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24 August 2017updated 03 Aug 2021 6:56am

Isis drama The State shows the sheer stupidity of these young fanatics

Channel 4's show, written and directed by Peter Kosminsky, has a horribly convincing veracity.

By Rachel Cooke

When I asked to see a preview of Peter Kosminsky’s Isis drama, The State, the people at Channel 4 seemed anxious. The message came back that I should be sure to watch all four parts before sitting down at my computer. After I’d done just that (always my plan), I wondered. Had they feared that the series, shown on four consecutive nights (20-23 August), appears to go too easy on the caliphate at first? That it comes off, in the beginning, as some kind of recruitment video?

The first two episodes were certainly less violent than the last two, which placed at queasy centre stage a veritable fiesta of torture and beheadings. But they were no less enraging. The sheer stupidity of these young fanatics. What morons. Their idiocy passed all understanding. For me, this was the series’ insurmountable problem. Kosminsky, for all his talents, could not hope to make sense of the motivation of those who travelled from the West to join Isis in Syria for the simple reason that, in art as in life, their cause was utterly inexplicable.

Remove motivation and, by extension, moral culpability from the equation, and all you’re left with is the experience itself. What’s it like, living under Isis? Well, as most people knew even in 2015, when the action began, it’s a lot less pleasant than being with your mum and dad in Wembley or the West Midlands. Kosminsky’s British recruits had somehow remained in a state of blissful ignorance. Blinded by second-hand idealism, each was about to be amazed by the reality, for different reasons (for one female member of the party, for instance, the shock news – doh! – was that Salafism and a career are just a little incompatible).

Shakira Boothe (Ony Uhiara), a black convert to Islam, was a junior doctor and single mother who’d travelled to Raqqa with her son, Isaac, hoping for a pious new life; Ushna Kaleel (Shavani Cameron) was a schoolgirl who spoonily longed for the chance to marry a “lion” (ie one of the mujahideen); Jalal Hussein (Sam Otto) was the teenage son of British-Pakistanis whose brother had already been “martyred”; and Ziyaad Kader (Ryan McKen) was a gullible yob who couldn’t wait to get “stuck in” to Assad’s army.

What of their back stories, their various paths to radicalisation? With a longer series, we might have been given these things. As it was, such information could only be found, somewhat weirdly, in a press pack (“at school, Ziyaad was classified as special needs”). 

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Kosminsky, though, is a good writer and an even better director. Thanks to his research and the fine, understated performances he got from his young stars (especially Uhiara as the deluded, unyielding Shakira), The State had a horribly convincing veracity. Everything seemed just right – from the tense street scenes (the ever-ready religious police, long white sticks in hand) to Ushna able to communicate with her new husband only via an Arabic app (though it was odd that while she prissily disdained the communal lavatories in the women’s sanctuary, she took to her presumably non-fragrant mujahideen husband immediately).

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In particular, I was struck by Umm Walid, the plump white American whose job it was to mind the foreign women. “You can’t be single here,” she said, enjoying her power as she gathered the new arrivals’ passports. “Marriage is half of the din [religion].” Basically, she was Aunt Lydia, the character played by Ann Dowd in The Handmaid’s Tale, with service-sector manners and a hijab. In her old life, I bet she worked at Starbucks and never had a boyfriend.

If The State was rather schematic and overloaded – what with Jalal falling for a Yazidi slave he’d bought in order to save her from being raped again, and Shakira marrying a gay doctor to protect him from being chucked off a roof – at least it came with a certain black humour.

At the military camp Jalal and Ziyaad attended, someone paused to make a joke about a German convert’s towel – a moment that united the men far more than the exhortations of the bearded fanatic training them in the ways of suicide belts. I liked, too, that the scales didn’t fall from everyone’s eyes. The stupid, after all, don’t suddenly get smart; the brutalised tend to grow more callous, not less. By the time Kosminsky’s four-hour descent into hell was at its end, two of our Britons were disillusioned (two were also dead, but that’s another story).

Ushna, though, was still in Raqqa, seemingly quite content. Yes, her lion had roared on the battlefield for the last time; she was now a widow. But she planned on remarrying, pronto. Another beast, Alhamdulillah, would be along soon. 

This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia