The Four Lions, or: The Party Puffins of Allah

The following piece appeared here first after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. We’re re-posting it since the author’s thoughts on satire and terror are on point now.

The Four Lions is a 2010 film comedy about a matey bunch of Islamist suicide bombers, all but one first or second generation South Asians from some place like Bradford or Leeds. They are convincingly played by actors who look as if they’re having great fun making each one of their characters ever more worthy of the excoriating ridicule coming their way from British director Chris Morris’ brilliant script. Fortunately for the actors, the ridicule on offer, although at times towering, is not of the sort that obliterates the humanity of its targets. Far from being interchangeable Hollywood terrorists, these Yorkshire jihadists are each highly individualized and not infrequently likable. They’re goofy, they’re ludicrous, they solemnly swallow the sim cards on their cell phones, they pretend to be musicians (one of them is, sort of) they posture for blooper filled martyrdom videos and have long convoluted arguments about how to do the most damage possible to “this bullshit, consumerist, Godless, Paki-bashing, Gordon Ramsay ‘taste the difference’ specialty cheddar, torture endorsing, massacre sponsoring, look at me dancing, pissing me about, who-gives-a-fuck-about-dead-Afghanis Disneyland!”

Of course in the in the end they show themselves to be, like so many enlistees in violent jihad, pathetic, deluded, and lethal losers. Their inept antics are comic, up to and including the ghastly way each hoists himself on his own petard, disappearing in clouds of ash and shreds of clothing during the London Marathon, taking with them their quota of innocent bystanders, including the stunned patrons of a kebab shop.

Because, yes, the London Marathon becomes their final objective, so that since Boston there has been an uptick of interest, or at least some web chatter, although whether the queasy fascination of life imitating art will edge over into an appreciation of its satire remains to be seen.

They are all youngish men, these Lions, at once alienated from and enthusiastic sharers in the “Disneyland”; one of them, the stupidest and most childlike, has a deep fondness for an amusement park ride called “rubber dinghy rapids.” With the exception of their leader, who has both, they have neither jobs nor women. They live in rows of red brick semi-detached houses on quiet, hilly little streets, once inhabited by the working class of the burgeoning industrial centers. Not one of the world’s fleshpots, perhaps, but for a susceptible Lion, there are damnable temptations: the pharmacy chain Boots is one. “Let’s bomb Boots,” declares one in a meeting to discuss possible targets, “they sell condoms. They make you want to bang white girls.” Oh, reason not the cause!

They’re also, for the purpose of clandestine communications, Party Puffins, or rather they take on the avatars of party puffins in an interactive online game. But it’s time to strike through the mask and meet them face-to-face. The best way I can think to convey their qualities (and perhaps some of the film’s) is by introducing the reader to the Lions one by one.

So then, meet Omar, faute de mieux leader, a security guard at just the sort of installation—a shopping mall vast glittering and soulless—that he’d like to eradicate. Omar, played with delicacy and pluck by Riz Ahmed, is a slight man with gentle eyes, a worried face and a tendency to curse fluently and eloquently in Urdu. Omar has a pretty wife who works as a nurse, an appealing little boy, and a pious brother who keeps trying to get Omar to study and suspects that Omar may be “planning something.”

Next is Wodge, Omar’s Little John, best mate, and easily manipulated tool, played by the American actor Kayvan Novack, diving happily into a thick Northern accent. Wodge is as dumb or “thick” as his nickname, and barely an adult: he’s the rubber dinghy rapids man, and when he accompanies Omar on a trip to a training camp in Pakistan, Wodge takes along a stuffed toy, a “prayer camel” that gives the Call to Prayer at the pull of a cord. Wodge’s truly depthless stupidity proves to be a liability when he makes a cell phone video of himself firing a machine gun, attracting a drone, and setting in motion a chain of events that leads to the accidental death of Sheik Osama bin Laden himself. “Am I God’s accident?’ he asks Omar.

