The Believers Are But Brothers

Javaad Alipoor
Spielman Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol
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More dramatic lecture than strictly theatre, Javaad Alipoor shares his journey researching the complex and anonymous online world of messaging and news sharing sites with unsettling results.

Unusually for theatre, we are asked to keep our phones on and join a shared WhatsApp group for this production. As we enter the theatre, we see a seated Alipoor, headphones on, fingers twitching on his handset. With his back to the audience, he is totally absorbed in an online wargame. Behind a large opaque screen, facing Alipoor, is producer Luke Emery, likewise engaged, mirroring Alipoor’s actions. Onto this mesh screen, images from various web sites and newsfeeds are projected.

Alipoor interweaves his research with the story of three men, two British-born Muslims (Attif from a south east coastal town, Mirwan from the North West) and Ethan, from Orange County, USA. Jarvaad attempts a crash course in both ISIS and various online news sharing and messaging sites and many of the terms used. By following each man’s story, we see how these three marginalised and disillusioned young men come to use the Internet to find companionship and ultimately empowerment with terrifying results

With so many new facts and terms thrown at you, images constantly changing on the large screen in front and your phone pinging, it can be hard to keep up with the often over-frantic delivery of his findings. However, the extremely personable and engaging Alipoor manages to keep us with him throughout this short evening.

Showing how sites such as 4chan can be used by activists to post violent content to deliberately provoke a public response and divide opinion, Javaad attempts to show how subversive forces attempt to break down what he refers to as the ‘grey zone’. This is the consensus space which plural societies preserve where people can live and talk without causing offence and co-exist without threatening the other. Almost instantaneously, our phones ping with the appearance on our WhatsApp group of a message from Osama Bin Laden "…the grayzone will become extinct… there will only be the camp of Islam versus the camp of the crusaders". Followed, alarmingly, by George W Bush’s infamous post 9/11 statement, "either you are with us or you are with the terrorists". It’s a depressing moment.

Alipoor occasionally returns to his seat, back to the audience, but only for his face to be projected on screen as he continues his fast-paced message. Magnifying his face onscreen has the effect of making the message more intimate but also unsettlingly Orwellian. This is gripping use of multimedia.

Alipoor shows how these three young men existing on the edges of society, who would once have been alone and marginalised, can now be invisibly surrounded by like-minded people being fed on the comforts of fake news and extremist views. He makes his point that many of these new pressures have arisen as a result of a crisis of masculinity. Unregulated access to violent games or views can lead to a distortion in self-image. A diminutive figure can appear muscular and heroic with just the use of ‘electric fingers’. As Javaad says, why invest in minor backroom jobs when in the virtual world you feel empowered.

With click-baiting, for some, it is only a few short steps from violent games to watching ISIS propaganda where people are made to look like heroes (with the harrowing aspects blurred out) to buying a ticket to joining the jihad.

A provocative and thoughtful evening.

Reviewer: Joan Phillips