Four Lions: The Absurdity of Terror

 
 

In the British film Four Lions, farcical humor meets terror-jihad, and it is a match made almost in heaven.

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In the British film Four Lions, five Muslim men from Sheffield, England—four from immigrant families along with an English convert—seek to break out of their ho-hum average-ness by doing something which they think will launch them into hero status in their community. They plot a terrorist attack in the name of “jihad” in the U.K. In this farcical film, black satire meets terror-jihad and it is a match made almost in heaven. The would-be jihadists, however, end their lives only in tragedy, not in paradise.

The makers of Four Lions have created a movie of side-splitting humor that exposes how in terrorism everyone stands to lose.

The leaders of the pack, Omar and Barry (aka Azzam al-Britaini) are more obsessed with self-glory than with God. They see the valorization of terrorists in media and want others to look up to them in this way. They seek exciting adventure and think a terrorist training camp in Pakistan is their best shot at this. All this mixed with their own ignorance and emotional insecurity creates a fertile soil in these men’s hearts, suitable for germination of the seeds of terrorism.

Their craving to have others look up to them leads them into denial of their own foibles and thus an inability to confront failure honestly. For example, Omar and Barry manipulate their less intelligent co-conspirators, but hints of guilt emerge in all the team members when one of their followers stumbles while carrying explosives and blows himself up. Barry tries to snuff out their concern for loss of life and keep the other team members operationally enthused by explaining that this death, in which a sheep was also killed, qualified as “martyrdom” because it was an “attack on the food supply system.” Yeah, right.

The film manages to be preposterously absurd while skating right at the edge of plausibility. Hilariously, the would-be terrorists use a children’s computer game called “Puffin Party” to communicate with each other via the internet. In the otherwise cute world of Puffin Party, each terrorist in the group has his own eponymous animated puffin. Seeing a cartoonish puffin named “Waj” scoot across the screen while a deadly serious Omar looks on may be funny, but it is also creepy in a could-be-real way.

Four Lions poses a challenge to the notion that an increase in religiosity means an increased menace to society. Omar’s brother is an extremely devout Muslim captivated with a hyper-literalist approach to Islam. He refuses to be, and is clearly paranoid of being, in the same room as his sister-in-law. He dresses only in non-Western attire although he lives in Sheffield and his long pantaloons and flowing top not only look out of place but also are not very practical in Britain’s hefty rains. He only socializes with men. He is obsessed with studying and memorizing Islamic legal rulings. And yet it is due to his deep piety that he is meek and mild. Significantly, he is the one, indeed the only one in the film, who challenges his brother Omar’s growing obsession with violence and who tries to intervene to stop Omar. The dangerous ones in this film are not Omar’s brother and buddies in the Quranic study group. Rather they are the men untethered from their tradition and anxious to demonstrate their ‘Muslim pride.’

The inability of Omar’s brother to break the trajectory of violence raises interesting questions about effective intervention with young Muslims who have become starry-eyed with enthusiasm for terrorism. What Omar’s brother values is Islamic religious teachings, and he sprinkles these into their conversations incessantly. He can cite so many of them that Omar mocks him for it. The failure of Omar’s brother is that he is starting from his own standpoint and takes action on the assumption that Omar is standing on the very same point. He does not go beyond this to enter into the mindset of Omar and try to understand what the world looks like from Omar’s perspective. He doesn’t listen to Omar; he just speaks at Omar.

To be effective in reaching the Omars of this world, we can’t just tell them about us; for example we can’t just promote the spread of information about the U.S.A. as if to know us is to love us. It is not. Many of these aspiring terrorists have been in the West and they hate us. Look at Omar in this film; he has a beautiful wife, a cute son, and a middle-class standard of living in a British city. And yet, the more Omar fails, the more obsessed he becomes with carrying out a grand terror-jihad plot against the “kuffars” (the heretics, the non-Muslims). Omar’s transference of aggression to the kuffars fuels a utopian ideology with the lie that eliminating non-Muslims would essentially eliminate problems in the world. This is bizarre and twisted. We can’t just tell “moderate” Muslims to speak more loudly and think that sprinkling a few religious teachings on top will work like a solvent. Something deeper is at play, and that is the point from which countering it must begin.

But as for this film, it counters its legitimately serious moments with humor, even if dark humor. The film takes a deft jab, for example, at the pure absurdity of the extremist anti-Jewish blame-game. When the group’s car breaks down, the driver tries to escape taking responsibility for neglecting car maintenance by blaming the breakdown on “Jewish parts.” The ridiculousness of this claim and the driver, Barry, becomes crystal clear.

In competition for funniest character, the bungling terrorist-wanna-be’s face competition from a UK government counter-terrorism official. The public perception of his work as buffoonery makes one wonder how the public in the U.S. actually perceives the efforts of workers from the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and other government counter-terrorism officials.

The conspiracy theorist in me suspects that Kimberly-Clark Worldwide, Inc., maker of Kleenex, may have had a hand in this film. Four Lions is so side-splittingly hilarious that you will laugh hard enough to cry. Simultaneously this film is so gut-wrenchingly sad that you will cry. Bring tissues. Granted, the film has more than a little absurdity in it and at times the filmmakers stretch this just plain too far, but on the whole the humor and thought-provoking social critique in the film make up for the suspension of some reality in Four Lions.

Without revealing the end of the film, I’ll just say the plot goes wildly wrong. Not just snafu’ed. Really deadly wrong. You know things have gone awry when one of the plotters murders a fellow group member who decides he does not want to carry out a suicide attack, and the U.K.’s elite sharp-shooters in the London police are so entangled in a quarrel over the difference between a wookie, a grizzly bear, and a honey bear (an argument which, I must admit, is very funny, in a Four-Lions-sort-of-way) that a would-be suicide attacker gets away while civilians of London are on the brink of becoming mass-casualties (very not-funny).

Omar’s underlying craving for respect, no matter how twisted such respect may be, is underscored in his final words. His efforts in the film have led to failure after failure. Omar desperately wants to be looked up to, not least of all by his little son. His group’s “grand” suicide attack has been not only a failure (phew), but really a terrible tragedy. Yet Omar won’t admit he could not complete what he set out to do and thus return to his darling son and charming wife. (Charm aside, his wife is chillingly-supportive of her husband becoming a suicide attacker; but then again, the devastation on her face at his farewell reveals another side). The agony on Omar’s face at the end is truth-revealing: deep inside he knows there is something wrong with what he is doing. And yet, his mind has become so warped that right and wrong no longer matter. Only self-glory matters, even if it means death. Before running off to blow himself up he begs a hapless, clueless colleague from work whom he happens to run into right then, “Tell them I was smiling. Tell them I was smiling.” In the end, the supposed grandeur of terrorist-jihad turns out to be nothing but a big, tragic lie.

Jennifer S. Bryson is the director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Islam and Civil Society Project.

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