What does it mean to be a young person from a Muslim background in Britain today? The question has been explored in a number of films that have represented second-generation British Muslims over the last decade or so. In all of these films — such as Damien O’Donnell’s East is East (1999) and Andy De Emmony’s sequel West is West (2011), Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss (2004), Kenny Glenaan’s Yasmin (2004), Dominic Savage’s Love + Hate (2005), Penny Woolcock’s Mischief Night (2006), and Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane (2007) — the central British Muslim character is presented, to a greater or lesser extent, with a choice between sacred and secular modes of living, almost in a ‘clash of civilisations’ model. Each of the directors represents the choice as being between two sexual partners, one representing a religiously inflected lifestyle, the other a secular one. For the most part, however, the films come down on the side of Westernisation, ‘freedom’, and an apparently uninhibited sexuality.
In contrast, Chris Morris’s subtle and well-researched Four Lions (2010) offers a totally different take on the sacred and the secular. It is the story of the five would-be martyrs, who are soon reduced to four after their bomb-making specialist, Fessal, trips over a sheep and blows up. The remaining jihadis are led by Omar, the brightest member of the group and the only one shown to have a family and steady employment. His followers are the public school ‘wannabe’ Hassan (‘the Mal’) Malik; Omar’s best friend, Waj, who is described in the script as being twenty years old ‘and built like a fridge’; and the white convert Barry, the closest thing the film has to George W. Bush’s description of ‘pure evil’. Following Omar’s and Waj’s ignominious militant training in Afghanistan (which is actually filmed in Andalucía) and various arguments and rifts, the group decides to stage suicide bombings at the London Marathon. The attacks don’t go to plan, and what begins as a hilarious sequence of accidental detonation set pieces becomes a chilling and thought-provoking reflection of what happens when an intense combination of religion, politics, and friendship spirals out of control.
In Four Lions, Morris represents the sacred and the secular as being far from ‘pure’ and discrete entities. Rather, they have porous borders that blur into each other. He reminds his audience that even seemingly unequivocal religious and materialist philosophies and practices are highly diverse amalgamations, which are constantly shifting and interpenetrating. This is evident right from the film’s opening scene, in a line spoken by the intellectually-challenged Waj: ‘’ey up you unbelieving kuffar bastards’. Mixing Yorkshire dialect with classical Islamic doctrine, profanity with an assertion of faith, Waj brandishes a replica AK47 in what he hopes will be a threatening jihadi video. His audience, consisting of his fellow militants Barry, Omar, and Fessal, criticise him for the weapon’s miniature size, but he remains unfazed, arguing that if he brings it nearer the camera ‘that’ll bigger it’. The scene immediately locates Four Lions in terms of genre as a comedy that inter-textually references the American movie about a British heavy metal band, This is Spinal Tap (1984), in which a design mistake leads to Spinal Tap having to use on stage a risible prop of Stonehenge which is only 18 inches tall.
It was a risky and controversial decision to depict terrorism through comedy, and the families of many of the 7/7 victims boycotted the film, which was widely publicised in the media. However, the ineptitude of attempts to bomb Glasgow airport and Tiger Tiger nightclub in London, and the dark slapstick easily discernable in the Detroit pants-bomber debacle, demonstrate that not only is the subject ripe for satire, but it also abounds with physical humour, screwball, and character comedy. Indeed, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain from successful British character-led sitcom Peep Show are co-writers with Morris of the screenplay. In an unwittingly prophetic comment early on in the film, Omar personifies terrorism failures in the figure of the ‘stupid nutter Muslim who blows a bagful of nails into his own guts in the toilets at TGIs’, possibly a reference to Saeed Alim, a Muslim convert with learning difficulties who in 2008 injured himself when he accidentally detonated his homemade nailbomb at a restaurant in Exeter. Morris has said that his film was inspired by the inept Home Guard men portrayed in the BBC comedy series Dad’s Army, but it is also worth comparing Four Lions to other British comedies on similar post-9/11 themes, such as the British stage show Jihad! The Musical and David Baddiel’s film The Infidel (both 2010). However, the US puppet movie Team America World Police (2005) is perhaps Morris’s most relevant cinematic forebear; this film and Four Lions both take a scattergun approach to humour, satirising targets across the political spectrum, and (unlike the musical and Baddiel’s film about Islamic-Jewish relations) they contain no trace of moralising or uncritical stereotyping.
