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Conversations on the Other Side of Terror: Behind the Humor in Four Lions


Written on December 13, 2016, for Theatre R1A Undocumented Subjects: Performance and Immigration in/outside the United States

image from The NY Times

    Terrorism is becoming one of the most pressing issues faced by our community today, with its impact stretching across borders and disciplines, influencing local and international politics, and sparking heated discussions amongst various artists and scholars. Most people in western societies are shocked and petrified by the violence and cruel nature of the radical actions taken by the terrorist, and they find it hard to understand the motive behind these extremists and terrorist organizations, such as the jihadists who have bombed the London subway in 2005, and ISIS, which is responsible for recent terrorist attacks in Nice, France and Dhaka, Bangladesh. Discussions and opinions from scholars and artists spawned as the problem persists, and amongst various artworks, the British dark comedy film Four Lions, directed by Christopher Morris, approaches the topic of Terrorism from a unique angle, while the touch of humor can sometimes make the audience question: is humor appropriate here? In fact, behind Four Lion’s silly portrayal of five British jihadists’ attempt to bomb London, the film points to a critical problem in the discussion around Terrorism today: there is a deep divide between people on either end of the Terrorism - the terrorists and those affected or targeted by the terrorists. Why does this drastic split amongst people exist, and what are the main contributing factors to this situation facing us today? Christopher Morris calls attention to this question in Four Lions, with an unconventional use of humor to break stereotypes, and build symbols extending beyond the silver screen. Essentially, there exists a split between the majority of western societies and the Islamic extremist organizations today, because of paranoid stereotypes exaggerated by fear and bias, the lacking of effective communication between two sides, and the consequent lack of understanding. As we engage other literatures, including Georg Simmel’s The Stranger and Thomas Nail’s Figure of the Migrant into a conversation with the film, it is important to recognize that most opinions and speculations from these articles, and even myself come from the perspective of one side (which further proves the lack of communication and mutual understanding between both sides of the gap). It’s especially important for us to try to understand the film and its usage of humor, in an attempt to see it from the other side’s perspective, as it documents the psychological journey of five British jihadists planning to bomb a London marathon.

    Humor in comedies and satires brings laughter to the audience by exaggerating certain characteristics in the film, and Four Lions is no exception in that it portrays four characters who are clumsy, silly, and naive, and depicts their clownish attempts to make a big impact. The film stands out from others of its genre, however, because Terrorism is an unusual topic for comedy. Due to the violent nature and tragic outcomes of terrorist events, it seems unfitted to joke about the issue, and the sense of impropriety and guilt persist as the audiences laugh at the characters’ silly mistakes and absurd thoughts in the film. Yet this violation of conventions is, in fact, the film’s embodiment of one its central message, which is the calling to breakaway from established stereotypes in Terrorism, as it breaks the taboo and approaches this forbidden topic in a humorous manner. As people started to become sensitive around Terrorism, a stereotype of Muslims developed after the US 911 attack and London subway bombings, and it’s reinforced by consequent terrorist attacks till this day. Horrified citizens of western societies become susceptible to paranoia, and they start to make irrational judgements, including easily associating Muslims with terrorists. A common stereotype of Muslims is represented by the four main characters in Four Lions: Omar, Waj, Hassan, and Faisal, who are unreasonable, stupid, and violent in nature, making irrational decisions while seeking opportunities to cause trouble. They certainly aren’t representative of all Muslims in the UK, and Ahmed, Omar’s peaceful brother, whose calm and non-violent nature is clearly in contrast with that of the main characters, is a prominent example. After all, Muslims, as a part of UK’s population differentiated by their religion, are a diverse group of people, who can be just like any other ordinary person in our everyday lives, merciless extremists who are unreasonable and violent, or anywhere in between. Stereotypes constructed based on any single individual or group are inaccurate representations of the entire population, and it becomes problematic when Muslims are discriminated and antagonized, as they become victims of these unfair stereotypes. More importantly, when the non-Muslims avoid interactions with the Muslims under the influence of these stereotypes, Muslims also shy away from unfair treatments and discriminations that they are, and the gap of misunderstanding and mistrust widens. Georg Simmel’s definition of a stranger in The Stranger discloses some insights into the root to the division between strangers and non-strangers, which can also be applied to understand the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims:

[A stranger] is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself. (Simmel 1)

    According to The Stranger, a stranger is distinct in a specific spatial group for a quality of his/her that didn’t come from within the group. In this case, Muslims are strangers to the western culture, for the difference in their religion and culture. As a result, they are isolated and estranged from the mainstream, separated by established yet inaccurate stereotypes of Muslims, as exemplified by a line in the film from Hassan, a Muslim student: “[...] Just cos I'm Muslim, you thought it was real?” as he reveals a fake suicide belt to the frightened crowd (Four Lions).

