An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Islamic Studies magazine ‘Perspectives’ (November 2010).
Chris Morris’s feature-length satire about five northern British Muslims who set off bombs at the London Marathon, screened last May, is now available on DVD. I recommend showing it as part of any Islamic Studies-related teaching programme, or, indeed any sociology programme. Some students (and staff) will be annoyed and offended by what at first seem to be caricatures of Muslims. Some will be astonished that such a terribly serious topic can be the subject of so much humour. Others will admire Morris’s careful research into the recent history of terrorism ‘inspired’ by a version of Islam.
These reactions will not be predictable according to the ethnicity or religious background of the people in the room. I searched the web to find reactions from Muslims to the film: the only two that surfaced were entirely enthusiastic. The eminent critic Philip French (2010), however, panned it as the weakest form of sitcom. More seriously, relatives of the 7/7 victims said they did not think it was funny, and that the film was making money out of tragedy.
Its virtues as an adjunct to teaching are many. My own political and academic interests have always lain in ‘race’ and ethnicity. In my last five years of teaching this topic I found that film was the most effective vehicle for tracing the history of racism and the nuances of the relationship between ‘race’ and religion. In relation to Islam, ‘My Son the Fanatic’ (1998), ‘Brothers in Trouble’ (1996) and ‘East is East’ (1999) were invaluable. ‘Four Lions’ will spark off extremely stimulating classroom debates.
Those who regard it as insulting may never be persuaded of its merits, but they might note, for example, the argument between Omar (the quick-witted and intelligent would-be martyr, played brilliantly by Riz Ahmed) and his Salafi brother, Ahmed (Wasim Zakir). As with many episodes carefully stitched into scenes of farce, tragi-comedy and sexual insults (in subtitled Urdu and Punjabi) worthy of Shakespeare, there is careful attention to the nuances of contemporary British life.
The difference between Omar and Ahmed is given serious and relevant detail. Omar has a loving and respectful relationship with his beautiful wife Sofia (Preeya Kalidas) and their adorable son. Traditionally dressed Ahmed arrives in their home to tell Omar that what they are planning is wrong. Although Sofia has put on her scarf to greet him, he demands that she leave the room. Omar and Sofia tell him she won’t. Ahmed tells him his wife is “out of control”. Omar rails that Ahmed’s group lock their wives in a cupboard. As the scene descends into a water-pistol fight, we have learned a little more about the role of women within the further reaches of so-called fundamentalism.
For those who hope that peaceful, devout Islam might be a counterweight to Omar’s militant Islam, the scene where Omar begins to express his doubts about his bombing plans is revealing. He bumps into Ahmed and his Salafi buddies playing football in the park, in the rain, in traditional garments, under umbrellas. He’s about to ask Ahmed for some advice. He stops himself, and launches a tirade against his brother “Doing that floaty face of a wise bird giving a million different quotes and a massive dose of wisdom shit on my head”. Omar’s ongoing refrain of “do what your heart tells you, not your head” – interestingly twisted at the end when Omar is trying to stop the very dim Waj (Karyan Novak) from detonating his bomb in a kebab shop – is another telling example of the militants’ hostility to interpretation.
Omar’s outburst, early in the film, against “this bullshit, consumerist, Godless, Paki-bashing, Gordon-Ramsay-taste-the-difference-specialty-cheddar, torture-endorsing, massacre-sponsoring, look-at-me-dancing-pissing-about, Sky One Uncovered, who-gives-a-fuck-about-dead-Afghanis Disneyland” is equally valuable in providing some insight into the serious critique that many of the political Islamists subscribe to. It reminds us – as Susan Buck-Morss (2003) and Faisal Devji (2008) have pointed out – that these Islamists have more in common with Western critics of capitalism than is usually acknowledged.
Obviously, some of our ‘look-at-me-dancing’ students and staff will miss these insights and simply rejoice in moments such Waj’s idea that they blow up Boots because “they sell condoms that make you want to bang white girls”, or the excellent vignettes at the end, where Morris returns to his Brass Eye (1997) days, including the parliamentary spokesman on security announcing that “the police shot the right man but the wrong man exploded”. But the poignant, almost redemptive ending will be clear to all. I endorse Chris Morris’s claim that his film is not intended to offend, but to increase understanding. Combining that with a barrelful of laughs is quite an achievement.