Four Lions is in many ways a quintessentially British movie: it is low-budget at £2.5 million, and its humour is eccentric, dark, and scatological. The film is also quite narrow, even claustrophobic, in its concentration on domestic spaces as settings, which hints at the ghettoisation experienced by many Muslims in Britain, and is characteristic of the British Asian film. The film’s few outside scenes focus on fairly bleak Yorkshire scenery and even the Marathon scenes were shot in Sheffield: these are claustrophobic because of the bustling crowd scenes and hectic tracking shots which indicate the characters’ paranoia. Chris Morris’s use of genre and cinematic technique in Four Lions, therefore, reflects the impurity and mixed-up nature of the film’s themes of the sacred and the secular, suggesting both contamination and cross-fertilisation between different influences.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Morris’s past work in the groundbreaking 1990s’ news satires The Day Today and Brass Eye, Four Lions also evinces great interest in another genre than the British Asian comedy: the jihadi video. Because of their violent content and status as the most horrific type of reality television, these videos have been subjected to content analysis rather than film studies criticism. Yet, Morris is not the only writer to have shown an interest in the genre. Hanif Kureishi’s short story ‘Weddings and Beheadings’ (2010) is written from the perspective of an aspiring film-maker in an unnamed country (probably Iraq), who is coerced into filming footage of beheadings, which he disseminates on the internet. At the end of the story, he expresses his desire to make an art-house film, ‘maybe beginning with a beheading, telling the story that leads up to it’. Mohsin Hamid’s recent story, ‘A Beheading’, written for a Granta special issue on Pakistan, takes up this challenge, writing such a narrative from the perspective of a Pakistani victim who is taken from his house by jihadis and driven to a dilapidated house, where his murder is filmed. Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Reality and the Record’, a story from the collection The Madman of Freedom Square (2009), centres on a refugee who claims that he was forced to make a jihadi video which was so convincing that he was sold from gang to gang to make more. He testifies that he was compelled to act variously as an officer in the Iraqi army, a murderous member of the Shiite Mehdi Army, a Sunni Islamist, ‘a treacherous Kurd, an infidel Christian’, and so on. However, it is never clear whether this story ‘for the record’ is genuine or merely a way of securing asylum in Fortress Europe because, after spinning this pungent tale of kidnapping, murder, and duplicity, the protagonist suffers mental collapse and tells psychiatric workers his ‘real’ story: ‘I want to sleep.’
Rather than sharing Kureishi, Hamid, and Blasim’s focus on filmed murders, Morris is interested in the posturing and explanations of a martyrdom video recorded prior to an attack and intended to be played posthumously. The main reference point here is probably Mohammad Sidique Khan’s famous video statement, broadcast on al-Jazeera television several months after 7/7 on 1 September 2005. In the video, Khan declares that the attack on London was a military operation against citizens of a state currently at war against, as Khan puts it, ‘my people’. He justifies the attacks on the grounds that those citizens were, consciously or not, complicit with their government’s participation in a war that involved the bombing and illegal invasion of countries with largely Muslim populations. Morris takes this argument to its logical extreme when he has Barry tell bomb-maker Fessel that it’s morally acceptable to bomb the mosque his father attends: ‘has your dad ever bought a Jaffa orange? Well, then! He’s buying nukes for Israel – he’s a Jew!’
In a West Yorkshire accent very similar to that of the ‘fictionary’ Waj, Khan intones:
I’m going to keep this short and to the point, because it’s all been said before by far more eloquent people than me, and our words have no impact upon you. Therefore I’m going to talk to you in a language you can understand. Our words are dead until we give them life with our blood. I’m sure by now the media’s painted a suitable picture of me; its predictable propaganda machine naturally will try to put a spin on things to suit the government and to scare the masses into conforming to their power- and wealth-obsessed agendas. I and thousands like me have forsaken everything for what we believe: our driving motivation doesn’t come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer. Our religion is Islam — obedience to the one true God, Allah, and following the footsteps of the final prophet and messenger Muhammad (salAllahu ‘alayhi wasallam) — this is how our ethical stances are dictated. Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.
