ISIS TV Drama 'The State' Doesn't Glamorize British Jihadis in Syria, Says Director Peter Kosminsky

The State - ISIS TV drama
‘The State’ is a co-production from the U.K.’s Channel 4 and National Geographic. Giles Keyte

The new National Geographic drama series The State, which depicts British Muslims who flee to Syria to join the Islamic State, is not intended to glamorize ISIS nor provoke Islamophobia, its writer-director Peter Kosminksy says.

The four-part drama, co-produced by the U.K.'s Channel 4, is set in 2015 and begins with the four protagonists leaving their homes in the middle of the night and making the clandestine trip into conflict-riven Syria by crossing the Turkish border. The story follows the characters as they acclimate to life in the caliphate, which operates under Sharia law, take up arms and slowly become disillusioned by the brutal regime they have devoted themselves to.

At a media industry screening of The State in London Monday, Kosminksy, the director of the BAFTA TV Award-winning Tudor drama Wolf Hall, said the show is ultimately a cautionary tale about the perils faced by radicalized British Muslims once in ISIS-controlled Raqqa.

"The job of the first episode was to faithfully reflect the research," Kosminksy said of the extensive investigation conducted by his team of researchers, comprised of Muslim academics. He said he and his team spoke to British Muslims who had escaped the Islamic State, and even some who remain in the caliphate, though for security reasons he did not disclose further details or their identities.

"The research suggests so clearly that one of the driving factors in people going was a sense of exclusion at home and a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood when they got there. Episode 1 ends with almost a sense of euphoria of a band of brothers and sisters," Kosminsky explained.

As the story delves deeper into life in ISIS, the characters face airstrikes, witness the mistreatment of women and the radicalization of young children.

Kosminsky explained, "The next three episodes are spent unpicking that. I think that you see at the end it isn't the main characters' faith [in Islam] that departs, it's their belief in the Islamic State, the caliphate, that departs. I think that's the key point. If this film in some way suggested the characters rejected their faith as a result of rejecting the Islamic State, I think that would be, first of all, not realistic, based on the research, and quite destructive."

The British filmmaker also told the audience that whether the series will "increase Islamophobia, is obviously something I had in the front of my mind for the full process. That's the last thing I want to do."

Game of groans

Kosminsky touched on the issue of auteurship when it comes to sensitive subject matter, following recent criticism of Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss's new HBO drama series, Confederate. The latter depicts an alternative history when the Southern states of the U.S. succeeded in creating a confederacy in which slavery remains legal. Benioff and Weiss faced a social media storm for allegedly creating a fantasy that oppresses black people. "Give me the confidence of white showrunners telling HBO they wanna write slavery fanfic," tweeted journalist Pilot Viruet.

Kosminsky was similarly asked why he felt he was the right writer-director to tell a sensitive story about British Muslims radicalized by ISIS.

"The weird thing about being someone like me is, we're generalists. We move from subject to subject and for a brief time become moderately expert on that subject," he said.

"Before doing this, I became moderately expert on Henry VIII and what was going on in Tudor England. Prior to that was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then that gets put aside to learn about Tudor England, and then that gets put aside to immerse myself in the research and guidance of a far more expert group of people who put this material together."

Women in "The State"
Radicalized Muslim women live under Sharia law in ‘The State.’ Giles Keyte

Kosminsky said that while the subject matter would invariably benefit "a choir of different voices...for better or for worse, I'm lucky to have access to the airwaves."

"Television is a very serious matter. It's fine that some of it is escapist, but, primarily, it's a powerful tool, and we should use it responsibly. I try to use what little I've learned over 37 years in this business to work with people who know far more about this subject, or Tudor England, and help shape something to bring it to the screen," the filmmaker said.

"I think there's a role for programs rooted in reality and research for the generalist [audience]. I'm not saying it's the only way to make these programs, but I personally think it's a legitimate way."

Kosminsky also said creating The State has been a rare experience for him, as he has not been objective about the subject matter.

"I'm not objective about the Islamic State. No, I can't claim to be. That is unusual on things I've worked on—I do try to maintain an objectivity. It's hard to be objective about the obscenities committed by this death cult," he said.

The State airs on National Geographic in September and on Channel 4 in the U.K. in August.