Javaad Alipoor is a writer, theatre maker and director. As well as running a theatre company, he is Resident Associate Director at The Crucible (Sheffield Theatres Trust) and an Associate Director of Theatre in the Mill. He makes work at different scales, building cross-platform digital and hard end community work into everything he does.
His recent work for theatre includes The Believers Are But Brothers (actor/writer/co-director), The Rising of the Moon (writer/director), Bassett (director).
I originally wanted to make a show about ISIS brides. I found out these young women who had gone to the Islamic state and married jihadis had twitter accounts, so I started following and engaging with them. What struck me was the register of their propaganda. One tweeted out this picture of a guy I called Game of Thrones Jihadi. He’s ripped. He’s got this vest on, pecks, scar-bitten, a big gun. The slogan around him was words to the effect – ‘Sisters what kind of a man do you want? Some boring guy who works in an office, or this brother who will die for you’. There was always this offer – fuck this grey, boring England and come and live in a Hollywood film. What the white narrative wanted to do was take agency away from these women who had done these awful thing because they had been tricked into it. But actually an offer is being made. You get some power when you go. At the height of the Islamic State almost all the women’s Sharia policing department in the capital in Raba was made up of European Muslims. You get to push other women around.
When I started looking into it I realised that it’s not my show to make and I ended looking at the similar narrative for men which goes: there is a certain type of young Muslim man for whom the complex identity of being a Muslim in the west is too much. So he withdraws to this black and white world. But all the serious work on this suggests the opposite; journalists like Martin Chulov does this really well. And if you do your own research and engage with these people, the way they use social media to try and get the message out, is very similar. It’s not ‘come to something simple’, but ‘come to something more exciting’. So again, facetiously – there were two lads from Plymouth who were killed in a drone strike in ISIS controlled Syria and the headline in The Star was something like ‘What could make these two lads who worked in a phone shop in Plymouth go off to join the Islamic State?’ The clue’s in the question!
So this became a show about young men – fantasy, religion, technology; and about the way masculinity has changed since the 1970s. I think there is a bunch of us who are alright with the fact that women and sexual minorities have more rights, and a bunch who fucking aren’t on board with that at all. And some of the ways that that works out is culturally inflected, whether you want to talk about the alt right, or ISIS, or Hindutva in India. Obviously the Muslim identity is part of that; but it isn’t saying there is a problem with Muslim young men, there is a problem with young men. Let’s get at that.
In the show [the audience] get sent some screen grabs of an issue of Dabiq, the ISIS’ in-house theoretical journal, which explains the grey zone theory how it is going to collapse and you are going to have to decide. Most of the ISIS propaganda in the show is projected. Whereas you get more Four Chan stuff on WhatsApp to work dramaturgically. We were uncertain about sending the audience a link to Four Chan. As soon as you go on Four Chan there’s kiddy porn and rape videos. There are two inter-related questions – one is – can I send that to someone and the other is should I? Part of the instinct is as a theatre maker – if you are going to walk up to the bell you should ring the bell. But it does then open up that ethical thing. Some of the edits we show are taken from ISIS videos where they glorify murdering people. We never show people being killed in the show, but you are never sure how far we will go and I think that tension works and we were able to be quite playful. The character I’m playing says – well I would have sent you that but I am not sure I can.
The research process is interesting to the extent that it’s that grey area of legality again. I read a blog called Jihadology – you’d worry about the guy who runs it, alongside a bunch of free and pay-for services. Are you a spook? I read a lot of Dabiq magazine – really beautiful, crisp design, intellectually utterly vapid. You can’t imagine anyone serious being persuaded by them. But you can imagine people being inspired by them. Extremist materials that glorifies terrorism, as these things clearly do, come under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. So the question is how does the white person with power look at you. How much is racialised and ‘classed’? Is it ‘stroppy Muslim with these horrible things on their phone’ things’ – guilty until proved innocent or is it actually ‘he’s an artist and intellectual thinking about these? It’s not unrelated to other types of criminalisation. If they pick you up with half an ounce of weed –– if you are mixed race and you come from a shit Northern town, you are a career criminal; if you’re from Oxford that’s a completely different kettle of fish. Because of this show, because the Guardian liked it, it’s bought me a bit more cultural capital.
What was interesting is that no-one was talking about Muslim sensitivity with this show.
The support that Index was giving me and the conversation with Luke was much more about white and police sensitivity. I knew about Homegrown and that soft censorship of a certain sort of white liberal; if there is any talk about police or terrorism, then that liberal space just collapses in on you. This is potentially a more serious thing.
My strategy preparing for the risks I was taking was to two-fold. One was to work with Index, because that felt like it was a conversation that was making people confident. The discussion with the barristers [brokered by Index] really marked a turning point in how we were talking about the problems. We’d got ourselves into this place of worse possible scenario – what’s the defence? Coming out of that meeting we saw it was more likely to be a bit of pressure from the police or the local authority, following a complaint from a panicked, overworked cultural institution, and then that caving in on itself. It was important to have a toolkit for disarming that panic in the first instance. If someone is worried, then let’s talk about it, we can discuss it. Practically, it is about disarming that subtle form of censorship, it’s a proactive way to increase the kinds of things that people of colour are allowed to talk about, and the kinds of conversations we’re allowed into. But more important, it was knowing where the networks of support are, where the allies are, where the people are who do know. If the shit really hits the fan, I am two phone calls away from someone who can help.