Morris takes many elements of this partly eloquent, partly muddle-headed, and entirely violent and ethically indefensible statement. For example, he reproduces the video’s sartorial statements: Khan ties a red and white kuffiyah unconventionally as a bandana, and pairs this with a combat jacket, fusing traditional Arab clothing with elements of militarywear and street style to fashion a specifically young British Muslim code of dress conveying a political statement. Waj and Omar sport similar outfits: a direction tells us that Waj ‘wears camos, a black headscarf & behind him a rug is pinned to the wall’, while Omar looks even more like Khan, with whom he shares a surname, as he has a red and white kuffiyah around his neck, and sports a neatly trimmed beard, grey t-shirt, jeans, and a combat jacket. In many ways, this hybrid look is the male equivalent of the layering of modest women’s clothing (both subcontinental clothes such as the shalwar kameez and kurta, and British clothes from high street chains such as Primark and Topshop) to create a ‘visibly Muslim’ ensemble. The curiously secular patterned curtain and the bleeping of a car reversing suggest a British location for Khan’s video, and Morris replicates the backdrop in the ‘blanket pinned to the wall’, indicating that the film’s several martyrdom videos are almost entirely shot in Yorkshire. Khan’s self-conscious rhetorical gestures such as clearing his throat during the speech and polemically pointing his finger are also adapted in Morris’s jihadi videos.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the quoted passage is the emphasis on language, on eloquent speech and failure to listen, the need for simple, straightforward language, and the ominous phrase ‘our words are dead until we give them life with our blood’. In the film, the jihadis’ words are dead, but they are not vivified by the ensuing bloodbath. The emptiness of language is emphasised in the jihadis’ last words: Waj’s poignant statement, ‘I’m sorry lads, I don’t really know what I’m doing’; Barry’s wordless death when he is blown up after an unsuspecting passerby gives him the Heimlich manoeuvre as he chokes on Omar’s sim card; Hassan’s abortive attempt to give himself up to the police, ‘I’m real, but not any more’ ; and Omar’s instruction to his colleague Matt to tell people he last saw him with a smile on his face, as this ‘could be important’. Omar’s last words may be based on Robert Fisk’s report that when a Hezbollah suicide bomber killed 241 US servicemen in Beirut in 1983, a witness said, ‘All I remember …is that the guy was smiling’. In Four Lions, the suicide bomber’s triumphalist smile morphs into Omar’s grim rictus, masking his tears as he blows up Boots — a pharmacy he had always been against attacking — to the accompaniment of the haunting piano duet ‘Avril 14th’ by Aphex Twin.
Of course, Tony Blair and other New Labour politicians furiously tried to disavow that British foreign policy had anything to do with 7/7 and other terrorist attacks. But in his video Khan indicates in ‘short and to the point’ form that this was in fact a prime motivating factor for the minority who became violent. Additionally, Khan also makes vague and empty fulminations against the media and consumerism, which Morris memorably satirises, but also pushes further in order to indicate why these relatively impoverished young men are so alienated as to get involved in the jihad. A good example comes in Omar’s speech:
We have instructions to bring havoc to this bullshit, consumerist, Godless, Paki-Bashing, Gordon Ramsay Taste the Difference Speciality Cheddar, torture-endorsing, massacre-sponsoring, look at me dancing pissed with me nob out, Sky One Uncovered, who gives a fuck about dead Afghanis Disneyland.
Here Omar juxtaposes religious ideas with distaste for consumerism and the media. The partial insight he sheds on foreign policy abuses in Afghanistan sits bathetically alongside vague lifestyle jealousies, which are underlined when Waj responds, ‘Fuck mini Babybel!’ Yet all the members of the cell are to varying degrees complicit in the consumerist culture Omar condemns here, as when Waj compares the number of people he kills to Nectar points for heaven. Again, it is not so easy to separate the West from the non-West, ‘tradition’ from ‘modernity’, and the sacred from the secular: rather we need to explore the ways in which these constructs intertwine.
Although the film is set in Sheffield, where there is a dominant white working-class population, there is also a lot of interest in its northern neighbour Bradford. Morris has undertaken more promotion in Bradford than anywhere else, holding the national premier of Four Lions there and organising a special screening followed by a Q and A with cast and crew to raise funds for the Pakistan floods. The actors’ voices, expressions, and attitudes seem to emanate less from South than West Yorkshire, whose vernacular can be accurately described as a cross between the north of England and Lahore. The overwhelming majority of Bradford’s large Black and Minority Ethnic population is Pakistani in origin and, more specifically, Mirpuri. Many families migrated to the city in the 1970s due to the construction of a huge dam in the Azad Kashmir region of northeast Pakistan, which led to the flooding of several hundred villages and the displacement of their inhabitants. Britain needed menial labourers and movement within the Commonwealth was relatively easy at this time, enabling the migration of thousands of Mirpuris to Bradford, a city which needed workers for its then thriving textile industry. In Pakistani-British writer Moni Mohsin’s novel Diary of a Social Butterfly, adapted from Lahore’s Friday Times newspaper column of the same name, the rich and indolent protagonist muses during a trip to England in 2007:
Vaisay I think so the monsoon has come here also. In their Northern Areas tau there has been theek-thaak flooding-schlooding. Places like Badford and Leads and pata nahin kya. Where their Taliban types live. You know, the ninjas in their burqas and trainers and the mullahs with their beards down to their knees, who say, ‘khuda hafiz, innit?’
