Peter Kosminsky's dilemma in making Channel 4 drama The State was how to show why life under Islamic State tempts some people to leave their comparatively comfortable homes in the West to become part of it while, at the same time, not glamourising it.
If the cold suburban streets, the coaches, the docks, and the airports of Britain look almost stultifyingly familiar the same, of course, could not be said for the backs of vans crossing Turkey or the heavily patrolled Syrian border that our four ISIS recruits view through binoculars before crossing over to pledge their allegiance to the caliphate.
Jalal (Sam Otto, born in Basingstoke) is following in the footsteps of his brother, martyred at the siege of Kobani, and has brought along his friend Ziyaad (Ryan McKen) whilst Shakira (Ony Uhiara) has travelled to ISIS controlled territory with the aim of using her skills as a doctor in Raqqah to help the cause. She's brought her nine year old son Isaac with her. Ushna (Shavani Cameron) seems the most naïve of the four and although there's little background story to shed light on just why she's made this perilous journey she claims she's there to be a lioness for the lions.
On arrival the men and women are, of course, separated. The women are led into a communal house where it's explained to them that they'll pay no bills, they'll have all their food and drink supplied for them, and they'll even be given an allowance. They can have whatever they want from the store just as long as they don't go there themselves. In fact don't go outside full stop. "Leave that to the guys".
They can't be single either. The prophet, himself proudly wed to a six year old, said marriage is half the religion. Umm Salamah (Hiam Abbas), an elder, more matriarchal figure, explains to the girls just how they'll be married and why, unlike in the Kurdish army, they cannot join in the armed fight with the men. 'Brothers' fight and women bear children. That's it.
As the females have their phones confiscated (supposedly so as not to be traced by built in trackers) over in the male house Jalal is asked to delete pictures of his mum from his phone. She's uncovered. Accepting this, and the mass torching of their passports, as the price they have to pay to build this new world Jalal, Ziyaad, and other new recruits get straight on with bantering about 'five star Jihad' and telling a German recruit that he might want to get his towel down by the swimming pool straight away.
The deep end they're thrown in is not in the pool though. It's not long at all before they're being taught how they can use their suicide belts to take out as many apostates as possible if it's looking likely they'll be caught. A martyr is always a better thing to be than a prisoner and a martyr who has killed many before making the ultimate sacrifice himself is the best martyr of all. In fact they're informed that it is a brother's greatest wish to be martyred and that very few recruits survive their first year with ISIS.
The men are told that women are the 'adornment' of the world but that, in this life, they are 'defective'. They bleed every month and carry urine in their bodies. Because of these deficiencies the brothers are instructed to ignore 'temporary delights' and wait for the 72 virgins waiting in heaven for them. They're looking down at them now, every minute of every day, with their beautiful eyes.
Biology and diversity classes completed the next lesson kicks off with watching some execution videos. Jalal dips his head so as not to see, maybe he's not cut out for this brutality, maybe he's not the jihadi his brother was after all? But why do ISIS chop people's heads off when the sheer inhumanity of it only serves to make their enemies angrier. An elder is on hand to explain that's exactly the reason they do it. They want to make their enemies angry. They want the Americans to attack, and even defeat, them. They're playing a very long game. The defeat has been prophecised in the hadith and it needs to happen so that the next stage can happen. So that those left can take refuge in Jerusalem where Jesus will appear to them and lead their army to a victory so overwhelming that their enemies will be destroyed for all eternity. Beheading simply has to be done to make this prophecy come true. Making it, potentially, the most diabolical self-fulfilling prophecy in the entire history of self-fulfilling prophecies.
One thing the male and female camps have in common is that, initially, there's a lot of laughter and in both there's a lot of heated debate about Quranic interpretation. But as the boys banter out on their first manoeuvres we're shown a young woman being whipped, across the soles of her feet, in public for talking to a man without a male guardian. Shakira, who had been previously informed that any future employment would be dependent on a future husband's permission, gets a job in a massively understaffed hospital. Despite it elevating exponentially the risk of spreading disease she has to remain covered at work. Health and medicine are unimportant compared to Sharia.
It's not the only danger of working in a hospital. A barrel bomb destroys a ward and the camera tracks past countless dead babies. In any other drama it'd have been the most heartbreaking scene of all but this is Islamic State and they're always raising the stakes.
Ushna, who not long ago was crying because she couldn't ring her parents to tell them where she was, is introduced to 'a brave fighter with a pious heart'. He's much older than her and as he can't speak English and she can't speak Arabic they can't communicate but he asks, via an interpreter, to marry her anyway. It doesn't seem like she has much choice in the matter. When they first go to the bedroom together, in his rather nice house, the subtitles disappear so we can get a sense of Ushna's discomfort. It's a canny trick and one the film makers return to on occasion.
It's impossible to be a true, and faithful, believer in Islam (or any other religion) as so many of the teachings completely contradict each other. Jalal is offered coffee by a friendly pharmacist. The particular set of rules he's following say he can't drink coffee but they also say he can't refuse a gift. He takes it. Is this a sign of Jalal's humanity or does he just really like coffee? He's already made a very risky phone call home to his distraught mum so let's err towards the former.
As Jalal's soft side comes to the fore, young Isaac is being brutalised. He stands in a town square, with other male children and adults, watching a man being beheaded and then he travels on a coach past the railings where these grisly mementoes, people's heads, are displayed as a warning to the locals not to question the authority of ISIS. His mum assures him that as part of 'the first generation to migrate to this blessed land' he will 'never enjoy the fruits of it'.