Another dim bulb is Faisal, played by Adeel Akhtar as benighted, superstitious, obscurely cringing, who insists on wearing a cardboard box over his head for his martyrdom videos because images are haram, and who has been training a crow—the one depicted, on a stone wall in the English rain, looks, before being turned into a swirl of black feathers and white smoke, every bit as melancholy as its master. Faisal is an early casualty of Jihad, Lion-style; running through a field of sheep while carrying volatile bomb components he accidentally blows himself up, disappearing into the white smoke of what, since Boston, one has learned is produced by this particular type of bomb.

Two more Lions: the convert Barry, played by Nigel Lindsay with superb, unhinged aggressiveness. The character of Barry was based on a BNP militant who took to reading the Koran to confute Pakistani opponents and ended up converting to Islam. Or say to Islamofascism, most conveniently. Thickly set, truculent, the kurta wearing, Allah invoking, stringed instrument denouncing Barry has such flights of fancies as an idea of himself as the Scarlett Pimpernel of international jihad. In a scene fully the equal of the “What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?” episode in Monty Python’s Life of BrianBarry argues strenuously for “bombing the mosque.” “Radicalize the moderates, the Ummah rises up, it all kicks off!” Barry shouts. Not even the reasonable suggestion from Omar that this would be like a man in a fight who decides to punch his own face can dissuade Barry from his conviction—or from punching himself, painfully, on his nose. Vexed, he head butts Faisal, who hadn’t been in the room.

Last to join but hardly least is the university attending Hassan Alli, son of a most conveniently prosperous manufacturer of party costumes. Hassan is into rap and hip-hop, a taste that spreads among the Lions; Barry recruits him after witnessing his disruption of a panel discussion at a local college under the ineffably anodyne rubric ISLAM—MODERATION AND PROGRESS. Ali accomplishes this with shouted rap lyrics, “I’m the Mujahedeen/and I’m making the scene/Now you’re gonna feel/What the Boom-Boom means/It’s like Tupac said/When I die I’m not dead/We are the Martyrs/You’re just smashed tomatoes” and a fake suicide vest containing the kind of thing the English give as party favors on Boxing Day, poppers that go pop and produce parti-colored paper streamers. Played with subtlety by Arsher Ali, Hassam’s upper-middle class imitation of imagined lower depths makes him an outsider among outsiders, although that doesn’t stop him from associating with his new comrades, who distinctly favor the “weapons” portion of the good old Marxist formulation about exchanging the weapons of criticism for the criticism of weapons.

I think Chris Morris achieves his goals in The Four Lions, which include more than just managing to pull off a comedy about suicide bombers, and that it be really funny, really. In the special features, among glimpses of ordinary South Asians driving around aimlessly, flirting with girls, bored, horny, making up solid sounding futures involving wives and good jobs and babies to the where do you see yourself in 10 years question, Morris can be seen musing that “you start to realize that there is a potential for a comic character in the sort of people that hitherto you just literally felt were one dimensional.” Yes you do.

Satire and ridicule have rarely been deployed to such devastating effect as in this collective portrait of obscurantists and fanatics who are never less than, and always all-too, human. The Lions are a menace to themselves, assorted fauna and livestock, Osama Bin Laden himself and a variety of innocent bystanders (although as Barry reminds us that last category “doesn’t exist” telling us this as he grimly and lovingly arranges the steel bolts to be packed into a bomb designed for the flesh of “Sodomites” “Gynecologists” and—I think I heard this right—“Leonard Cohen”). They are triumphant comic creations, as beastly and absurd as anyone or anything in Swift or Fielding, and if we’re ever going to prevail against their real life counterparts and imitators, the very English laughter that Chris Morris inherits from the great satirists should be deployed as often as the war-like procedures that sometimes seem to constitute the only response to Islamist terror.

An unlikely outcome, I’m afraid and a little sad to have to say. Coupled with the extreme unlikelihood of a film like The Four Lions being made in the US—the reasons why would require a separate and perhaps lengthier assessment—the Morris mix of dry mock, moral alertness, allowing the enemy to condemn itself abundantly out of its own mouth, and shrewd understanding of the resentments, rivalries, fantasies and sheer bloody minded childishness beneath the heroic images of jihad is not likely to gain much ground, even in the aftermath of the attack on the Boston marathon, carried out by two young men who by all accounts appear to be as absurd and as deadly as their fictional British brethren.