This is the alien yet comic view of the north of England that we also see in Four Lions, which contains a similarly hybrid mishmash of religion, politics, and fashion with links to Pakistan.
The film begins with an extreme long shot of a building which anyone who knows the area would instantly recognise as Sheffield’s Meadowhall, a well-known shopping centre. However, several viewers unfamiliar with the north of England have assumed the building to have symbolic overtones; for example, in his begrudging review for the Observer, Philip French writes, this ‘mall, in the movie’s one striking visual joke, is lit at night by neon strips that from a distance give it the appearance of a giant mosque’. But the film could have been produced in several different northern cities, and the decision to shoot in Sheffield was as much a pragmatic choice as anything else, because Warp Films, the company behind Four Lions, is based there. Morris described Mark Herbert, the chief executive of Warp, taking him to an evening of nasheeds (Islamic songs) in Sheffield’s Town Hall, attended by about two thousand Muslims, and pitching the city to him as an ideal location four years before Four Lions came out. A nasheed makes it into the final soundtrack: from the album Jihad Nasheeds: Songs of Arabic Struggle, it features staccato gunshot and is a great deal more radicalising than anything Morris would have heard that night in 2006.
Another reason Sheffield is an ideal location is that tongues of countryside enter the city on the backs of hills, meaning that sheep graze peacefully in semi-rural areas near the city centre, facilitating the crucial scene in which Fessal is blown up in a field by Barry’s allotment. In a remark that suggests a degree of concession that the city is a stand-in for its West Yorkshire counterpart, Morris said, ‘what with the 2001 riots, I thought poor old Bradford, but I felt Sheffield could take it’. Indeed, the film continued to play in South Yorkshire longer than anywhere else, and the Sheffield branch of the Kebabish chain kept its old livery when the national company changed theirs because that was the one used in the kebab shop explosion scene — so in several ways the film was embraced.
The jihadis are preoccupied with cameras, camcorders, and camera-phones, and cinéma vérité and shaky hand-held camera techniques are often used. Waj and Hassan shake their heads vigorously on leaving their improvised bomb-making factory to ensure that any CCTV mug shot would be too blurry to identify them. During the shooting of his jihadi video, Barry imagines himself being interviewed by ‘mister newsman, in the newsroom’, and Fessal’s death is later reported on rolling news, with a caption ticker giving the headline, while a reporter explains in true Day Today style, ‘Steven Fap discovered the Asian man’s head when it nearly fell on his dog out of a tree’. Even the more sensible Omar has one eye on his posthumous reputation, worrying about embarrassing ‘bloopers’ or outtakes from the group’s footage. From the opening scene onwards, the jihadi videos’ drama and polemic is punctured by mundane fears that batteries will run out or their cameraphones will run out of credit. There are cameras everywhere, from the panoptic bank of monitors Omar scrutinises in his job as a security guard, to the lens orthodox Fessal hides from by wearing a box on his head, because he believes the human image to be haram.
Hassan, the ‘fifth jihadi’, who enters the cell late in the day and is never quite accepted, films the group at every opportunity, leading Omar to fear he is a ‘TV Paki or a coconut spook’. Hassan is significantly depicted as a Media Studies student, whose radicalisation is partly fuelled by his A-level teacher’s belittling of him, and who performs extremist dub poetry (which Barry disparages as ‘thingy thingy rap rap’). At a lecture ironically entitled ‘Islam: Moderation and Progress’, he stands up and intones the infantile lyric, ‘I’m the mujahideen and I’m making a scene / Now you’re gonna feel what the boom boom means / It’s like Tupac said, “When I die, I ain’t dead” / We are the martyrs, you’re just smashed tomatoes’. To the audience’s alarm, he shouts, ‘Allahu Akbar!’ and sets off party streamers from an imitation suicide belt. In this way, Morris draws parallels between hip hop and Islamism (rap stars such as Wu-Tang Clan and Brand Nubian, for instance, propagated Five Percenter ideology in their lyrics). Hassan and Waj dance to the song ‘Aag ka Dariya’ (‘River of Fire’: this is also the title of a neglected classic by Pakistani novelist Qurratulain Hyder and a Bollywood film of the same name from 1953), doing traditional moves such as thumkas and extended prayer poses, as well as miming each other’s brutal murders. The track is by Dr Zeus, a Birmingham-based Sikh music producer who blends Punjabi bhangra music with hip hop and R and B influences, and has a raunchy and bling-filled video that was banned in India because of the near nudity of the featured singer, Czech starlet Yana Gupta. Rather than the contraposition of the sacred and secular which Islamism and hip hop at first appear to be, both concerned with identity assertion.
