Review: ‘Recruiting for Jihad’

Hot Docs 2017

5 mins read

Recruiting for Jihad
(Norway, 67 min.)
Dir. Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen & Adel Khan Farooq)
Programme: World Showcase (International Premiere)


Recruiting for Jihad, a new Vice-style profile of Norwegian Islamist Ubaydullah Hussain, contains some interesting material but is ultimately a bit of a missed opportunity. The film begins and ends with Farooq, our Michael Moore-style guide, with Hussain and a masked recruit who he is shepherding off to Syria. In between, it follows Hussain in his daily life and exploits, which range from community football games through pamphleting and scheming with international Islamists to recruitment and training.

Hussain—convicted earlier this month of recruiting for ISIS and sentenced to nine years in prison—offers a predictably convoluted explanation of his beliefs, which the filmmakers are in no hurry to clarify. Though he doesn’t go to Syria, claiming a chronic illness makes it impossible, and seems a little haphazard even in recruiting others, Hussain is effusive in praising terrorists on the heels of their attacks across Europe—Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan, Copenhagen. And although he readily denounces the West, its institutions and wars, and vows to tear down the statues in downtown Oslo if the caliphate is ever established there, he is unapologetic about taking advantage of its health care system and political stability. Oddly, he doesn’t come off as violent on a personal level—but then again, neither do his friends and protégés. Yet the film delights in tabloid-esque asides that show them, in the days, weeks or months after meeting Hussain, becoming an executioner in ISIS videos, being killed in Syria, convicted in London, and arrested in the Gothenburg airport.

Only at the end of the film does Farooq engage Hussain in a bit of serious questioning. The hook here is that both Farooq and Hussain have the same ethnic background—half-Pakistani but born and raised in Norway. Farooq questions why he ended up a journalist and Hussain an Islamist, but comes up more or less empty, saying just that Hussain and his cohort must have found a community and sense of meaning in Islam that they hadn’t in mainstream Norwegian culture and society. It’s a point already somewhat refuted by the film’s portrayal of Hussain’s apparently normal upbringing that betrayed none of the usual early warning signs of extremism. Hussain has just as little to say: when Farooq accuses him of hypocrisy in taking advantage of Norway’s stability (and, by implication, its health services) but attacking the society in his rhetoric, Hussain offers no real rebuttal.

One can sympathize with Farooq when he refrains from challenging Hussain in the way, say, Errol Morris presses his subjects—the threat of violence is all too present—but this does have the effect of leaving the film’s position on key issues ambiguous. It’s odd for a film like this to elide well known talking points like the refugee crisis, the resurgence of the far right, or societal alienation as causes for extremism—all the more so because its brief runtime, just a little over an hour, leaves plenty of time for extrapolation.

If there is one thing to be gleaned from Recruiting for Jihad it’s that there is no neat and tidy narrative that will explain the rise of radical Islam. It’s overdetermined: one needs only some combination of anti-Western, anti-establishment, communitarian, patriarchal, religious, alienated and violent sentiment to become open to extremist ideology. Clearly, you don’t need all of those things, and the diverse roots of the people profiled in the film—global and diverse in origin, many of whom are converts—are testament to that. If it’s not exactly satisfactory that Recruiting for Jihad offers only the truism of community by way of explanation, it’s understandable; in the face of the complexity of the situation, you can sympathize with them just sort of throwing up their hands and saying something that seems to more or less make sense.

Recruiting for Jihad screens:
-Sunday, April 30 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 7:15 PM
-Tuesday, May 2 at TIFF Bell Lighbox at 10:15 AM
-Saturday, May 6 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 1:30 PM

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