Sunday, March 17, 2013

Four Lions (2010)

I have to admit that I had a lot of trepidation about watching Four Lions. A lot can go wrong with any satire centered around Islamist fundamentalists. Chris Morris and the three co-writers had a lot of lines to toe. The screenplay needed to make the protagonists likable without unwittingly conveying approval of terrorism. The script required farce, gravitas, and memorable characterization without endorsing bigotry or alarmism. On top of that, the film ends on a downbeat, which comedies don't usually attempt.

I think Morris succeeded, and I must say I really like the result.

Four Lions tells the story of five British Muslim extremist postulants beset by a Herostratic desire to fling themselves to Paradise by making themselves martyrs of a Jihad existing mostly in their own collective imagination.

As it turns out, the satire succeeds entirely because of the risible mindsets of the protagonists. As Sam Richards pointed out in this amazing TED talk, everyone—everyone—has reasons for what they do—even Islamic extremists. This movie communicates to the viewer that very idea… even as it makes the point that these particular reasons have very little to do with logic or reality.

Aside from the intransigent, smug sociopath Barry, the characters seem misguided more than anything. Their brashness, pertinacity, bombast, and fallacious certitude outstrip their means, intelligence, or even common sense. Furthermore, the progression of the plot makes it clear that they pose as much a threat to peaceful, law-abiding Muslims and Arabs—and themselves—as they do to anyone else. Nevertheless, they seem more than anything like misguided neophytes desperate to attain relevance and importance through iconoclasm in a world that their callow minds don’t—and sadly, never will—fully understand.

Waj brandishes a fake mini-AK-47 as his friends pretend they don’t look pathetic and self-deluded.
Notably, these self-styled terrorists clearly engage in the same selective cherry-picking of the Qur’an as that of Christian extremists with the Bible. They lie (Qur’an 2:42, Qur’an 22:30), they backbite (Qu’ran 49:11-12), and they conspire to kill both other Muslims and non-believers (Qur’an 5:32, Qur’an 60:7-8), committing suicide in the process (Qur’an 4:29). As the movie drives home above all, they live in, work in, and contribute to the very society whose perceived wanton turpitude they denounce, which comprises perhaps the ultimate hypocrisy (Qur’an 4:145).1 Heck, if you want to get technical, these “true Muslims” listen to music, which some conservative Muslims see as haraam.2 They also wear shoes indoors, which a number of Muslims consider disrespectful and unclean. 3

Omar spends quality time with his family whilst rolling his eyes at his friends’ half-cocked jeremiads.
We see the story through the eyes of Omar (played by Riz Ahmed), the leader of his little terrorist cell. Omar makes for an unusual kind of antihero. He genuinely loves his family—his wife Sofia and his son Mahmood—and he comes closer than any of his friends to having a fully-functioning brain. Nevertheless, he has obviously carried his inveterate anti-Western acrimony from a very young age. His imprecations never seem heartfelt or fully thought out, but he betrays a compulsive, irrational need to protect his ideology. Like Les Misérables’ Javert, he comes tantalizingly close to abjuration but proves psychologically unable to follow through.

Khalid’s asceticism seems more like gynophobia than anything.
William El-Gardi plays a minor character: Omar’s brother, Khalid. Khalid exists in the film to display ultraconservative Islam as a contrast to the fundamentalism of his brother. Khalid goes so far overboard with Islam’s warnings on the devilish nature of gender mixing that he won’t even set foot in a room with a woman (and as we see in the above picture, shields his face from his own sister-in-law). Omar and Sofia also imply that he mistreats his wife by forbidding her to leave a small part of his house.4 (Sofia, for her part, leaves her house frequently, as she works at a hospital.) Even from the conversation, it becomes clear that Khalid’s house has much more tension than Omar’s loving and relatively functional family.

Khalid has little screen-time, but his presence makes some interesting points. Omar shows great irritation with his brother’s homilies, proscriptions, and fastidious obsession with the letter of the law. The film posits that not all conservative Muslims agree with terrorism, and vice versa. The film’s British authorities fail to make that distinction; they erroneously accuse Khalid of complicity in his brother’s conspiracies. Despite his wrongheadedness about his marriage, Khalid not only had no involvement of terrorism but in fact reproached Omar for his—Omar’s—plans. I greatly disliked Khalid for his misogyny, but I must admit that at least he tried to talk his brother out of doing something stupid.

Omar tells his son a bedtime story about Simba… the inept Mujahadeen lion.
Family actually serves as a recurring motif of the film. Omar boasts of his connection to his terrorist uncle living in Pakistan. The film implies that Omar’s uncle inculcated in Omar his contempt for Western society. (Don’t underestimate the verisimilitude of this; I’ve never met or heard of a bigot or extremist in my life who didn’t get at least some of that from his family.) Omar, in turn, teaches these ways to his son, Mahmood. The film (correctly) portrays this deleterious false sagacity as extremely irresponsible on Omar’s part; even at the time, he struggles and fails to buttress his worldview with cogency.