As well as cameras and the media, Waj in particular is obsessed by other technologies, exemplified in his naïve aim to ‘blow up the internet’, his ‘Prayer Bear’ which performs namaz for him, or the instance when he takes a call from a terrorist negotiator and thinks he may have won an iPhone (mobile phoneshops with their animal packages are also lampooned). Members of the group also eat their phones’ sim cards with the intention of making themselves harder to trace. For communication, the cell uses the Puffin Party children’s social networking (which evokes Disney’s similar site Club Penguin). They receive emails from the address ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ inviting them to attend a wedding in Pakistan, code for joining the jihad. This is in part a simple reflection of Morris’s own satirical media background, but also mirrors some Islamist groups’ striving for e-jihad in online environments. Morris’s jihadis prove themselves no strangers to more mainstream shoot-‘em-up games, as when Waj says, ‘I’ve got hostages and everything, like X-Box Counter Strike!’ This preoccupation with new ICT, filming, and simulacrum, is also an attempt to counter stereotypes and iterate the current British Muslim concern about being under surveillance and reported or researched to excess. Morris is under no postmodernist illusion that the simulacrum is all that exists; indeed his jihadis make this category mistake to their mortal peril.
In one scene a jihadi video is shown in full-screen; the camera then pans out to show the images playing on a laptop in a cosy living room, with Ikea furniture and children’s toys cluttering the floor. In my interview with him, Morris explained the reason for this juxtaposition:
If you go into people’s houses, it’s a jumble. Quite strict Muslims may have houses in which there are no figurative representations on the wall, but when the kids come home, if they’ve been good at Qur’an school, they can play Grand Theft Auto or watch television. […] In the evidence in a court case concerning guys accused of doing a reccy for the 7/7 attacks; they had footage of Mohammad Sidique Khan in his house, taking the piss and introducing the people in the room from behind a video camera. It was a very straightforward domestic setting, so why wouldn’t it be like that in the film?
Here Morris shows alertness to the ‘jumble’ or lack of separation between apparently pure and impure modes of living. The Muslim ‘brothers’ depicted in the film have a cut and paste approach to Islam and obviously don’t know much about the Qur’an, which they selectively quote. Although they pepper their sentences with qualifiers such as ‘insha’allah’ and ‘masha’allah’, these are mixed with extremely British expressions, as when Hassan pronounces, ‘Alhamdulillah, bro. We skilled it’. They are autodidacts in religion, rejecting centuries of Islamic scholarship and chafing against the restrictive scholarship of Omar’s possibly Tablighi brother, Ahmed, with his endless fatwas, or religious opinions.
This brings us to the issue of radicalisation. The film contests the simplistic binary thinking about Muslims, especially evident in Tony Blair’s and George W. Bush’s policies, but continuing in David Cameron’s rhetoric of ‘muscular liberalism’, which he prefers to the so-called ‘passive tolerance of recent years’. This kind of dualistic thinking has produced the notions of ‘good Muslim’, viewed by the dominant culture as being the authentic voice of Islam, and ‘bad Muslim’, interpreted as having transgressed religion’s fundamental principles. Barry satirises this dominant myth in his line, ‘yeah, a good Muslim keeps his mouth shut: yeah’. It is dangerous to accept the good Muslim/bad Muslim divide, even when the person doing this emphasises the ‘good’ side of pluralism and tolerance within Islam. Unless these stereotypes are dismantled altogether, they can easily be reversed, whereby the ‘bad Muslim’ is taken to be the ‘real’ voice of Islam and the ‘good Muslim’ becomes somehow inauthentic. The convert character Barry is the main proponent of this view in Four Lions, and his circular reasoning leads him to punch himself in the face to demonstrate how ‘moderate’ Muslims will be radicalised if the jihadis bomb an ordinary mosque rather than targeting so-called ‘kuffar’ or ‘slag’ utilities.
