A Bipolar Exposition by Tom Jennings
Juggling simplistic stereotypes, Channel 4’s Britz illuminates neither the attitudes of UK Muslims nor the motivations of homegrown jihadists, concludes Tom Jennings
Peter Kosminsky’s television docudramas have tackled themes such as the Falklands War, child abuse and North of Ireland policy; recently criticising UN peacekeeping in Bosnia (Warriors, 1999), the creation of New Labour (The Project, 2002), and the hounding of Dr David Kelly over Saddam’s WMDs (The Government Inspector, 2005). Now with Britz (Channel 4, October 31st/November 1st) he abandons ‘faction’ (combining fictional speculation with supposedly factual material) altogether, seeking to explain why the 7 July 2005 London bombers, “second-generation Pakistani-Muslim Britons … blew themselves to bits, taking with them as many of their fellow citizens as they could”. Aiming to flesh out the precursors of extreme choices and facilitate understanding how intelligent and caring individuals come to commit horrific acts, consecutive episodes depict the experiences and life choices of two closely-linked characters, which result in vastly divergent trajectories fatefully colliding in a tragic denouement.
Sohail (Riz Ahmed) and his sister Nasima (Manjinder Virk) from Bradford are studying law and medicine respectively and, fully integrated into student life, tolerate their parents’ traditionalism without applying it to themselves. He sneers at peers taking prayers seriously, and to fulfil what he sees as a debt of honour to Britain (plus envisaging an exciting career), enlists with MI5 to combat terrorism – with his commitment standfast despite falling foul of anti-terror policing and taking part in persecution and torture. Naz, conversely, responds deeply to such phenomena and is politically active but, frustrated with liberal protest and traumatised by the suicide of a friend unjustly placed under a Control Order, opts to train for armed jihad. Both detach themselves entirely from friends and family in following their secret courses – but (despite superb acting) we never learn why on earth they embarked on them, leaving gaping chasms in the narrative arcs botched together with clumsy melodrama, action and suspense into a fatally-flawed and utterly unbelievable story.
For a while, the translation of government measures into local intimidation and racist police practice, and resulting outrage among Muslim youth, are convincingly conveyed (thanks to scrupulous research) – as is the coexistence in everyday life of religiosity and secularism and traditional and modern behaviour patterns. But the demands of the thriller format transform accurate representations of grievance, by default, into simple determinants of extreme responses – validating rather than undermining the state’s hysterical repression of symptoms mistaken for causes. Britz cannot distinguish between a majority who feel strongly and a tiny minority prepared to contemplate indiscriminate malice and murder on behalf of either Crown or Caliphate – equally unlikely alternatives which obliterate the myriad of real-world compromise belief formations and stances we all routinely assume. There is no sense of those from Muslim backgrounds reassessing this part of their heritage (irrespective of spiritual or political motivations) as a means to reaffirm family and social allegiance in the face of such immediate threat – whereas a contribution to genuine debate would show the spectrum of expression among ordinary people leading to neither regressive cataclysm or Hollywood action heroism. Unfortunately, media business-as-usual combines genre convention with promotional hype, artistic arrogance and political cluelessness to render such modestly worthwhile aims inconceivable.
Kosminsky drew on childhood imaginings of a rebellious sister alter-ego for his conformist self. After his immigrant European parents escaped the Nazis, he had an “almost visceral desire to dig into the host society – but part of me was ashamed of that … I still feel the battle inside”. Yet while class mobility has similar effects, and despite racial exclusion precluding ‘passing’, Britz acknowledges only upwardly-mobile, establishment views (in liberal multicultural guise) of integration and assimilation – marking as suspect more downmarket British tendencies towards irreverence, disrespect for and distrust of authority, horizontal loyalty and solidarity. So not only are the cultural and class foundations of both religious and political beliefs and practices underplayed, but questions of how and in what spheres these are put into action remain unasked. Disillusionment and anger with and alienation from, as well as affiliation and loyalty to, official political discourses and institutions manifest themselves multifariously, not as the Manichean opposites shown here. And, sure enough, the researchers found widespread fury and frustration but no-one remotely like Sohail or Naz.
Arising from the writer’s projection of his own conflicts into others – with subsequent misattributions of motives – this bipolar exposition on a cultural level requires wholesale repression of ambiguous and conflictual feelings and perceptions in drawing conclusions conducive to judgements of ineffable ‘otherness’ (and yields factual blunders too numerous to list). As in other mainstream fictional representations of British Muslims in recent years (see my discussion in ‘Same Difference?’Variant 23, 2005), Britz sacrifices an exploration of complicated biographies and social spheres in favour of individualised oversimplifications. Once stripped of social immersion, shallow sensationalised attributes chime with press headlines and political platitudes masquerading as objective criteria of liberal ‘balance’. Contradictory evidence is conveniently ignored – as with the recent Home Office Survey showing that UK Muslims identify significantly more strongly with ‘Britishness’ than any other ethnic group (with remedial citizenship classes therefore another alibi for officially disavowed Islamophobia).
More generally, New Labour’s onslaught on civil liberties, in the wider project to criminalise dissent, spuriously associates individual experimentation with thoughts, words, images, ideas and lifestyles at odds with bourgeois norms as potential terrorism – conflating ‘anti-social’ behaviour with ultimate threats to society in legitimising ruthless monitoring and control. Parasitising this context in its purported realism, Britz perfectly fits the agenda of the ‘loyal opposition’ necessary for the manufacture of middle-class consent – which, incidentally, explains why MI5 (exemplars of the technocratic ‘intelligence’ fix) were so supportive during Kosminsky’s research. But interpreted as rhetorical fantasy more insidious than the BBC’s laughable Spooks (with Sohail, perhaps, like 24’s Jack Bauer), the writer-director’s spectacular smugness and pathetic pretense of critique are exposed – just as the fashionable rash of drama-docs he’s spearheaded specialise in substituting shallow simulation for serious analysis.