Britz: A Review

Nasima and the police in BritzPeter Kosminsky, well-known for his topical political dramas, has taken on post-7/7 Britain in his latest offering, the two-parter, Britz. This is the story of a brother, Sohail (Riz Ahmed, the single “Post-9/11 Blues”, Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo), and his sister, Nasima (Manjinder Virk, Neil Biswas’s Bradford Riots), both born and bred in Bradford, and caught up on opposite sides of the “war on terror”. Predictably, the film is attracting controversy even before its broadcast. Community leaders, unnamed government sources and media critics are already accusing the drama of pandering to extremists and reinforcing stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists. As Channel Four were kind enough to send me Blitz in advance, here’s a (p)review (with a few spoilers, so don’t read further if you want to wait!).

The first part tells the story from Sohail’s perspective. Instead of continuing his studies for the bar, he decides on a more exciting, secret career with MI5. Keen to break out of the “community ghetto”, Sohail tells MI5 that he wants to put something back into Britain, a country that has given him everything. He does so without illusions, also telling his interviewer that the so-called war on terror is driven by the need to secure oil and gas supplies. From the start, it is an uncomfortable journey as Sohail alternates between two views: the pragmatic need to get tough with the terrorists themselves, yet seeing the impact of anti-terror legislation on family, friends and community. He accepts the use of rendition and the torture of a former acquaintance to get information that could save lives and stop an impending attack, but strongly criticises the heavy policing of the community under anti-terrorist legislation. The police are shown as uncaring and racist throughout in their treatment of British Muslims. They call them “F**king Pakis” or offer to force-feed them ham sandwiches washed down with a pint of beer. With Sohail on board, a new plot to attack Britain, linked with earlier attacks, is uncovered by MI5.

The second part tells Nasima’s side of the story. A trainee doctor, she is a committed civil liberties activist, protesting against the “war on terror”. She becomes disenchanted with activism when a close friend is placed under a control order and later, out of desperation, commits suicide. A radical recruiter challenges her: has political activism overturned a single piece of anti-terrorism law, or did the anti-war movement prevent a war on Islam? She cannot answer him and starts down a darker road to becoming Britain’s first female suicide bomber in the plot that Sohail is seeking to uncover.

The first part is very quick-paced and sharply edited, conveying Sohail’s energy and lack of introspection. From the start he seems to know what he wants: his frustrations are with his family, the community, the police or the intelligence services who seem to be getting it wrong in his view, not with himself. But the viewer is not led to understand how Sohail came to find this already well-marked out path. Why does he take up the role of a spy? We are never really given an in-depth answer.

The second part, especially in its second half, is more languid, almost meditative. Nasima, even after taking her chosen path as a suicide bomber, as a mother of Usama (“umm Usama”) seems tortured, in anguish at her decision. Her eyes convey dismay, and she becomes mute, untalking, in sharp contrast to her fiery eloquent indignation as a civil rights activist. There is only resignation at the political logic that has taken her to the path of violence, not joyful fanaticism.

Like a lot of political dramas, the situations and characters seem engineered to get a political point across, and the interweaving of the personal and political is not as artfully done as it could have been. So what are the big points that Britz tries to make?

The stripping away of civil liberties is creating a new suspect community, a situation that is directly exploited by extremists who argue that political protest doesn’t work. Far from being mindless, the terrorists can represent some of the brightest, most committed people around, the natural leaders of a generation. Talk of theology is a distraction. This is fundamentally a political struggle, in which the ends justify the means. Nasima is one of those recruits who “isn’t doing this for God” but because political means have failed and there is only “the propaganda of the deed” left as the final course of action.

Despite the dramatic devices used to heighten the tension, like setting brother against sister, Britz attempts an authentic portrayal of post-7/7 Britain to raise these political issues credibly. Most interesting here are the murky worlds of underground extremism and MI5, both of which seem ridiculously easy for Nasima and Sohail to penetrate. Open recruitment to domestic suicide attacks appears to go on university campuses — this seems incredible in 2007 when surely it is much more undercover. If there are any stringent vetting procedures to get into MI5, we aren’t shown them here: Sohail seems to breeze in after a few gentle questions about his personal life. The world of al-Qaeda, from its recruitment to its training regimes, seemed fantastically feminised too. Nasima and other women implausibly train together with grim bearded men to strip an AK-47 blindfolded and make bombs while wearing red lipstick and dupattas. Al-Qaeda’s religious puritanism has been overlooked here.

More chilling and credible are the banks of Urdu-speaking Aunties in MI5, transcribing bugged Urdu and English conversations from Dewsbury and elsewhere. (A running joke in the Muslim community is that every time your mobile phone clicks, you assume that the spooks are listening in.) Also featured is a huge Star-Trek-style computerised map of the Operation Crevice network, in real life the largest anti-terrorist investigation conducted in British history. The real case established the current premise upon which the authorities say they are now working, namely that the British-based terrorist cells have loose connections with each other, ideological, social or otherwise, often with links back to Pakistan.

In this network analysis, Mohamed Sidique Khan’s charred sim card thus becomes the “crown jewels” in Britz, by which the deceased “node” is seen as the key to the rest of the “network”. The tiresome trawling through networks and contacts portrayed here seems closer to the routine world of intelligence work than Spooks is. Sohail derides the discovery of five new “clean skins” from a paintballing session involving three of the 7/7 cell as a fuss over nothing, but they in fact turn out to be behind a new attack that MI5 later manages to avert. The high-tech portrayal aims, perhaps, to allude to a lack of human intelligence, in which the cultural insights and expertise of Sohail are fatally devalued.