If Barry is taken to be representative of Muslim converts in Britain as a group, then to some extent Morris’s demonisation of him is questionable. Barry is sexually deviant, as he makes Hassan ‘put a bean up the end of his nob’ and Waj urinate in his own mouth in bizarre initiation rituals. There is also the suggestion of mental disorder, which is especially apparent in the paranoia that leads him to believe a milk float is being driven by undercover intelligence agents and a mother with a pram is an MI5 operative. However, his delusions are not strong enough to consider him ‘psychotic’ (as some critics have argued), as he is in no mental distress; psychosis is often used as a lazy and inaccurate shorthand for ‘evil’, when it is actually a symptom of severe psychiatric illness. Morris rightly suggests that converts often find they cannot escape their ethnic origin, despite the fact that no credence is supposed to be given to race in Islam. The other jihadis taunt Barry about his lack of knowledge of Urdu, and for the fact that, whereas Omar has an uncle in Pakistan who can help the group make contact with Afghan training camps, Barry’s uncle lives in the innocuous town of Maidstone in Kent. Yet when Waj and Omar go to Afghanistan, they experience a similar dislocation when they find themselves unable to communicate with the ‘Afghan Arabs’ at the training camp and are reduced to the stereotypes of ‘James Fuck Bond’ and ‘fucking Mr Beanz’. Barry’s alias is ‘Azzam al Britani’, the first name is an Arabic word meaning ‘determined, leonine’, which seems appropriate for this stubborn, hardline ‘lion’, and ‘al Britani’ (‘the Briton’) is a common suffix for British-born or -raised jihadis, such as Dhiren Bharot and Abu Abdullah al-Britani. Although there is some evidence to suggest that converts make more unhinged jihadis (Richard Reid is a good example), it should be noted that the vast majority of converts (or ‘reverts’ as they are sometimes unattractively labelled) give their allegiance to Islam out of spiritual longing, love for a Muslim partner, or both.
Notwithstanding the plethora of so-called bad Muslims in Four Lions, it is not so easy to identify a ‘good’ one. Omar’s brother Ahmed is religious, and it would have been an easy option to make him a sympathetic ‘moderate’ Muslim, but Morris doesn’t take it, making him boringly obsessed with fatwas, comically playing football under umbrellas with other brothers, misogynistic, and with an annoyingly pious face (Omar criticises him for doing the ‘floaty face of the wise bird hovering on a million different quotes about to do a massive wisdom shit on my head’). Yet there is real sympathy for Ahmed at the end when the authorities mistakenly think he’s involved in his brother’s plot, and he is clearly about to face torture by Egyptians’ in RAF Mildenhall, which hints at logged records that CIA flights passed through this airbase as part of extraordinary rendition. Here Four Lions hints at the securitisation policies of the Blair-Brown years and initiatives like the CONTEST agenda, with its Pursue, Prevent, Protect, and Prepare strands. One of the main problems in the film is that the security forces (derogatively characterised by Omar as ‘Dibble’) get it so spectacularly wrong, bickering about whether wookies and honey monsters may be categorised as bears, shooting the wrong man at the Marathon, and inadvertently insulting Waj as an ‘arse man’ when trying to negotiate with him. Along with the post-9/11 foreign policy, the context of such wrongful shootings, heavy-handed surveillance initiatives, detention without trial, ethnic profiling, and the brutal treatment in detention of Muslim suspects have substantially contributed to radicalisation. In interview, Morris remarked, ‘tricky as anti-terrorist legislation is, it’s shot through with mistakes. Quite what the acceptable level of incompetence is, I don’t know’. British actor, Riz Ahmed, who plays Omar, had a taste of this in 2006 when he and two fellow actors were held at Luton Airport under the Terrorism Act during the making of a previous picture (ironically, this was Michael Winterbottom’s film about the Tipton Three, The Road to Guantanamo).
But what is ‘radicalisation’? It is best characterised, I would argue, as a process in which an individual becomes increasingly convinced that society can only be improved by dramatic and swingeing change (not unlike Britain’s current coalition government). The terms radicalism and radicalisation are not inherently negative, and many different forms of radicalisation exist, very few of which are violent. Furthermore, radicalisation is not a uniquely Muslim problem, an assumption that was conspicuous in many journalists’ initial Islamophobic assumptions about the Norway shootings of 2011, which were in fact perpetrated by the Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik.