    Another factor responsible for the gap between people in the western culture and the terrorists, indicated in the film Four Lions, is the lack of communication between two sides. This is evident in the interaction between the characters with SIM cards and their mobile phones, which symbolizes means of communication. For example, the first bomb was detonated through a program on Barry’s cellphone, which represents a channel of communication amongst the terrorist group itself. Cellphone is also the channel of communication between the police and the Waj, as the negotiator got in contact with Waj through a phone call after he took hostage of a kebab restaurant. This symbolization is further strengthened in the film, when Omar’s attempt to persuade Waj to give himself up was interrupted by Barry’s snatching of his phone and swallowing the SIM card. In this context, the SIM card in the phone represents the concept of communication itself, and how the lacking of it leads to fatal consequences, as Barry’s move eventually led to the detonation of the second, third, and the last bombs. Barry’s silly actions and the amusingly twisted misunderstandings between Omar and Waj are funny to watch, yet they eventually led to a tragic ending, along with many casualties. Humor plays an important role in the film here, as it connects an object as small as a SIM card to the concept of effective communication in the context of the global issue around Terrorism. This symbolism of communication, the lack of it, and potential consequences alludes to a driving force responsible for tearing people apart, warning people of its significance. It is especially important to consider the role of this symbol in today’s context, as technologies advance, and cell phone become increasingly complicated yet essential in people’s everyday life.

    While Four Lions presents the direct consequence to uncommunicativeness between two groups in the short term quite literally, lacking communication in the context of Terrorism in real life can be a long-term process, as another driving force behind the division between western culture and the terrorists’ world. People associate Muslims with exaggerated, inaccurate stereotypes under the influence of fear and bias, and as a result, Muslims are mystified and demonized. This is demonstrated in film Four Lions by the death of the Muslim hostage and the accusation against Omar’s innocent Muslim brother, which shows that people make judgments based on subjective, even impulsive decisions rather than logical deductions when they are influenced by pre-conceived stereotypes, and the consequences can be fatal. Stereotypes, in this case, serve as a line drawn between Muslims and non-Muslims - an isolation similar to Georg Simmel’s idea of a stranger, or “strangeness” as a quality, more specifically, as demonstrated in the article:

The stranger is close to us, insofar as we feel between him and ourselves common features of a national, social, occupational, or generally human, nature. He is far from us, insofar as these common features extend beyond him or us, and connect us only because they connect a great many people. (Simmel 3)

    In Simmel’s previous definition of a stranger, the relationship between non-Muslims and Muslims seem to share a connection with the relationship between non-strangers and strangers; but when it comes to “strangeness” as a quality, which stems from a feeling that  “[...] is probably not absent in any relation, however close [or far]”, there are “ many possibilities of commonness”, included “under a general idea”; and while “[...] what is common to two is never common to them alone”, a stranger is close to the non-stranger because they are at least sharing the very basic qualities of being generally human (Simmel 3). In the same way, Muslims and non-Muslims can also be connected by some of the most common features amongst any human: family, love, friendship, and believes. This is also portrayed in the film Four Lions, in which the main character Omar has a stable job, a beautiful wife, and an adorable son, and the audience can easily empathize with him. While the character’s image is different from the commonly perceived stereotype of Muslims, or even terrorists, we question why he has chosen to go on the path of becoming a terrorist, risking to ruin his normal life and loving family. After all, amongst the four main characters in the film, he seems to be the closest, most relatable to non-Muslim British citizens, yet also the leader of the jihadists, and the hardest one to understand. Georg Simmel’s explanation of the relationship between nearness and remoteness can partially explain this contradiction:

