A very British weapon
Every country has its own distinct way to fight terrorism. The Americans, shock and awe. The French, a dismissive laicite. The Dutch an obsessive multiculturalism. And us? Not much until now. But finally, we have rediscovered our most effective weapon: wit. This week, Chris Morris’ new spoof film Four Lions features at the Sundance Festival, and it joins a growing number of satires taking aim at al-Qaeda wannabes.
It is amazing it’s taken so long. All those pointless debates last year about what it means to be British forgot the one thing that genuinely does unite us more profoundly than anything else. Satire in particular is a uniquely British skill. In 1729 Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal suggested that Irish families sell their children as food to ease their economic woes, (“I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout”) and is considered the first, and one of the finest, sustained satirical essays ever written. The reason Oswald Mosley never got within an inch of power was because we couldn’t take fascists seriously – all that goose-stepping and black uniforms, it offered just too much material.
Satire works of course when it mirrors reality, and there is no shortage of material among the Jihadis. Abdulmuttalab, the Christmas pants bomber, was merely the latest in a string of often laughably incompetent fools. The “Toronto 18” cell couldn’t remember the name of the Canadian Prime Minister they were plotting to kill, while the Dutch Hofstad cell used to fantasise about the ‘little female sex slaves’ that would be waiting for them in the next life.
Satire can really work. Next month, Demos publishes the most extensive study to date of homegrown terrorists in the West. What emerges from our research is that a significant part of al-Qaeda’s appeal is not its ideology or message but its mystique, glamour, and modish coolness. Its members style themselves as modern day James Bonds and Che Guevarras, playing their role as a heroic warrior against Western tyranny. It all sounds rather exciting to an 18 year old from Bradford or Lyon. The battle of ideas is not just about competing world visions.
Last year, we spent over £140m trying to prevent people become radicalised by al-Qaeda. By turning them into laughing stocks, Four Lions will do more than all of it combined.