The State review: What has driven 1,000 UK people to fight with Isis?

Peter Kosminsky’s four-part drama shows how. But what about the why?

When they open up an underground clinic for criminals and odd bods, it hardly seems coincidental that most of it takes place in a green-grey light

When they open up an underground clinic for criminals and odd bods, it hardly seems coincidental that most of it takes place in a green-grey light

 

It is an almost inconceivable statistic. Close to a thousand people from the UK have travelled to Syria and Iraq to support or fight for jihadist groups. The human phenomenon is more chilling. What would make someone renounce their home, undertake a hazardous journey to Raqqah, and join a medieval-minded, apocalyptic death cult?

Writer/director Peter Kosminsky’s four-part drama, The State (Channel 4, Sun-Wed), broadcast in urgent successive days, doesn’t do much to answer that question, focused instead – through dutiful research – on the consequences. It is an exhaustive depiction of the how, with little reflection on the why.

The consequence is that it never really understands them, and so nor do we, presenting radicalisation as the awful misunderstanding of naive souls. In showing their disillusionment, the programme flatters itself that it may act as a sober deterrent: the ghoulishly violent and repressive road to an Islamic Caliphate isn’t everything its cracked up to be. Now who’s being naive?

For all the grisly scenes in later episodes, the more slyly unsettling tactic of Kosminsky’s first episode is to give the viewer a taste of indoctrination. Arabic phrases pertinent to Isis’ ideology, rise onscreen in a bronze-coloured glossary: “dawlah- al-islamiyah | Islamic State”. The graphic seems too aesthetic to be merely informative, as though it was preparing you for a test.

Like Tony Kaye’s American History X, which gave its neo-Nazi character’s vainglorious posturing a stragely triumphal sheen, The State doesn’t try to deflate this early fervour, safe in the knowledge that everything that follows will cluster-bomb the fantasy into rubble. Doe-eyed Jalal (Sam Otto), following in his martyred brother’s footsteps, will never reconcile himself to beheadings and slave-owning, striking up a friendship with a harried chemist, and later learning his brother died in much grimier circumstances.

The single mother and medic, Shakira (Ony Uhiara) is bewilderingly surprised to discover that Isis is a hindrance to her professional mobility, and not the best place to bring up her nine-year-old son. Horror upon horror is piled on, understandably, but so is a finger-wagging sense of shame. Jalal’s father finds him in a prison camp to admonish and disown him, and the last line of the series belongs to a British police man telling a tearful Shakira, “You haven’t exactly been a very good mother, have you?”

The show’s problem is that it hasn’t made her a very good character, depositing an apparently rational human being into an unimaginably horrific situation without conveying how she was so radicalised in the first place. The programme makes its point and more so: this is an awful state to be in. But the more complicated, more urgent question is what led them here, and that answer uncomfortably begins at home.

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