When George Bush first told the world that “you are either with us or the terrorists”, he probably did not expect his words to be taken on so eagerly by those he considered his enemies. The belief in a binary society, where men and women are separate and the West and the East cannot cohabit, has been seized upon both by meninist activists and ISIS, a similarity that Javaad Alipoor teases out in his newest production The Believers Are But Brothers.
Alipoor uses a range of media to give us a crash course in the underbelly of the internet, guiding us through 4chan and the al-Ḥayāt Media Center to show the complementary strategies of disenchanted men on each side. Through the story of a piece of ISIS propaganda spreading across the internet, we see how each group mutually reinforces the other’s ideology, and how similar their sources of discontent can be.
At times, the tech used in the performance feels more like a hinderance. When it works, it shows an innovative approach to storytelling, but having that many accessories in a show does leave you vulnerable to logistical hiccups. There are a few long silences whilst Alipoor types his WhatsApp messages for the audience, and then we have to wait to receive the snippet on our phones. The notifications, and having to keep up with the messages, is slightly distracting from Alipoor’s monologue onstage. The idea is interesting – the interactive element gives the audience a closer look at the chaotic and non-linear conversations that happen in online communities – but the timing could use tightening up so that actor and technology do not interrupt each other.
Much of the production is metafictional, with Alipoor breaking out of his role as narrator to reflect on his own research that has led to this play. The background of the piece, it transpires, is as interesting as the story it tells, and is worth dwelling on. Alipoor has spoken with recruiters for ISIS, consumed Jihadi propaganda videos, and delved into the totally uninhibited depths of 4chan. His account of his research, arguably more than anything else, brings the internet’s capacity for violence closer to home. It is jarring that a playwright, not just a wannabe-medieval warrior, can reach radical groups within a couple of clicks.