TV shows

British TV series ‘The State’ is a disturbing portrayal of life under the Islamic State

The series accurately portrays how Islamic State uses propaganda to curtail, constrain and control its recruits.

It seems quite unfounded that Channel 4 has had to defend its new four-part drama, The State. The series – written by BAFTA award-winner Peter Kosminsky – follows two British men and two British women who decide to go to Syria and join Islamic State. Encouraged to forget their past lives in the UK in favour of living segregated lives where the men are taught to fight and the woman become their chattels, the series is as compelling and gripping as it is disturbing and discomforting.

It is also the most accurate dramatisation of what life would appear to be like living under the Islamic State to have been produced to date.

Nevertheless, one should be unsurprised that the drama’s subject matter would earmark it for criticism. Christopher Stevens in the Daily Mail describes the drama as “pure poison”. While framing criticisms within the context of the Mail’s regular enemies – liberals (Kosminsky), publicly funded broadcasters (Channel 4), and political correctness (the alleged “racism” shown towards the white people joining Islamic State) – three themes emerge that need refuting.

The first is whether the drama accurately represents what life might be like under Islamic State. From what is known from personal testimonies of those who have either returned from fighting in Syria and Iraq or suffered at Islamic State’s hands, the drama would seem to ring true.

This would appear to be reinforced by what is available in the public domain, for instance via social media. Kosminsky claims that he and his production team took around 18 months to research the drama and this clearly shows in the fact that The State is both well informed and well written, the dialogue incorporating a necessary amount of theological and cultural nuance to ensure authenticity.

Super cool boys club? Giles Keyte for Channel 4
Super cool boys club? Giles Keyte for Channel 4

The second is that The State glamourises Islamic State. Suggesting that the series presents Islamic State as a “really super cool club”, it is unclear what clubs Stevens frequents if gender segregation is the norm, beheadings are celebrated and brutally violent punishments are everyday occurrences.

There is nothing “really super cool” about the extremely harrowing scene in episode three when the men are shown buying women as slaves having been previously told that it is permissible for them to have sex with girls that have yet to reach puberty. Watching some of the men seek to justify “rape” by deploying their own ideological interpretation is no less an easy watch.

Another example of alleged glamourisation is that the four Britons are shown to be intelligent and informed, the men soft-spoken and the women strong. Why this is so improbable is unclear, but while it would be easier for us to dismiss everyone who decides to travel and join Islamic State as being misguided and misinformed, the reality is that this probably isn’t so.

Somewhat more farcically, the Daily Mail also claims the actors are too good looking. Aside from the fact that very few faces appear on our television screens that do not conform to some norm about beauty and handsomeness, one only has to look to Hollywood and its casting of Tom Cruise as a Nazi in the film Valkyrie or Christioph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds to see The State is far from exceptional in this respect.

Dead man walking. Giles Keyte for Channel 4
Dead man walking. Giles Keyte for Channel 4

Propaganda for whom?

Finally, it is argued that The State is mere propaganda, akin to “a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s”. Far from being propaganda, the drama first and foremost shows how Islamic State uses propaganda to curtail, constrain and control those who decide to join it while also recruiting others to do the same.

One scene is particularly telling here. In episode two, the drama graphically shows the dead bodies of women and children after a missile strike. Rather than presenting Islamic State as victims as the criticism suggests, the scene shows how atrocities are valuable for ideologues who are able to use them for ideological and personal gain without ever showing any real concern for the victims, whoever they might be.

To illustrate this, one might reflect on why the former leader of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson arrived in Westminster with a camera crew shortly after Khalid Masood killed five and injured almost 50 in March this year. The cynic might argue that Robinson’s arrival sought to exploit the heightened situation for ideological purposes rather more than it sought to empathise with those who had been innocent victims.

Normal humans in abnormal situations. Giles Keyte for Channel 4
Normal humans in abnormal situations. Giles Keyte for Channel 4

Of course, film and drama has historically been used for propaganda purposes. While it is easy to cite the 1930s films of the Nazis, both Britain and America have produced films that seek to convey a certain propagandistic message. The hugely popular Rocky IV, for instance, offers no better illustration of US-centric Cold War propaganda.

Human stories

But The State is far from being Islamic State’s Rocky IV. Instead it is far more similar in message and tone to films such as This is England, Platoon, Hunger and Downfall. Sensitive – albeit at times controversial – these films offer important analyses and insights into the British far-right, the Vietnam War, the IRA and Hitler respectively. Far from being recruiting mechanisms, they instead dramatise the human stories that are integral to a better understanding of the events.

The State.

And this is why The State is so important: it reminds us that those who seek to travel and join Islamic State, and endorse and indeed commit horrific atrocities, are real people. While many of us may not be able to see the humanity in the actions or ideological beliefs those real people hold, being reminded of this is no bad thing.

Given that too many of us think that terror and atrocity are the preserve of certain types of people, The State is a timely reminder that it is real people who present us all with the greatest threat and not just certain imagined “Others”.

Chris Allen, Lecturer, Department of Social Policy, Sociology & Criminology, University of Birmingham.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.