We speak to Javaad Alipoor about The Believers are but Brothers his show on “men, the internet and politics” exploring radicalisation in its many forms

The Believers are but Brothers is a show that traces the messy but structural, interwoven but distinct ways that online radicalisation happens. It tells the stories of three young men that have been radicalised online, interspersing them with historical narrative from theatre-maker and the show’s creator, Javaad Alipoor, illustrated with memes which are shared with the audience through a mass Whatsapp chat.

A screenshot from the Whatsapp chat at the very start of the show

Just showing Ethan, the middle-class white supremacist alongside Marwan and Atif, British youths enticed by Islamist ideologies together is a political statement. The one-hour play juxtaposes Call of Duty with 4chan and memes showing the easy slip-slide from screen to reality.

Alipoor grew up in Bradford with an Iranian father and a white British mother, working for several years in anti-racist activism before becoming involved in community theatre. His play was met with acclaim at 2017’s Edinburgh Fringe before its current run at London’s Bush Theatre.

On paper, lo-tech theatre sounds like an incongruous setting for hi-tech conversations but the intimacy and human proximity of an audience is just right, offering the warmth of hope against the cold blue-hued abyss.

Media Diversified spoke to the artist about his work and the politics within it.

Why did you include everyone in the audience in a Whatsapp group?

For me one of the most important things that theatre can do in the early twenty-first century is explore those big political questions that pertain to the relationship of human beings together in space, and how that space is mediated; whether by digital technology in the case of this show, or the migration crisis in Europe, or climate change. What I wanted to be able to achieve primarily was a way of being able to really make an audience feel implicated in something that sometimes feels far off, and someone else’s problem.

What inspired you to write the show at a personal level?

One of the big inspirations for me was about wanting to reframe the narrative about nihilistic violent extremism, away from it being something that was tied to Muslims, reproducing a very old-fashioned and colonial narrative.  I also spent a number of years working as a youth worker before I got into being an artist, and witnessed the arrival of the counter-terror agenda in that landscape; it’s not just the narrative that’s damaging, but the practical security agenda.

The three main characters indicate parallels between different streams of extremism. How do you think that they are similar and how do you think they differ?

Alipoor asks the audience a question

I think that the underlying similarity is that their way of seeing the world is drawn from resentment, but I think they are different in some really key ways. If you look at Marwan’s story, he is the only individual who actually moves beyond the screen and its fantasies, and I suppose what I am tilting at here, is the way that social resentment is such an unpredictable phenomenon, its like petrol, and its almost impossible to guess where the flames will go. The relationship between masculinity, embodiment and digital screens is absolutely central to all three characters; there is a joke I quite like at the minute, comparing the rise of the alt-right ideas amongst some of Silicon Valleys gurus to the activism of people like Colin Kaepernick, its like the ultimate twist at the end of all trashy 80s US high school films: turns out the jocks are the goodies and the geeks are the baddies.

Do you think there are solutions to the problems presented in the show? Do you think they are the same for Ethan, the white supremacist, as for Atif and Marwan, the Islamists?

I don’t think there are solutions to the direct questions raised by the show.  But I do think its interesting that more progressive campaigns and sections of society are also engaged in this complex dynamic of screen/phantasy/real life.  If you look at the #metoo campaign, the Arab Spring or Black Lives Matter, that kind of activism was absolutely catalysed and galvanised by something native to the digital space.  Its just about organising to beat the people who want to poison all that.  That, and making sure the radical women who seem to be leading the resistance to an insurgent right around the world get all the support and allyship they need.

The Believers are but Brothers runs until February 10th at the Bush Theatre. Tickets are available here.

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