Isaac doesn't want his mother to get married but as she has to could she at least marry the kindly doctor who works at the hospital and not the bullying soldier who looks like he'll knock them both around a bit? When Shakira visits Dr Rabia (Haaz Sleiman) to propose he, at first, refuses. She susses he's gay and he explains that with a woman in his apartment who isn't his wife being thrown off a tall building (the standard punishment for homosexuality) would be the least of his concerns as he'd have already been beheaded anyway.
Obviously they enter into a marriage of convenience and their mutual respect and inherent kindliness, despite the obvious risks to both of them, seems a better fit than the situation Ushna has found herself in. Despite initially being ecstatic about finally finding a lion and getting to be a lioness, her cooking disappoints her husband. After telling her this, by way of Google Translate, in no uncertain terms he buys a slave for her to help out with domestic duties.
The trip to the Yazidi slave market the boys make is another, predictably, harrowing experience. Gunshots ring out, money changes hands, the men buy slave girls. Jalal, whose bilingual skills have got him the position of translator, is clearly unhappy interpreting to the other men that to sleep with pre-pubescent Yazidi girls is perfectly acceptable under their belief system. Unless, of course, they are already designated as the property of other men.
Jalal buys a mother and a daughter. He's not buying them to rape Islam into them (which, again, it seems would be perfectly acceptable under the rules of ISIS) but to spare them. There's an incredibly touching scene as Jalal cooks and prepares a meal for Ibtasam (Maisa Abd Elhadi) and her daughter Narin (Angelina-Rain Zou'Bi) and then leaves it on the spare bed so as not to wake them from their slumber.
"These ain't Muslims, bruv. They're Shia" Ziyaad tells Jalal as said Shias are beheaded in front of their families whilst attempting to retreat. The logistics of the battle scenes aren't as interesting as how the justification works. How easily people are othered, dehumanised, and ultimately, killed. It doesn't seem to me to be a twisting of religion but simply a reading of it, an interpretation. As honest, or as dishonest, as any other reading. Most of us would choose, and hope others would choose, to read peace into ancient religious texts but they're actually rather bloodthirsty tomes written at a time so different to ours that most of it no longer has any relevance whatsoever.
"You ain't no Muslim, bruv" (a line Kosminsky has cheekily, surely knowingly, adapted for Ziyaad) was an admirable thing to say in the context of the terrorist situation it was originally used in and it served as a useful meme for a while but, really, who decides these things? Who makes that final decision? A non-existent God or someone who has assumed power to speak on behalf of that God? That doesn't sound like the sort of person to put your faith in.
Further insanity, of course, continues. Shakira is ordered to remove both 'halal' kidneys of an injured enemy as the dialysis machines have been destroyed by Russian bombs. She refuses and, as punishment, gets the soles of her feet lashed in front of a gawping crowd and a proudly hoisted ISIS flag. As Shakira, like Jalal, is beginning to think 'fuck this for a game of soldiers' Isaac is turning into the product that the fundamentalist schooling he's been subjected to wants to turn him into. She's rightly horrified but, she seems a bright woman, she probably should've thought of that before dragging him out there. Now they're in Syria, under ISIS rule, the power balance has shifted. Isaac will soon be ten and his mum will have to listen to him, not the other way round.
Newly pregnant Ushna's husband gets the 'reward' he wanted. He gets martyred and goes to 'the heart of the green birds'. Good fucking riddance. Ziyaad's next to go, dying in a battle that sees Jalal injured by a bullet. Is it possible to feel sympathy for these people knowing that they've taken up arms expressly to kill as many innocent men, women, and children as possible? Kosminsky makes a compelling case. The naivety, the stupidity, that sent them to ISIS can't excuse their actions but The State does a good job of, in not much more than three hours, showing how realisation of the evil they've bought in to dawns on both Jalal and Shakira.
A supposed CIA man with a bag over his head who is dragged out of a windowless, and shit stained, cell for his execution is revealed to actually be the affable pharmacist friend of Jalal. They don't kill him though (they just violently whip him in a room full of heavily armed men). They're just making a promo video to hopefully tempt the West to bomb them some more and create more martyrs and more recruits. Kosminsky is making it very explicit that provocation is the point of these exercises, these videos. But that kickabout with dismembered heads that the off duty soldiers partake in looks real enough, and this series was meticulously researched.
Shakira is next to get some 'great reward', a dead husband. Standard. Although it could be said that if you truthfully believe in heaven why should this not be a good thing? Both Islam and Christianity have always seemed to celebrate death more than they do life.
It'd be enough to make you despair of religion in its entirety but in the scenes between Jalal and Ibtasam we're shown enough of the humanity that predates the invention of religion, survives it to this day, and will hopefully outlast it to know that people aren't all no good. Even if, for some reason, they invented something as crazy, and dangerous, as religion.
As their humanity and respect slowly conquers their adherence to religious dogma our 'heroes' are left in a dilemma as to how to get out of this mess without being killed. This can only be done by risking extreme violence, torture, and death. I won't spoil the denouement but it's ISIS so clearly innocent children are shot at close range in the face, men get chained up in cages, and, no fucking shit, not one single person on the planet is better off for it.
This was a wonderful plotted, tightly scripted, utterly fascinating piece of viewing. Sam Otto and Ony Uhiara were wonderful in the two lead roles and the supporting cast were all terrific too. It can't be easy to make the viewer care about a person who willingly joins such a murderous and transgressive organisation but in their fine nuanced acting, and under Kosminsky's skilful direction, they managed to pull it off.
Nobody watching this could say it was enjoyable viewing but it was compelling and shone a light into some of the darkest areas on the planet. In what seemed complete darkness and utter hopelessness the small acts of decency shone as bright as the light of a million candles. Love may not destroy ISIS and other violent, fundamentalist, hate filled bastards but buying into their hatred will only make them stronger. Even they know that.