Television programmes have an undeniable influence, both positive but also negative over one’s behaviour. We can take the example of Sex and the City which emancipated women’s voices when talking about sex and enormously increased the sale of sex toys but also, how Thirteen Reasons Why, unfortunately influenced young girls to kill themselves, who wanted to follow the same pattern of the main character. Thus, we cannot deny the repercussions that these programmes and platforms such as Netflix can have: repercussions that are either voluntarily desired or collateral damage of their own fame. Moreover, some try to replicate real world events and portray on our screen true metaphors of reality. But the latter can also be done unconsciously. My understanding is that the country of Gilead (former United States of America) in the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, can be compared to the Caliphate of ISIS. Nonetheless, I do not believe that these similarities were made consciously. Indeed, Margaret Atwood explained in an interview that she was inspired by real-life events of baby stealing such as the ones in Argentina, the ones made by Hitler but also the ones on indigenous children in Australia, Canada and in the United States. Notwithstanding, as her dystopia is not something unrealisable, several comparisons can be made such as the one with the Islamist Caliphate. Indeed, in an interview, Margaret Atwood who followed closely the shooting of the show, said that what The Handmaid’s Tale display is not a dystopia that could never happen. On the contrary, she highlights the fact, when referring to the election of Donald Trump, that “the United States is not an authoritarian dictatorship, yet”. One rule for her book and the filming of the show “you can’t put anything that hasn’t already happen”.
A little context first, especially for those who haven’t watch the series. The Handmaid’s Tale retraces the history of June, a woman captured while trying to escape from Chicago with her husband and child. She is now prisoner of an authoritarian state that will transform her as a sexual slave. Indeed, she is taken to be a second-class citizen, a handmaid, with the purpose of bearing children for childless government officials of Gilead. The latter is actually the Northeastern coast and the Great South of the United States’s territory which is now governed by a religious-based autocracy. Gilead’s Officials’ explanation for such drastic measures is that the world is witnessing an unprecedented crisis, with fertility dropping among both men and women, this new society is made around the need to procreate. Thus, this television show has some interesting parallels in leadership and the treatment of humans which I will further elaborate upon. The Caliphate on the other hand, is the political-religious state comprising the Muslim community and the lands and peoples under its dominion in the centuries following the death (632 CE) of the Prophet Muhammad, that has been ill-revised by terrorist organisations such as ISIS, in order to proclaim their state.
First of all, both terms “Caliphate” and “Gilead” are referring to leadership. Indeed, Caliphate literally means “government of a caliph”, the caliph being a spiritual leader of Islam, the successor of the Prophet Muhammad. In Arabic, khalifa means “successor”. In Margaret Atwood’s creation, Gilead can be translated by Galaad which in the Bible represents a mountainous territory located in Jordan but also, the great-grandson of Joseph, son of Jacob. And the leaders of the Gilead’s Republic are called the Sons of Jacob. So here, in both cases being an official of the state is being someone linked to their religion.
Secondly, the place of women in both territories is similar. As Saltman and Frennet explain, ISIS’s pull factors regarding recruitment are based on (1) utopian ideals of building the Caliphate state, (2) individual duty and identity building, and (3) romanticization of the experience, both in travel and in forming a union with a jihadist. Furthermore, there is an idealization of gender roles where the roles of being a wife and a mother are emphasized. Contrary to the Islamic Caliphate, Gilead skip the recruitment phase as they kidnap all the handmaids. Nonetheless, this romanticization and idealization of the woman’s role in society is widely shared by other women present in Gilead, who willingly participate in this new society, such as the commander’s wives and the aunts (the women “educating” the handmaids). Women in both religious systems share the belief that they have the sacred duty to procreate, to give life to a new society where abortion is prohibited.
Thirdly, the narrative in both is very extremist and religiously fanatical. Gilead is a militarised, authoritarian, and theocratic regime, driven by religious fundamentalism. Through a series of coordinated attacks, Jacob’s sons assassinate the US President and members of Congress. In the series, White House staff and all nine Supreme Court Justices are also killed. Soon the US Constitution is suspended, bank accounts are frozen, and all women are fired. Outside of fiction, on June 29, 2014 the “State of the Islamic Caliphate” was declared by ISIS. This political-religious act is based on Qur’anic foundations of caliphal power. ISIS proclaims that it follows the principles of Islam, the Quran and Sharia law, that they are the drivers of their society. Hence, the caliphate of today is the Islamist reappropriation of a classical political-religious ideal as Gilead is the reappropriation of the Bible by religious extremists.
Fourthly, following this ultra-extremism, in both societies, LGBTQ+, women committing adultery, people from other religions, and those breaking the law are rejected or even killed. In Gilead, the word “gay” doesn’t exist, they are rather qualified as ‘gender traitor’ and women committing adultery or from another religion or who broke the law are qualified as unwomen. On the other side of the spectrum, it is no secret that ISIS persecutes gay people. We have footage and proof of ISIS members killing gay individuals, or even suspected gay individuals, multiple times. For example, in 2015, an ISIS judge in Palmyra, Syria, sentenced two homosexuals to death, throwing them from the roof of a hotel.
Finally, both societies are built upon hatred of the Other. Indeed, after taking power, Jacob’s sons in Gilead blamed “Islamic fanatics” (more explicitly stated in the novel but not so much in the TV show), and thus the military declared a state of emergency. On the other hand, we have the Caliphate which is powered by the hatred of the West. More precisely, they believe in the existence of a War on Islam. This conspiracy theory considers that Islam is under an existential threat and that the West wishes to destroy it. Hofstadter wrote that Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups believe in a conspiracy generalized by the Judeo-Christian-Capitalist quest to destroy Islam. Hence, both societies articulate around an enemy to hate.
To conclude, both societies are gender-segregated parallel institutions. While one is fictive, the other exists and tries to survive in our modern world. I do not infer that the analogy made in this article is that simple. Rather, I have tried to find some similarities and give another reading of The Handmaid’s Tale. This exercise shows how we can apply theories and academic knowledge of terrorism to a contemporary product. Nowadays, we cannot deny the power of platforms such as Netflix, HBO or Hulu which broadcast TV programmes that do have some educating roles. Indeed, these programmes are evolving alongside our societies and some try to have a moral, that the audience learns a lesson. It can be very interesting and pertinent to make analogies of this kind in order to understand the political but also societal messages hidden in some series. To finish with the words of Margaret Atwood, “some of the states in the United States have gone all the way to Gilead pretty much, regarding the outfits”, maybe what we see on TV that seems outrageous and unbelievable is actually happening just in front of our eyes and not so far away.
 Nonetheless, I do not say that everything is black and white, especially in the Islamist Caliphate. Indeed, there are also many accounts of women being given birth control, in some cases against their will, because it was thought that some men would be less willing to be martyrs if they had children.
 ISIS lecture of Islam is a violent one, as many say “terrorism has no religion”. So, even though ISIS claims that it follows Islam principles, they actually read and interpret Islam as they see fit.
Clara Didier is a 21 years old French International Relations MA student at King’s College. She would like to become a war reporter in the future and work especially in two regions, the Middle-East and South America. Has always been interested in war related subjects as her father taught history and geography. More recently, since the Bataclan’s attacks as one of her family member was in the front line, in terrorism. Regarding war she is particularly interested in secret wars, secrecy, hidden intelligence, what is happening backstage and the results of it, sometimes leading to dirty consequences. Regarding terrorism, it’s a human and sociological curiosity that pushed her in studying how someone (especially citizens in democratic countries) can decide to enroll, radicalise and use violence.