Barry records a video taking credit for a false flag bombing that he hasn't even started to plan.
Nigel Lindsay plays Azzam al-Britani, or “Barry,” the most destructive and imperious of the group and the film’s pugnacious antagonist. He converted to Islam earlier in life and subsequently joined this group, purporting himself as their leader. He has no more of a clue than any of his colleagues, although he masks this behind acerbic truculence. He styles himself as “the Invisible Jihadi,” yet he looks like a walking stereotype and he regularly engages in tumid public displays of fundamentalist bloviating.

Of all the characters, his hate seems the most genuine. His constant misogyny, homophobia, anti-Jewish sentiment, and even contempt for his Pakistan-dwelling al-Qaeda superiors clearly exist far beyond even the context of his Jihadism. Morris based him on a real-life ex-BNP hatemonger who studied the Qur’an to enhance his pedantry, but he “accidentally” converted to Islam in the process. One could easily see that as the story behind this character, as he seems motivated less by fundamentalism than raw hate.

Indeed, the film makes it abundantly clear that he has no more real love for Muslims than he does for anyone else. He eschews mosques and complains of their corruption by moderates and spies; in fact, he spends much of the film plotting to blow one up as a false flag maneuver. His “friends” later learn the hard way that he has no real loyalty toward them either.

Waj shows Omar and Omar’s uncle his “prayer bear” that he uses to pray.
The source of the poster image: Faisal readies himself to make the ultimate sacrifice of a crow.
Notice the scorn with which the moderate Muslims look at Hassan and his rapping idiocy.
All three other members of this “Mujahadeen cell” serve as the requisite obtuse characters in any comedy. In all three, we see reluctant young Muslims turned astray by the blandishments and perceived intelligence and insight of Omar and Barry. All three feel comfortable with inchoate crimes, but they all struggle with the rectitude of escalating their plans.

Omar’s best friend Waj (played by Iranian-British actor/comedian Kayvan Novak) understands Islam—and the world—only at a childlike level. He gets most of his Islamic knowledge from a children's book, The Camel That Went to the Mosque. In a running gag, he associates Paradise with not having to wait in line for his favorite thing in the world: Rubber Dinghy Rapids, an amusement park ride. His alacrity appears much more rooted in his friendship with Omar than in any conviction of his own.

Faisal (played by law school graduate turned actor Adeel Akhtar) conveys the family motif in his own way. He balances his budding terrorist ambitions with caring for his mentally-ill father. Although Faisal shows extreme susceptibility to Barry’s ramblings, Faisal evinces reluctance toward the idea of suicide bombing. Above, we see him practicing in rigging a crow to do the exploding for him.

Hassan (played by Arsher Ali) joins the group last. Barry first meets Hassan when they both disrupt a moderate Muslim talk that reminded me of this recent story of a Tea Party Patriots CPAC panel that devolved into racism. Although the scene seems almost gratuitous in the larger scope of the plot, I found it one of the most important scenes in the film. Notice that before Barry starts his fractious invective, MP Malcolm Storge promulgates the idea that most moderate Muslims want nothing more than to live their lives peacefully. Morris clearly paints these fundamentalists as the real enemy of Muslims and non-Muslims coexisting peacefully.

In any case, like Waj and Faisal, Hassan clearly appears in over his head. His dedication gradually abates throughout the film. One can easily see in him the tragedy of the fundamentalist catechism, which feeds on the credulity of its recruits.

All three of these characters have tragic pangs of doubt, a burgeoning realization of the absurdity and inanity of their cause. All three dissemble these doubts in deference to Barry—the inexorable and perfidious bigot—and Omar—who, unbeknownst to the others, has no more of a clue than they do. For Waj, Faisal, and Hassan, their naïveté, lack of aplomb, and underestimation of their own agency become their hamartia.

Although I found the film very, very funny, through the foibles of its protagonists, the film also comes with a salutary message: extremism preys on the stupid and makes them dangerous. I could not agree more.

1 No, the Qur’an does not condone the slaughter of non-Muslims or innocents—or anyone.
2 The music-as-haraam viewpoint does not come close to reflecting all Muslims. Besides, that would make Mos Def, Everlast, Yas Taalat, Kareem Salama, Cat Stevens, Robert “Kool” Bell, and many, many other Muslim musicians into sinners. I've met numerous moderate Muslims who listen to music just like everyone else. Even in my Muslim upbringing, I myself started playing the piano at age 5.
3 For the record, I have no interest whatsoever in proselytism, sermonizing, dogmatism, or even discussing my own religious views. I only want to dispel stereotypes and hateful misconceptions.
4 Khalid’s cruelty to his wife no more reflects Islam than do the actions of Omar and Omar’s compatriots. For some useful information on women in Islam, check out Sisters in Islam, a helpful and informative Muslim feminist site which contains a very good article denouncing domestic abuse.

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