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The slapstick side to Islamic terrorism

Chris Morris’s depiction of jihadists as dunces who hate slags and Maccy D’s is scarily accurate.

Neil Davenport

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In a climactic scene in Chris Morris’s debut feature-length movie Four Lions, armed police ask aspiring jihadist Waj (Kayvan Novak), who is about to blow up a kebab shop, what his demands are. ‘Um, we don’t have any demands’, he replies, gormlessly.

In a single stroke, Morris – and his fellow writers, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain of Peep Show fame – rip apart the supposed political pretensions of deluded jihadists and also have a sly cackle at the Islamists’ expense. We should expect nothing less from three of the sharpest, most forensic comedy minds in Britain, and, on an observational level at least, Four Lions works very well.

The film opens with a botched attempt to record a martyrdom video, which is deeply absurdist and also captures the narcissistic degeneracy of jihadism in all its non-glory. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is a family man who functions as the ‘brains’ of the dunce outfit. He is outwardly confident but emotionally brittle and deeply confused. He receives an email about attending an ‘uncle’s wedding’ in Pakistan – jihadist code for attending a Taliban training camp. Once there, he finds himself way out of his depth and accidentally fires a missile launcher in the wrong direction, destroying a nearby Taliban camp.

Disgraced, Omar is sent packing back to Sheffield where he starts to hatch murderous plans with hot-headed white convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay), who wants to bomb mosques in order to make Muslims rise up, and Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), a complete child clown who looks more like Badly Drawn Boy than a radical bomber boy. Along the way they hook up with Hassan (Arsher Ali), a Tupac-loving rapper who wears a bomb belt made of party-poppers (‘It was the gesture that messed ya!’).

Morris has apparently done years of research, and it shows. One of the most acute parts of the film is the interaction between Omar and his more traditionally religious brother. ‘Don’t give me that look’, says Omar. ‘You’re doing the face again’, he says, as his brother indicates growing disapproval of Omar’s apocalyptic fantasies. This cleverly echoes the experience of the 7/7 bombers from Leeds, who, contrary to received wisdom, radicalised themselves rather than being brainwashed at a local mosque or by some hook-wielding preacher.

So what, exactly, is getting these ‘four lions’ all fired up? Omar makes passing, unconvincing references to ‘Western imperialism’ and says: ‘Just pretend you’re from Gaza.’ But he actually spends more time railing against McDonald’s, consumerism and the ‘kaffir slags’ who go out dancing on a Friday night. That’s right: they possess some very mainstream liberal prejudices. The four men certainly can’t get fired up over any personal experiences of racism. Every white person they meet earnestly befriends them in a casual, ‘I’m-not-prejudiced-me’ kind of way. Even the police are jokey with the foursome just before they’re about to launch their suicide mission. This captures well a tiptoeing culture around young Muslims today.

What Morris and Co. are driving at is that in the absence of a real problem (such as racial discrimination) with real solutions (such as politics), phantom threats with no resolutions loom ever-larger in these young men’s demented imaginations. As Barry says when their car breaks down: ‘Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic.’ Their overall outlook is an incoherent, adolescent mish-mash of conspiracy theories, second-hand ‘hurts’ against Muslims, and the ‘yo bro’ patter of gangsta-rap devotees. The depiction of these men as anti-consumerist and anti-slag is especially perceptive, echoing Brendan O’Neill’s description of wannabe Islamic militants as ‘the armed wing of the chattering classes’ who carry out ASBOs: ‘Anti-Social Behaviour Outrages.’

In order to keep the characters believable, Armstrong and Bain have cut back on the hyperreal, road-drilling profanities they deploy in Peep Show and The Thick of It. Anyone expecting rapid-fire laughs will be disappointed. But then, it’s not that kind of film. Surprisingly for Morris, there is a rough, knockabout feel to much of the action, as bungling bomb after bungling bomb goes off and the remaining protagonists are busy running round like beheaded chickens. The training of crows to become feathered suicide bombers is a particularly funny moment – but the high quota of slapstick is likely to wrongfoot many Morris fans.

The softening of Morris’s kamikaze approach to satire (although Islamic militants and the culture in which they emerge are hardly soft targets) is, I suspect, a result of the storm provoked by his Brass Eye special on paedophilia on Channel 4 in 2001. Back then, Morris was depicted in the press as a Hoxton-ite nihilist messing around with taboos simply in order to shock straight society. In fact, Morris was making a serious point about the degraded obsession with child abuse and the poisonous impact of this obsession on adult-child relationships.

No one could accuse Four Lions of glorifying suicide bombers simply to make some sort of ‘shock jock’ statement. In fact, Morris’s quieter, less bombastic direction furnishes the film with an oddly moving quality. As we are essentially looking at the world through the bombers’ eyes, an unsettlingly atomistic and lonely tone creeps into the film. Panning shots of Britain’s urban landscape – often with no people in sight – give the impression of a society with no real human bonds. When the foursome decide to launch their suicide attacks as part of a fancy-dress marathon run, the collision between other runners, well-meaning shop staff, Omar’s affable work pal and the apocalyptic mindset that the four have created makes for uneasy but enthralling viewing. Riz Ahmed, who plays Omar, has a similar intensity to Robert Carlyle and is particularly brilliant as a man drowning in his own confusion.

There are some good gags in Four Lions and I suspect many more would come to life on a repeat viewing (as was the case with last year’s In the Loop). While slapstick may be an acquired taste, this is still a bold, fearless and unnervingly accurate demolition job on both goonish jihadists and their equally deluded radical apologists. Britain’s undisputed master of whiplash satire has done it again.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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