Caliphate (Swedish: Kalifat or Arabic: khilafah) refers to an Islamic state ruled by a single religious and political leader. The extremist group self-identifying as Al-Qaeda labels their aims as uniting the Muslim world under a forced Islamic state – an imposed caliphate.
Swedish television launched their 8-episode thriller Caliphate at the beginning of 2020, and it grew swiftly in popularity, becoming globally available on Netflix just 3 months later. It combines the experiences of five women and manages to create a moving story of bravery in the face of terror, the relationship between trust and lies, and naivety and disillusionment.
Part of the show’s brilliance comes from its highly nuanced reflection of political extremism at either end of the scale. On one hand, the extremist terrorist group Al-Qaeda destroys lives daily. Not just those killed in drone bombs and gun attacks in war-torn Raqqa (so frequent that they seem almost casual) but the PTSD, pressure and manipulation placed on all involved, including extremist members themselves.
We follow the story of Pervin, a young Turkish-Swedish mother in Raqqa who is desperately trying to escape with her newborn by passing information to Swedish intelligence. Her character provides us with a heartbreaking representation of the terror that young girls are subjected to around the world. She demonstrates unspeakable bravery in every episode, gathering information on her husband in the house that they share and she rarely leaves, knowing that discovery would result in an almost instant death sentence, likely execution. Rape, murder and lies are shown to be the price that she pays for a chance of freedom, just as it is for millions of women at the hands of extremist oppression today.
On the other hand, faults are shown of the Swedish government as well. The exclusion and discrimination of Islam within Swedish society today is said to have improved since its decline alongside the rise of Swedish nationalism in the early 20th century, but according to historians, ‘the level of prejudice was and still is high.’ Riots took place in April 2022 after far-right demonstrators burnt copies of the Qur’an, and the 2014 mosque raids featured three mosques being vandalised and burnt down in racist attacks. Caliphate manages to communicate the chain of hate that extremist groups encourage, providing a psychological element as we watch the careful flattery and intelligent manipulation from both Ibbe, an undercover Isis recruiter, and Pervin, as she lies to those around her to protect the lives of herself and her 4 month year old daughter.
While the show is definitely not a form of left-wing apologia for the brutal and masochist attacks inflicted by extremist groups, one of its strengths is playing with perspective. In one flashback scene, we are the ones looking into the camera of the guy recording an execution, so that for a few haunting and unrecognisable moments we have become part of the group of killers. In the same episode we see the two teenage girls Sulle and Kerima snuggling happily together as they watch videos spread by Isis to radicalise and brainwash, leaving us with a long and sobering shot of their fascinated expressions. It leaves the viewer with something more than the experience of a good story; it places us among the characters and allows us to feel just as they do.
It’s through this type of nuanced view, pushing the boundaries on perspective, that Caliphate explores a fundamental idea of motivations and bias. How can anything be prevented if not from a full understanding of why it happens? Television like this has the transformative power to broaden our worldview and confront new attitudes.