Attempts to explain radicalisation tend to rest on three approaches: a sociological methodology, which searches for a common social background among terrorists; the psychological attempt to look for a radical ‘type’; and a communitarian approach looking at group dynamics and social situation. This first social explanation was discredited as it emerged that the stereotype of young, brainwashed men from deeply deprived backgrounds in the poorest parts of the third world did not tally with the higher than average levels of educational attainment, aspirational, cosmopolitan, and well-travelled backgrounds of many members of the global Salafi jihad. Few terrorists, apart from those from the distinctive Indonesian network, had attended madrasas or had unusually religious upbringings, and the majority of jihadis are married, often with children, rather than being the lone wolves identified in social explanations.
The psychological approach also has problems, for example because there is no evidence to suggest that jihadi terrorists have any higher instances of mental illness than the wider population. Fanaticism isn’t a mental disorder, but a deeply held belief, and even suicide bombing, the facet of terrorism with the clearest link to mental illness, is part of this belief, and shares more with the Japanese practices of kamikaze or seppuku than with self-harm born out of mental distress. Nor is there evidence to suggest that a higher than average proportion of jihadis had experienced childhood trauma that, according to a Freudian psychoanalytical approach, may have sent them down the route of violence. Writers such as Martin Amis (who is aptly described by Morris in a Guardian Comment is Free article as ‘the new Abu Hamza’ because of his dogmatic hatred and absurdity), have tried to link jihadis with personality disorders such as pathological narcissism, which allegedly allow their sufferers to kill because the world is divided into ‘me’ and ‘not-me’ (in Amis’s story ‘The Last Days of Muhammad Atta’, the eponymous 9/11 ringleader believes himself to be ‘not like the others’). This psychological trend is also typified in the commercial if not artistic success of Ed Husain’s The Islamist (comprehensively subtitled ‘Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left’), which has contributed to the development of a mini-subgenre which documents the (usually male) author’s flirtation with extremist Islam, often while at university, and his growing disillusionment and eventual departure from the movement.
One example of this subgenre is Human Being to Human Bomb in which British Bangladeshi Russell Razzaque describes his brush with Hizb-ut-Tahrir during study at the University of London. Like Husain, Razzaque is British by birth with parents from Bangladesh, but, unlike Husain, he never became seriously involved with this Islamist group. He is now a consultant psychiatrist in East London for several mental health and addiction treatment centres. His film, Halal Harry (2006), is, alongside Four Lions, one of the more nuanced attempts to represent British Muslims in film and, to my knowledge, the only such by a director who is himself of Muslim heritage. What distinguishes Halal Harry from the other films I mentioned is that while Razzaque uses the overworked trope of a Muslim falling in love with a non-Muslim, he positions the male, non-Muslim protagonist converting to Islam in a fairly smooth and happy process, rather than a difficult choice being posed to a Muslim character about sacred and secular lifestyles.
In his less convincing, and sensationally-titled book, which is variously subtitled ‘The Conveyor Belt of Terror’ and ‘Inside the Mind of a Terrorist’, Razzaque outlines a psychiatric multiple choice test he has pioneered in order to profile people who are likely to be ripe for radicalisation, and thus prevent or reverse the process. If one scores highly on having an obsessive personality, authoritarian tendencies (which Razzaque suggest are likely to have come from a strict and distant father), and a scientific bent of mind (likely careers include medicine, engineering, and IT), then Human Being to Human Bomb claims that this means one would be susceptible to radical arguments. However, the problem for Razzaque is that while some radicals fit this profile, as Mohamed Atta does to a certain extent, others, including at least two of the 7/7 bombers, emphatically do not.
Morris himself rejects Ed Husain’s and Russell Razzaque’s pathologisation of jihadis as sons of absent fathers, sexually frustrated, jealous of the West, and so on. In his research, he saw many different types of jihadi. To take only the 7/7 bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan was a husband, father, and classroom assistant, previously very Westernised and known as ‘Sid’. Shehzad Tanweer was a sports science graduate from my own institution, Leeds Metropolitan University, who hadn’t yet established a career; he loved cricket, and his parents ran a fish-and-chip shop. Jamaican-born Germaine Lindsay was unemployed, and the youngest, Hasib Mir Hussain, was still a student. They were not ‘technical’ people, and their parents on the whole seem loving and unexceptional.
