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‘The State’ on Nat Geo is Distressing and Disturbing
September 18, 2017  | By David Hinckley

National Geographic’s two-night miniseries on four British Muslims who join ISIS raises more questions than it answers about what we Westerners pretty much all wonder, which is, “Why would anyone do that?”

In the process, it creates a disturbing unease that means the show’s creators have done their job.

The State, a fictional four-hour series that airs Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET, won’t inspire anyone to download an ISIS admission form.   

It does, however, humanize those who do. Whether we share their beliefs or not, ISIS volunteers become people who have friends, families, and lives.

That they would give up all of that to join a movement where most combatants expect to die within a year resurrects that first question: Why?

The four protagonists here all have different reasons.  

Jalal (Sam Otto, top, front) wants to honor his older brother, who he believes died a hero’s death fighting with ISIS against the infidels.

He has convinced his best friend Ziyaad (Ryan McKen, right) to come along.

Shakira (Ony Uhiara), a single mother and a doctor, is persuaded that the cause acutely needs the kind of professional skill she can bring. She travels to Raqqa, Syria, with her bright 9-year-old son Isaac.

Ushna (Shavani Cameron) is a teenager who locked into ISIS on the Internet and finally felt it was her obligation to act.

Within the first hour, their illusions about the glory of the cause and the solidarity of its army dissolve into the harsh reality of life inside ISIS. While they have the basic comforts of food and shelter, they quickly realize that some of the rules go beyond extreme and that even in a seemingly idealistic movement, there are insufferable jerks.  

The State does not, however, use these truths to craft a smug dismissal of these four people and their colleagues as either dangerously crazy or monumentally misguided.

Their wakeup call may be a bucket of cold water, but it does not wash away their faith in the cause. If anything, its first impact is to strengthen that faith, because it forces them to focus on the cause and tell themselves that cause is worth any price up to and including their lives.

To them, absolute belief in the word of Allah, as interpreted by hard-line fundamentalists, isn’t insanity. It’s the path to eternal salvation.  

The promise for individuals is that Allah will reward their Earthly service with a blissful eternity. The promise for ISIS is that if they can lure the West into war, there will, in the end, be a glorious victory over all infidels.  

None of this is startling. The intriguing part of The State is seeing ISIS defined to its followers not as the perpetrator of videotaped atrocities, but as an essential vehicle for liberating people from the moral bankruptcy of the West and its enablers.  

One particularly graphic scene in The State shows an accused man dragged to a public square where his right hand is chopped off in front of a crowd that includes a pack of pre-teen boys who find it pretty cool.

To Western eyes, that’s not how civilized people behave. To ISIS, from what The State suggests, this punishment serves the dual purpose of deterrence and provoking an angry response that will cause foreign countries to do something stupid like becoming involved.

As the series moves on, viewers who already didn’t care much for ISIS will find more reasons to think we’ll have a better world if ISIS isn’t running it.

Beyond the justice system, the treatment of women is appalling. Under the stated intention of enforcing strict Sharia law, men treat women as property, inferior by every measure and subject to brutal discipline for not behaving as men dictate. There is also no recourse.

The State doesn’t directly address whether men simply feel they are enforcing the will of Allah, or whether they rather enjoy their privileged status.

Either way, the treatment of women becomes the most insidious sort of bullying. It’s no consolation or mitigation that other religious groups, including some within Judeo-Christian faiths, share some of the same notions about the “place” of women.

In any case, The State does help explain why young people would be drawn to ISIS, and why the troubling areas of its ideology would not be troubling enough to drive them away.

It also reminds us that if a group like ISIS loses, it goes down in history as a repelled band of terrorists. If it wins, it becomes founding fathers.

As we were saying, it’s unsettling.

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