[...] the common features themselves are basically determined in their effect upon the relation by the question [...] whether the participants feel that these features are common to them because they are common to a group, a type, or mankind in general. [...] The effectiveness of the common features becomes diluted in proportion to the size of the group composed of members who are similar in this sense. (Simmel 2)

    In this case, Omar is identifying himself closer as a Muslim jihadist, perhaps because the effectiveness of the common features shared between him and the British around him is diluted, and the qualities of his common, everyday life are also common amongst many others; on the other hand, Muslims and the martyrs are the minorities, isolated and estranged from the mainstream, drawing him to closer. Another factor responsible for pushing him further from identifying himself as a regular British citizen, goes back to the established stereotypes of Muslims that people have developed. Although the influence of the stereotype is not directly projected on Omar in the Four Lions, it’s evident in the last scene, where the police shot the hostage instead of Waj, because the hostage was facing them when they came in, and the police instantly associated him with terrorist because he’s Muslim. While the hostage seems like a victim of extremist movements of his own religion at first, he is really the victim of these long-established, generic stereotypes held against Muslims. It’s not hard to imagine how other Muslims, including Omar, who are (or were) innocent and common like any other non-Muslim citizens, are affected by this stereotype in their everyday lives, and this can also potentially explain Omar’s motive, under the cover of his shared commonness with any non-Muslim British man.

    The last part of the film is loaded with heavy, thought-provoking emotions, and humor seems to have a lesser sense of presence, especially as the film moves towards a tragic ending; yet the effect of humor is proved to be even more powerful in its absence. The audience have been laughing at the silliness and misfortunes of the characters since the beginning, but at one point, they will find it hard to keep laughing, even though the characters are still dumb and clumsy. This abrupt change is worth pondering, which, in a way, moves the audience and inspires them to re-think their stance on the issue, the effect of stereotypes, consequences of uncommunicativeness, and their relationship with those who belong to the opposite side: strangers to non-strangers, or Muslims to non-Muslims, and vice versa.

    As we start to recognize driving forces behind the widening gap between western societies and the terrorist world, including deadlock stereotypes, uncommunicativeness, and lack of mutual understanding between the two sides, indicated and explained in conversations in the film Four Lions and the article The Stranger, the next step would be to find potential solutions to ameliorate the wound on the relationship between two sides. Thomas Nail’s Figure of the Migrant is another particularly useful source that can provide insight into this problem. While it addresses the problem related to migration, the same principle in Thomas Nail’s major finding in the article can also be applied to the existing issue about Terrorism, since migrants also suffer from the harm of adverse stereotypes, exclusivity, and ignorance from locals in the community that they have migrated to, pertaining to Thomas Nail’s idea of vast forms of social expulsion (Nail 5). In fact, Muslims and migrants are certainly related, because Muslims can be the unwelcomed migrants to a Western community, as portrayed in Four Lions. In his article, Thomas Nail suggested a new theory to study the migrant as a political subject in its philosophical history that allows us to approach the problem with the view of society as a progressing development and study the “minor histories”, since important historical evidences can be overwritten or lost in the history dominated by the “majority” (Nail 3). This new theory views migration as a historical pattern rather than a singular occurrence in our age, which could shed light on the pressing issue of Terrorism facing us today (Nail 5). It’s a great opportunity to allow people to break established conventions and approach the problem with a new perspective, and hopefully strive to give up on long-held stereotypes, initiate interactions, and encourage compassion between Western and Terrorists’ cultures, with the goal to bridge the gap between these drastically different sides. Last but not least, in the spirit of the engagement of humor in Christopher Morris’ comedy film Four Lions, it’s imperative that we keep an open, positive mentality. It will take a lot to push forward changes and test out new theories, therefore, having an open mind, and a light-hearted attitude will not only make it more enjoyable, but also counteract against the negativities like fear and violence, which, if we go back to the question at the beginning, questioning the reasons behind the division between people on different sides regarding the issue of Terrorism, is where all the problems stemmed from.

Works Cited

Four Lions. Directed by Chris Morris, performances by Will Adamsdale, Riz Ahmed, Adeel Akhtar, Arsher Ali, and Nigel Lindsay, Film4 Productions, 2010.

Nail, Thomas. The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford University Press, 2015.

Simmel, Georg. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Translated by Kurt Wolff, New York: Free Press, 1950, pp. 402 - 408.

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