The desire to find a way of identifying potential terrorists is understandable because it’s hard to believe that ‘normal’ people would kill civilians, but Morris suggests that the search for a radicalisation type or push factor ‘overcomplicates it’. Instead, he depicts his protagonists from all walks of life: Omar, the family man and leader; Waj, the simple(ton) lover of gadgets, women, and his friends; the nihilistic convert, Barry; the middle-class student, Hassan; and Fessel, who is the only one of the five with any technical aptitude. Morris has talked about the jihadis’ activity as representing a kind of male homosocial bonding, with the repeated dream of martyrdom as being like jumping the queue at Alton Towers to enter the heavenly world of ‘rubber dinghy rapids’. Yet perhaps a weakness of the film is that it stops short of explaining why certain characters are drawn more than others to the intense friendships and banal bickering of such cells. Apart from Fessel, whose father is implied to have mental health problems (he eats newspaper and moths and has started ‘seeing creatures that’s not there’), they seem well integrated in mainstream society, especially Omar, who is married to a beautiful nurse, Sofia, with whom he has a lively, intelligent child; a nice house; and a wide circle of friends and family. The 7/7 bombers were integrated to varying degrees too, but the South Leeds areas where three out of four of them lived are more run-down than the Sheffield suburb depicted in the film, and several of them attended the Iqra bookshop and Hamara youth centre in the area, where it is likely their radicalism was exacerbated in a two-directional process.
The film’s title Four Lions derives from a scene after Fessel’s accidental suicide when the four remaining conspirators comfort themselves by describing themselves as ‘four lions’, brave warriors in the service of their understanding of jihad. Lions have potent significance in the Indian subcontinent, where names such as ‘Singh’ and ‘Sher’ denote this majestic feline. In England, of course, the royal coat of arms features three lions, which are also displayed on the pound coin and the Football Association shirt, suggesting the warriors’ unwitting immersion in consumerism and thuggery. In Them: Adventures with Extremists, journalist Jon Ronson describes Al Muhajiroun leader Omar Bakri Mohammed as an incongruous yet ardent fan of the Disney classic, The Lion King, who listens to ‘Hakuna Matata’ in order to relax. ‘They call me the Lion’, he tells Ronson, ‘the great fighter’. Like the characters in the film, in Ronson’s rendition, Omar Bakri Mohammed mixes frightening homophobia, misogyny, and anti-Semitism with comic ineptitude (his Scottish convert colleague plans to release ‘a swarm of mice’ into the United Nations headquarters). It is surely no coincidence that Morris has his character, also called Omar, tell the comforting story of The Lion King to his young son after returning in disgrace from a jihadi training camp in Afghanistan, where he had inadvertently fired an anti-aircraft missile at the terrorists’ emir. In the sanitised bed-time version of this debacle, Omar refigures himself as the naïve but loveable Simba; positions an American warplane as the villain, Scar; and casts the terrorists’ emir (who, it transpires, is Osama bin Laden) as wise Mufasa, tragically killed by his own son. Like Ronson’s reporting of Omar Bakri Mohammed, the film’s extremist characters are foolish lions, reminiscent of the Sanskrit animal fables, the Panchatantra, and more cartoon-like than leonine. Rather than lions, in the Marathon scenes at the end of the film, the characters are dressed in absurd fancy dress. Omar is a honey monster, a costume which expresses his sweetness and yet monstrosity; Waj is a man riding an ostrich (he buries his head in the sand); Barry dresses as a teenage mutant ninja turtle (he is the most violent of the four, and with distorted, juvenile attitudes); and Hassan is an inverted clown (signaling his joker role that nonetheless leads to violence).
Four Lions provides largely nuanced accounts of the apparent ‘clash’ between sacred and secular worldviews, and examines secular practices with as satirical an eye as it does religious worldviews, showing that the two are not easily separable. Morris has described it as a ‘good-hearted film’, and certainly the reception from Muslim communities in Britain has been very warm. However, there is also an undeniable pessimism which Morris acknowledges: ‘If you make a film about this [terrorism] you have to have consequences.’ Both Omar and Waj have second thoughts about the ethics of what they’re doing and think about abandoning their mission, but go through with it.
Finally, it is rather problematic that the most positive character in the film is Omar’s (admittedly naïve) non-Muslim security guard colleague, Matt. He has the last word in the film and his voiceover proclaims disbelief that Omar could have been involved in the plot: ‘When we talk about the so-called terrorist attack on the London Marathon, we should remember one thing, most loud bangs are not bombs, they’re scooters backfiring.’ After recent terrorist acts, the incredulous, loyal friends have usually come from the Muslim community, indicating both the ghettoisation of Muslims and the fact that most members of the community have no idea about this violence; however, none of these voices are heard in Four Lions. While I applaud Morris’s decision to destabilise good Muslim/bad Muslim binaries, it is a little disappointing that the nearest thing the film has to a ‘good’ character comes from the white, non-Muslim community.