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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 8 March 2021

Laughter can disarm terrorists

Stand-up comedy can be one of the most effective weapons against terrorism, say experts.
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

"He's got a bomb in his pants!" It could have been a sentence in a smutty schoolboy magazine revelling in lavatory humour. But no. This was a real story from Christmas Day 2009. A male airline passenger was found carrying a bomb in his underwear which he planned to detonate over Detroit in a suicide bombing. Despite the horror of the event, if we all look deep down there is no denying that there was also, in a macabre way, something humorous about a man blowing his behind off to change the world.

If you haven't surrendered to begrudging mirth yet, wait until you read about another bomb-in-the-pants story from the US earlier this week. This time California authorities couldn't distinguish whether a man, who appeared to be knowledgeable about explosives, was really carrying a bomb in his pants or not. The perpetrator claimed that a wire that was hanging out of his underpants with an on-off switch was not a bomb but simply a sex toy, which turned out in fact to be the case.

When real life becomes stranger than fiction, it is time for a film parody. And that's exactly what we get with this week's release in Britain of the Chris Morris film Four Lions. Morris, who directs the film, was also the satirist behind The Day Today and Brass Eye. He pre-empts critics of Four Lions by asking and answering the tough question: "Where is the joke in terror?" He recounts how the idea for the film came about after he read the story of a plot to ram a US warship. The members of the cell loaded their boat with too many explosives. "It sank. I laughed. I wasn't expecting that," says Morris.

Four Lions follows a group of incompetent British Muslim would-be terrorists on their journey to carry out a suicide bombing. Waj is the idiot of the gang, good-hearted but a little thick. Barry, a white Muslim convert, is what can only be described as an utter nutcase, a megalomaniac who stitches together random conspiracy theories to bolster his cause. At one point, his inflated sense of self is so enormous that he declares that if he is not involved: "Islam will end."

Faisal is the bomb-making expert who doesn't want to blow himself up because his dad is sick, so instead he trains crows to fly bombs through windows. Hassan seems to think this is a cool fad, oblivious to the devastating consequences of his actions. Omar, the thinking man of the group, is disillusioned about the treatment of Muslims around the world. He is the ordinary Muslim-next-door who wants to do good and defeat evil, but he is confused about the best way to do it. His resolve is tested when Faisal is accidently blown up next to a flock of sheep. It elicits the wonderful line: "Does that make him a martyr or a jalfrezi? Anyone who tries to create a media stir by arguing that Muslims will be offended by this film is wrong. Muslims will find it hysterically funny because the Muslim characters are well-researched and the contradictions are richly exposed. The dialogue is pitch-perfect in detail and tone. This is the kind of shared humour that can actually bring different communities together.

For example, in Omar's suicide video, where he decries the McDonaldisation of the world, Waj simply wonders why people pay over the odds for McDonald's when they could eat Chicken Cottage or food from any halal chicken fast-food chain. It's a dig both at the over-proliferation of such restaurants, and the lack of awareness among Muslims that such chains are not much different to the American burger empires.

The film opens with the cell recording their suicide video. Waj is centre stage and is being mocked for holding a small gun. "Not a small gun," protests Waj. "Big hands." The cameras pan outwards and you see the group as they collaborate on the direction and script of the video. You suddenly realise that even suicide video production is subject to the same inflated media egos as less gruesome film endeavours.

And it is here that the film excels - by parodying the terrorists rather than the terror itself. And after 10 long years of serious terrorist-filled press and film coverage, the time has most certainly arrived for parody. We already have all sorts of parodies of serious subjects: the mafia, the police, even the killing of little old ladies in the film The Ladykillers. It is the perpetrators, not the crime or the victims, who are being mocked. Despite the seriousness of the situation, we see the same petty conflicts and tensions arise between them.

The same approach could have applied to Osama bin Laden, whose notoriety came from the global platform he was given by George W Bush. If we had mocked him instead, he might have slunk away. Don't just take my word for it: listen to Professor Michael Clarke who is the director of the Royal United Services Institute, arguably the world's oldest think tank specialising in security and military matters.

"Some of the most valuable counterterrorism experts are comedians," he says. "They are doing more than anything the government is doing. A lot of what these terrorists say and claim to believe is actually pathetic and juvenile. It has to be exposed and comedians are the best people at doing this." The Scottish comedian Billy Connolly did just that by mocking the bungling attempts of terrorists who drove a burning Jeep into Glasgow Airport in June 2007, noting that al-Qa'eda was "400 years too late" in trying to start a religious war in the city.

Humour allows us to conquer our own fears of terrorism and terrorists, and allows us to feel brave. We see the human weaknesses of our opponents, instead of buying into the myths of an invincible robotic terror machine. The fear created by the myths - whether perpetuated by the bin Laden's or the Bush's of this world - is itself part of the terrorisation process. If we can defuse the myth, we can get down to tackling the criminals at the heart of the violence and destruction.

And so, if anyone is upset or offended by the use of comedy to fight terror, it will be those on the hawkish right who have spent the past 10 years building the myth of the invincible terror machine and hyping our fears of a pervasive monster waiting to pounce. Comedy makes them worry that the campaign of fear they are waging to eat quietly away at civil liberties will be undermined. The argument of the right is also that terrorism is born of the "alien" religion of Islam and we must fear an impending tsunami of "Islamisation". As Four Lions amply shows, terrorism is not about religion at all - it's about politicisation.

In a global Gallup poll of 50,000 Muslims across 35 countries, the results showed that of the seven per cent of Muslims who said the 9/11 attacks were justified, absolutely none quoted the Quran to support their view. Again, it is politics, not religion. And as politicians will tell you, in today's media-oriented world, it is satire that will bring you down. Just ask Sarah Palin or Gordon Brown. Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf, and writes a blog at

Published: May 8, 2010 04:00 AM


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