqqa.

The series does not  spend much time on the personal back stories that motivated them to leave the UK.  Kosminsky is more interested in exploring how Islamic State was able to manipulate these recruits into embracing its vision of religious purity, by presenting itself as a defensive jihad on behalf of oppressed Muslims,  and also as a rebellion against a  corrupt and immoral world that can only be purified through the most fanatical and reductionist version of Sharia.

In one scene, the cult-like ‘mother superior’ who inducts the women volunteers lectures them on the high rates of divorce, immorality, and commercialised sex in the West, which she describes as jahiliya – Sayyid Qutb’s modern reworking of the state of pre-Islamic ignorance.

In another, a military trainer hectors the male volunteers on the evils of women who urinate and bleed.  Even in hospitals, ISIS is so obsessed with female behaviour that the British doctor-volunteer can only treat women and cannot be left alone with a man.

Kosminsky also shows the ‘positive’ appeal of ISIS: the ‘band of brothers’ bonding that takes place between the young fighters who receive their kalishnikovs; the yearning for a religiously pure and morally-unambiguous Islamic life; the comradeship that comes from fighting in a meaningful cause; the artful propaganda; the teams of ISIS men who try and seduce women over the Internet into becoming ‘lionesses’; the eschatological fantasies of the end of the world and the day of judgment that ISIS seeks to bring about through war.

So this is a serious – and in fact the first – fictional attempt on television to imagine what ISIS is like and why people have been attracted to one of the most horrific political movements in modern times.

Kosminsky and Channel 4 ought to be congratulated for that.   But no one will be surprised that he has been vilified by the Sun, the Daily Express and the Mail.  The Sun quotes  former British army colonel Richard Kemp as a ‘terror expert’, who calls Kosminsky’s drama “the jihadist equivalent of inspiring war epics such as Band of Brothers or Dunkirk.”

Like so much that comes from Kemp’s mouth, this is not a very intelligent observation, because is obvious to anyone with eyes to look that there is very little that is ‘inspiring’ about the journey undertaken by Kosminsky’s jihadists.

Christopher Stevens in the Daily Mail has similarly described the series as ‘pure poison – like a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s.’  Stevens is shocked that one of the characters can refer to ISIS as “a real supercool club” and that there is “no irony in her voice.”

Don’t Daily Mail critics actually learn how to analyse a text or a film?  Apparently not, because the ‘irony’ may not be in the character’s voice, but it is made obvious in the glaring discrepancy between her early expectations and the horrendous reality she finds herself trapped in.

Stevens clearly wants his terrorists served up on a giant platter with a large sign pointing to them that says ‘evil’, and because they aren’t he describes  Kosminsky as

the epitome of the London media luvvie who is desperate to demonstrate that he is less racist than anyone else at his Hampstead dinner party. He’s been the subject of a South Bank Show profile by Melvyn Bragg. You get the picture.

In fact we don’t.   And Stevens’s description of ISIS as a ‘death cult’ is not an explanation, but an insult and a cliché that explains nothing at all.

Kosminsky’s drama, on the other hand,  attempts to understand what ISIS itself thinks it is, and looks at what it actually is, and any viewer with any serious interest in understanding this malignant phenomenon should pay it serious attention.

The Sun, the Express, and the Mail are  written by people who don’t want to think and clearly don’t want their readers to think either.

But we need writers who do, and The State is a brave attempt to ask serious questions about something that is really too serious to leave in the hands of men like Christopher Stevens or Richard Kemp.

 

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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