Yet despite these flaws, Britz remains a powerful and watchable drama that does not shy away from the crucial point that no amount of cultural and religious stereotyping will make the politics of the war-on-terror go away.

Britz will be broadcast on Channel 4 on Wednesday 31st October at 9pm (part one) and concludes on Thursday 1st November at 9pm (part two).

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5 Comments

Filed under Civil liberties, Culture and the Arts, Ghuluw, Terrorism, UK Politics, war-on-terror

5 responses to “Britz: A Review

  1. Assalamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah
    I pray that you are in the best of health & imaan.
    This is a short message to notify you that this entry has been selected for publishing on IJTEMA, a venture to highlight the best of the Muslim blogosphere.
    To find out more about IJTEMA, and how you can further contribute, please click here.
    May Allah bless you for your noble efforts.
    Wa’salam

  2. Just a correction: I think it was Umm Usama rather than Umm Al Qaida.

    S. Shaikh, Radio Shak

  3. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    I think that certain details in this drama really showed that the programme-makers hadn’t done their homework, such as the dress of the female trainees at the training camp. It is *well-known* that women in that environment wear full hijab and cover their faces in front of men, and that the men would not have touched them as happened during the “covenant” scene. They also didn’t explain how a lookalike to Nasima ended up dead in a ditch.

    Also, the bit about the control orders might have worked if the programme was presented as some sort of cautionary tale about where the Blair control order legislation might lead, but that wasn’t my impression at all. Much as there have been no female suicide bombers in this country (and the only women tried for involvement in any way have been cleared), I’ve not heard of a single woman being given a control order, and it seemed strangely lenient given that she was allowed to go into college and somehow trusted not to meet people who were on the list of people she couldn’t meet but one of whom went to that college. And the idea of someone killing themselves after that – particularly as she wasn’t under the order that long when she did it, and her friend still managed to get into her house to talk to her – doesn’t ring true, particularly for a Muslim.

    Too much artistic licence and/or ignorance, in my opinion.

    Yusuf, New Malden, Surrey

  4. Pingback: A week in blogs ‘n’ media « Muslim Recovery

  5. In the black and white cosmos of Britz’s writer/producer Peter Kosminsky, the journey between the rational and the radical comes with no middle grounds, no flexibility, no half-way adjustment but only 180 degrees turn around. That is why at first the two central characters both start as conformists, though the brother is trying harder to out-British the Brits.
    One may ask if there are just two categories where the people can be placed. What about the dominant but silent majority, the middle ground, those who make adjustments, modify their stances and moderate their thoughts and actions. Something evident from from how Muslim youth cope, negotiate, accommodate and make peace in their educational and professional lives all the time.
    Are there any subtle messages? Quite a few: What a Muslim young man has to do to be considered on the right (but not principally correct) track. Kosminsky wishes to fit Britain’s second generation Muslims in very narrow and rigid categories. The binary logic functions as follows:
    • You are either indebted or ungrateful
    • Either a reformist or a rebel
    • Either conformist or rejectionist
    You are expected to accord unquestioning support even if concerns your neighbours, relatives or peers. Compromises are the key if not a compulsory condition to a career that can be unthankful. Thus when Sohail decides to side with the just cause, he chooses not to object himself questioning a badly beaten person tortured in Romania.
    Kosminsky’s bid to display dichotomies faced by Britain’s second generation Muslims is fraught with daunting dilemmas. With the Union Jack on one hand and flames on the other, Britz’s promotional billboards on the streets ask: Whose Side You Are On?
    It will be useful to know who commissioned this campaign and how much money was allocated for it? What is the total number of hoardings splashed all over UK? How does those sums compare with other C4 programmes? Perhaps viewers needed to suspend common sense to swallow propaganda packaged as entertainment. Though the launch coincided timed with Haloween, at least the promotion could didn’t pitch Peter Kosminsky’s latest brainchild as: Bomb in a womb thriller!

    A closer look will find the gaping holes in Kosminsky’s either-black-or-white portrayal of British Muslims too many to count. Here are but a few:

    Spoof 1 : Nasima’s mentor teaches her to be discrete and never attract attention. Then she drives Naz on a motorcycle through the narrow lanes of Peshawar where nothing could have proved a bigger head turner in those crowded places.

    Spoof 2 : Where do you find a female worshipper saying prayers standing between two male prayers on either side? Life in the training came seems to be juxtaposed from the Russian dramas portraying Chechnya making the portrayal of life in frontier outposts both problematic and patchy.
    Spoof 3: Having got Riz laid with fellow spy, the only time Kosminsky finds convenient to get Naz and Jude together in the bed is when Naz’s mother is in hospital and her mate still in custody. If Naz could be thus comforted, how she will opt for eternal pains?

    I wonder if instead of remaining captive of his own contrasts, Kosminsky ventured some new angles by switching the characters’ education and career paths.

    An interesting twist would have been that following their arrest on false drunk driving charges Sohail becomes a Juijisto champion (or Bradford’s answer to Amir Khan). Nasima becomes the next Shami Chakrabarty an icon of upholding the liberties against all odds. But perhaps showing such trajectories wouldn’t bring the stirs the producer sought.

    Rita Jones, London

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