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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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.