“This story starts in a cell. The story of how the West’s Colonial nightmare of Islam came to life.
A vision, made vision and flesh”.
We are living in a world of global interconnectedness and technological dependency. This brings with it an increase in the number of individuals, parties, even nations, becoming embroiled in virtual conflict, a cyber war, one that is progressively being used to achieve the same ends as physical warfare. Technology, the internet, and social media in particular becomes a weapon, that not only pushes the boundaries of legal ambiguity, but sees a rise in such things as online extremism, anonymity, and hate speech.
“The world is being reshaped”, as a collective, often nameless power seizes control of “that moment where fantasy and reality collide”, a power that seeks to bring about the collapse of democracy, threatening to destroy the entire established world order.
Javaad Alipoor’s radical show ‘The Believers Are But Brothers’ casts a powerful but terrifying light on the darkness of online extremism, that is often just a click away.
Ending its 2018 UK and international tour with two nights at the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Patrick Studio, this one-man show is written and performed by Alipoor, co-directed by Alipoor and Kirsty Housley, and features dramaturgy by Chris Thorpe and Natalie Diddams.
Winner of the Scotsman Fringe First Award and the Summerhill Lustrum Award for Edinburgh Fringe Greatest Moments, the show also received a nomination for a 2018 Stage Award for Innovation, and a Total Theatre Award for Experimentation and Innovation.
Alipoor makes it clear from the off that this show is about “men, politics, and the internet”. It’s remarkable how often these three things coincide. All too often, men use the internet as a means of political propaganda, of masking political truths and attempting to soften political messages by window dressing them as memes, in a vain and shocking attempt to influence public political opinion, and to encourage people to take sides. So deeply are these elements entwined with one another, they form a type of threefold cord that cannot quickly be torn in two. This cord, this relationship, between these three ingredients culminates in a virtual strength that, if and when made manifest, when made flesh, becomes a recipe for disaster.
While there are benefits to social media, allowing people to make and maintain lasting connections, and providing a platform through which people are given freedom to express themselves, explore their feelings and voice their opinions, the definition of democracy, much of what is posted is not democratic.
Alipoor emphasises the illusory appearance of such things as memes which, although on the surface might appear to the purpose of being simply “for the lulz”, completely harmless, as with so much, it is what lies below the surface that is key. For example, a seemingly innocent meme, such as Pepe the frog, may seem like just another funny picture, but actually, it has become a political symbol of national supremacy and international hatred. Thus, the sharing of supposedly funny memes is yet another platform by which very political, very serious messages, can be shared.
This international hatred is one that sees pitted against each other “Muslim and non-Muslim, white and black”, as “sides are chosen, brotherhoods are chosen, and the gray zone and democracy begins to tumble”. When people take sides, joining extremist groups, phrases such as ‘send them back’, heard so often today, enter popular language, used widely on a daily basis, often resulting in a virtual war involving whole nations, which can so easily become real, making that leap from the two-dimensional to the three.
Another issue that the show explores is the notion of online anonymity, which results in cases of deindividuation, wherein the voices of many individuals morph into one decentralised, non-state party, giving power to the collective, a power that is abused by extremist groups hoping to find a “waiting, willing audience”.
Alipoor particularly stresses the speed at which an idea can take root in today’s technologically-geared society. Whereas in previous centuries, decades, years even, once an idea was formed, it took time to cultivate, to become firmly established as a worthy idea, to take root and manifest itself as a plausible and sensible course of action in people’s minds, recent advancements in technology, and social media in particular, which has seen more and more people becoming invested to a greater degree, and with a heavier dependency, ideas can be formed within the time it takes somebody to hit send on a post – be it meme, photograph, or video clip.
Now ideas, once posted, are established with a frightening immediacy, gaining followers, gaining believers, within seconds. Worldwide connection means that extremist ideas can be shared with more people than ever before, ideas that are no longer chewed upon. A virtual explosion of voices, opinions and ideas, each becoming a pill that people swallow, not just without thinking,but often without realising. Before they know it, people are poisoned by these pills of hateful and political propaganda, campaigns and ideas, and fall down a rabbit hole into “internet oblivion”.
Alipoor refers to a “wilful dismissal of flesh” as “ideas are stripped from bodies” – the point at which, after an idea has been shared, posted online, it begins to act independently, with the power to influence, to coerce, and more dangerously, to recruit, targeting those who, for years have been boiling over with resentment, with hatred and with anger, those ready to answer a higher call of duty, driven by a burning desire to “bring a world that torments and humiliates… to its knees”.
Writer and performer Alipoor performs with a compelling intensity, switching between the stories of his characters, audience interaction, and use of a webcam, which projects his image onto a larger computer screen that dominates the space, behind which sits another, presumably manipulating the show’s advanced technology.
Before entering the Studio, audience members are invited to join a WhatsApp group, in one of the few shows that encourages viewers to leave their phones switched on for the duration. In a show brimming with technological inventiveness, writer and performer Alipoor interacts with the audience through the medium of social media, beginning by asking us such questions as ‘How many Muslims are living in the UK?’, and ‘What percentage of those join Isis?’, to ‘What is the weirdest thing you have seen on the Internet?’. What begins as a friendly, lighthearted chat, in which people are sharing memes and gifs, soon becomes a platform through which hate speech begins to seep, as the characters whose stories are told by Alipoor within the production are given voice on this virtual group, reaching out to those of us in the audience, attempting to influence our thought patterns, to share ideas, and to recruit us to become part of this online brotherhood. One character in particular becomes horrifically explicit, brutal in regards to his derogatory language towards women and feminism as a whole, even threatening rape and death. By giving these characters a voice, by allowing them to connect with audience members via WhatsApp, they pervade our screens with an unnerving intimacy.
In the real world, there lies lurking behind screens people like Atif, reaching out to people through social media, attempting to influence opinion, and to plant ideas. The show’s bold technological interaction therefore highlights the direct closeness of this issue, showing just how easily these people, can get in, how easy it is for them to connect and to contact and, as a result of this instant worldwide connection, just how close they really are.
Here, we are sitting in an auditorium, “together in the dark”, with people we do not know, have never met, and in most cases, will never meet again – and yet, through this WhatsApp group, we are all instantly connected, able to contribute to this online chat, a snapshot of the kind of global connection that rules the world.
‘The Believers Are But Brothers’ bears the hallmark of great theatre – that not only entertains, but that informs, educates, provokes and, quite possibly, reshapes the way we think.
In a world where old orders are collapsing, in a world of online extremism and political and national resentment, unflinching and well-informed theatre such as this unveils the truth hiding behind the smoke and mirrors, a truth that all too often is distorted, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, between the virtual world, and the real world.
This is theatre that everybody should see.