The State on Channel 4

A TV drama rarely grips me but last week was an exception as I was glued to The State on Channel 4.

It followed the lives of several young Asian Britons who smuggled themselves into Syria to fight for Islamic State (IS). I hadn’t realised until half way through that this drama was based on real people and that the dialogue was taken from actual conversations. It made for horrifying but compulsive viewing.

Having grown up at the height of the Troubles, it never entered my head to join the IRA. I had never any romantic notion about fighting to free Ireland, blowing the brains out of someone I never met or worse still torturing friends suspected of being ‘touts’ or traitors. Watching The State, I felt reinforced in my decision.

Whilst there is no direct comparison between the IRA, (or indeed any of our homegrown terrorist organisations) and those of Jihadist movements, there are similarities about their attraction to a certain section of society who feel alienated, dispossessed and angry.

Of course that in no way justifies or excuses their actions but it does require us to learn lessons were we can, to stem the flow of young people into the arms of madmen, maniacs and fanatics.

Violence and armed conflict is the cul de sac of cul de sacs as going back is as risk-ladened as going forward. Certainly watching The State, that point was driven home with all the subtly of a sledgehammer opening a chocolate egg.

Joining IS as a young British Muslim seems completely insane at first sight. As one parent of a volunteer Jihadist in The State said – it felt like a betrayal of the country that gave them refuge.

To the young Muslim it was like a greater calling. Had the producer of The State concentrated only on disadvantaged Muslim youths, many people would have thought that this was the entire story of radicalised marginalised malcontents, with rafts of recruits coming from the back streets of Southall or Bradford. But he didn’t. One of the characters was a single mum who was a doctor proving that even intelligent people are not immune to propaganda or gullibility. There was nothing glamourised in The State. IS killed other Muslims to instil fear amongst communities. Women within IS were treated as little more than breeding mares and chattels. Captured females from other faiths were regarded as sex slaves –some as young as 12.

Observance of rigidly interpreted verses of the Quran were skewed to favour a warped political ideology and the position of men within IS.

One harrowing moment came when the female doctor was asked to remove all the kidneys from two live prisoners of war. In direct conflict with her Hippocratic oath, she declined and was treated to bastinado on the soles of her feet until they were bloody shreds. Her nine year old son and other kids played soccer with the head of a prisoner in an IS version of a scout camp.

In the drama the doctor one of the few survivors in the story, returns to the UK but loses custody of her child. It was hard to feel sympathy for her even though she had turned her back on IS because she had robbed her own child of his innocence.

Throughout the drama – as battle or beheadings took place the protagonists would often shout “Allahu Akbar” – which means “God is great” or “God is Greater”. It was chilling to hear God invoked before the brutality of their actions. The same incantation has been invoked in attacks in Paris, London and Brussels.

Yes there are comparisons to be made with the actions of IS and the butchery of the Crusaders or the Spanish conquistadors but this isn’t the middle Ages or the sixteenth century. Yet IS wages 21st century terrorism with a medieval mindset backed up by AK47s.

The conditions that allowed the setting up and spread of IS lay firmly at the door of the British and US governments and their disastrous foreign policy. They intervened militarily in the quagmire of Middle Eastern politics without a thought to the post conflict situations, which would emerge.

Ultimately these regional disputes will only be solved internally and the defeat of IS will only come with their routing by efforts of other Islamic groups and governments.

Watching The State, it’s hard to believe there is much meaning for any member of IS when they say “As Salaam –Alaikum” – or Peace be upon you.