Five years on, and Chris Morris’s masterful comedy about suicide bombers, Four Lions, is perhaps more important than ever.
In the last few days, 17 people have been murdered because a group of terrorists didn’t enjoy a satirical cartoon. It was a brazen, cowardly assault on free speech, driven by a belief that the only world view which can be considered valid is their own. For people such as this, the most important thing is that they be taken seriously. They need to be feared. The staff of Charlie Hebdo believed that we should laugh at extremism, that we should mock ignorance and terror – and being laughed at is one thing that extremists cannot stand.
Victory in a war of ideas cannot be accomplished with guns and bombs. Trying to achieve victory in such a way is self-defeating
Which is precisely why it is so important that we do so. Victory in a war of ideas cannot be accomplished with guns and bombs. Frankly, trying to achieve victory in such a way is demonstrably self-defeating: the attempt by the West to crush extremism in the Middle East has led directly to the rise of Islamic State, and the attack on Charlie Hebdo has increased its circulation 20 times. Its normal weekly print run is around 45,000, but a million copies of the next issue will be printed. Terrorism does not, and cannot work. It just inspires defiance and solidarity.
The only way to defeat an idea is to discredit it, and the most potent and effective way of doing so is to laugh at it, to expose its flaws and ridicule it for what it truly is. You can’t blow up a doctrine of ignorance, fear and hatred, but you can laugh at it. Chaplin did as much with The Great Dictator, and Chris Morris did the same with Four Lions, a film which reveals the reality of terrorism far more effectively than an episode of 24 or Homeland.
Morris set out to make fun of ignorance itself, the evil which lies at the heart of practically everything wrong with our world
The terrorists in Four Lions are idiots. They don’t know anything about Islam, and they know less about why they’re trying to blow up Westerners. Being ignorant, gullible and easily led, they have been manipulated and essentially brainwashed into joining a cause which they don’t understand and, in the end, don’t actually believe in. The film could easily have descended into tasteless mockery of Islam itself, but it’s too smart for that – the Muslim community of which the titular Lions claim to be a part unreservedly condemns what they plan to do, just as Muslim communities around the world have unreservedly condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
Every intelligent, rational, thinking person in the film wants nothing to do with the idiot terrorists, and that’s the crucial bit. Morris did not set out to make fun of any people or creed, but of ignorance itself, the evil which lies at the heart of practically everything wrong with our world. Ignorance is malleable, easily turned into fear of that which you’re ignorant of; and it’s only a short way from fear to hatred. Mark Herbert, CEO of Warp Films and producer of Four Lions, told Variety that it “was funny and entertaining and only poked fun at stupid groups of men, who are everywhere still.”
Four Lions reveals extremism for what it really is: a hollow lie, fuelled by ignorance and perpetrated by people who cannot allow anyone else to hold an opinion or belief that differs from their own. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity: the vast majority of terrorists are not diabolical masterminds determined to destroy the West, but simply people who’ve been coerced into supporting an evil cause because they don’t know any better. Omar, Waj, Faisal and even Barry would have been harmless had they been taught critical thinking.
What could be more ridiculous or more stupid than the idea that murder is an appropriate response to disliking a cartoon?
If one wishes to defeat an idea, one must undermine and discredit it. Bombing it will accomplish nothing. When the idea is terrorism, there is no better way to work against it than by laughing at it: if something is funny, it cannot be frightening. So watch Four Lions, and laugh at the absurdity of what extremism represents – what could be more ridiculous or more stupid than the idea that murder is an appropriate response to disliking a cartoon?
All images: StudioCanal UK