Targeted To Teens, A German Play About ISIS Stokes Fear, Teaching Opportunities

Nov 27, 2016
Originally published on November 27, 2016 8:38 am

The audience squirms as the actors put on skull caps and fake beards and shout about how great it is to be a German Muslim. They call for jihad, initially as a way to self-reflect and later, as a battle cry.

The actors ask, "How can you sit here in comfort when our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq are being slaughtered? What does your conscience say? Do you even have a conscience?"

Inside IS, it's called, is a play for German teens about the so-called Islamic State was featured recently at Grips Theater, the largest youth theater in Berlin.

Teacher Sebastian Herdler, who is here with his class from a largely Muslim neighborhood in Berlin, says the in-your-face approach led him to check on some students who he worried might walk out.

"I told one of them sitting behind me, 'Listen, this is only a play, give it a chance. They aren't trying to make Islam look bad, so stay calm,' " Herdler says, as translated by NPR.

Maligning Islam is definitely not the point, says director Yüksel Yolcu. The German-Muslim director wants the play he wrote to spark discussion, and to expose vulnerabilities that extremists prey on.

He calls it a teaching tool to give young people who've grown up here in Germany insight into the radicalization process. The play also dramatizes a book by Munich journalist Juergen Todenhoefer, who spent 10 days in ISIS-controlled parts of Syria and Iraq.

He also introduces a fictitious German teen named Fabian, who's criticized by a mainstream Muslim preacher character for believing in ISIS.

Fabian explains: I was in Syria on the day I was supposed to become a martyr. He adds before he can carry out his mission, a bullet strikes him in the heart, killing him.

Fabian's fictional path to ISIS is linked to his parent's divorce, his loneliness in school and the break-up with his girlfriend after she gets an abortion. He eventually finds happiness when he converts to Islam, but later becomes radicalized and turns to violence.

Seventeen-year-old Fynn Guischard says he couldn't relate to Fabian.

Guischard says he knows people who convert, so that's no big deal. But to say I will kill for my religion or die for my religion, that's something else.

Another student, a Muslim teen who asked I not name him, said the play did a good job differentiating between mainstream and radical Islam.

But Thorsten Schmitz, a correspondent for Suddeutsche Zeitung, criticized the play as superficial.

He points to one scene in particular: Three German converts tell a newcomer about how great life is for women in the Islamic State.

Schmitz says he found it potentially dangerous for young viewers.

"I mean a director of a play can of course stage such a scene, but then there needs to be another scene that contradicts what they say, so in order for you to think and to reflect," he says.

The teacher, Sebastian Herdler, however, says he had no regrets bringing his students to see the play.

He says more Germans need to see how shutting people out can drive them into the arms of groups like ISIS.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

German teenagers are the target audience of a new play about the so-called Islamic State. It's being performed at the largest youth theater in Berlin. The German-Muslim director says he wants to expose the vulnerabilities extremists prey on. But NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports that critics expressed concerns about how the sensitive theme really comes across to students.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: If you ask me to describe this play called "Inside IS" in a single word, that word would be disturbing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "INSIDE IS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking German).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking German).

NELSON: The audience squirms as the actors put on skullcaps and fake beards and shout about how great it is to be a German Muslim. They call for jihad, initially as a way to self-reflect and later as a battle cry.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "INSIDE IS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, speaking German).

NELSON: The actors ask, how can you sit here in comfort when our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq are being slaughtered? What does your conscience say? Do you even have a conscience?

NELSON: Teacher Sebastian Herdler, who is here with his class from a largely Muslim neighborhood in Berlin, says the in-your-face approach led him to check on some students who he worried might walk out.

SEBASTIAN HERDLER: (Through interpreter) I told one of them sitting behind me - listen, this is only a play. Give it a chance. They aren't trying to make Islam look bad, so stay calm.

NELSON: Maligning Islam is definitely not the point, says director Yuksel Yolcu. But he adds he wants the play he wrote to spark discussion.

YUKSEL YOLCU: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He calls it a teaching tool to give young people who've grown up here in Germany insight into the radicalization process. The play also dramatizes a book by Munich journalist Juergen Todenhoefer, who spent 10 days in ISIS-controlled parts of Syria and Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "INSIDE IS")

NELSON: Yolcu also introduces a fictitious German teen named Fabian, who was criticized by a mainstream Muslim preacher character for believing in ISIS.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "INSIDE IS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As imam, speaking German).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Fabian, speaking German).

NELSON: Fabian explains, I was in Syria on the day I was supposed to become a martyr.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "INSIDE IS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Fabian, speaking German).

NELSON: He adds that before he can carry out his mission, a bullet strikes him in the heart, killing him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NELSON: Fabian's fictional path to ISIS is linked to his parents' divorce, his loneliness in school and the breakup with his girlfriend after she gets an abortion. He eventually finds happiness when he converts to Islam but later becomes radicalized and turns to violence.

Seventeen-year-old Fynn Guischard says he couldn't relate to Fabian.

FYNN GUISCHARD: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Guischard says, I know people who convert, so that's no big deal. But to say I will kill for my religion or die for my religion, that's something else.

Another student, a Muslim teen who asks that I not name him, says the play did a good job differentiating between mainstream and radical Islam. But Thorsten Schmitz, a correspondent for Suddeutsche Zeitung, criticized the play as superficial. One example he gives is this scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "INSIDE IS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, speaking German).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Ja, ja, ja, ja.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, speaking German).

NELSON: In it, three German converts tell a newcomer about how great life is for women in the Islamic State. Schmitz says he found it potentially dangerous for young viewers.

THORSTEN SCHMITZ: I mean, a director of a play can, of course, stage such a scene. But then there needs to be some - another scene that contradicts what they say in order for you to think and to reflect.

NELSON: The teacher, Herdler, however says he has no regrets bringing his students to see the play.

SCHMITZ: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He says more Germans need to see how shutting people out can drive them into the arms of groups like ISIS.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.