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There are no excuses for ‘American Sniper’

By Amer Zahr
By most accounts, American Sniper depicts its Arab Iraqi subjects in a simplistic and shallow fashion.  No one has accused director Clint Eastwood of portraying the Arab characters of the film in a manner that is nuanced or layered.

And I don’t mean to be too elementary, but that is really all that matters.  When a movie like this, like many others before it, simply treats Arabs and Muslims as either villains or helpless victims, we need not delve any further.  We should simply call American Sniper what it is: racist.

Sure, the acting is good.  The cinematography is good.  There’s a struggle.  There’s a love story.  But it’s racist.  So that’s it.

Earlier this week, in a column for CNN, Dean Obeidallah analyzed the film.  Dean is perhaps the most recognizable Arab American commentator in the media.  He frequently writes for CNN and The Daily Beast, and he periodically appears on cable news networks offering commentary.  Also, he recently debuted a weekly radio show on Sirius.

Dean has done a lot to further understanding of Arab and Muslims in America.  He has encouraged many up-and-coming Arab American artists, through his production of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival and other events.  My critique of him here is related only to his review of American Sniper.  That being said, I don’t think Dean is just a little off the mark here, I think he is way off.

Dean called American Sniper “the most powerful anti-war film I have ever seen.”  This is quite the proclamation.  One can assume he has never seen Apocalypse Now.  Or Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket, or The Deer Hunter, or In the Valley of Elah, or Born on the Fourth of July.  Each of these films was much more outwardly anti-war than American Sniper, both in terms of their substance and their respective reviews.  Dean wrote that he had wondered whether Eastwood’s movie would be “jingoistic.”  To me, it seems that his comment about the film’s “powerfulness” is what may be.

American Sniper has been championed by Fox News. Right-wing commentators and activists have exalted it. Sarah Palin and Pamela Geller have celebrated it. Rupert Murdoch has commended it. Dean Obeidallah finds himself in strange company indeed.

But that is not what troubled me most about Dean’s review.  Dean acknowledges that American Sniper portrayed Iraqis as “almost comically without nuance.”  He also stated that he wished Eastwood would have included more context, like the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture episode and the 2005 Haditha massacre of 24 unarmed civilians by American soldiers. (Dean and his editors incorrectly referenced this massacre as happening in 2006.)

Basically, Dean says he wishes Eastwood would have included more context.  However, this exclusion doesn’t seem to bother him too much.  He goes on to say:

His focus was not on whom we were fighting, but the unbearably high price Americans pay for waging war regardless of its target. The film is a cautionary tale for Americans about why we must avoid war. It is not a celebration of waging it.

And this is where the facts get in the way of Dean’s reaction.  Many viewers of the movie exited theaters and posted quite nauseating things on social media regarding Arabs and Muslims.  I will not get into re-listing those posts here, but they have been chronicled and covered by the ADC and major news outlets.

Dean “admits” that these terrible comments occurred, but he basically says it’s just racists being racists.  According to him, “The film just gave them an excuse to voice their bigotry.”  Dean says the film focuses on “the post-war suffering” of veterans after they come home.

There are two problems with his analysis here.  First, shouldn’t a movie that creates, fosters, or capitalizes upon an environment of anti-Arabism and Islamophobia be condemned just as roundly as the comments it spawns?  Second, if Eastwood’s real aim was to show the effects of war by highlighting PTSD and amputees, then why didn’t we see a rash of moviegoers tweeting things to that effect?  I don’t remember any tweets saying anything like, “Just saw #AmericanSniper… I can’t wait to visit some wounded vets.”

At one point in the review, Dean asks himself, “Was Eastwood’s use of an almost video game-like violence when it came to killing Iraqis calculated to dehumanize the Iraqi people? I don’t think so.”  But this conclusion ignores a history.  It brushes aside an atmosphere where the dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims has become commonplace, perhaps even instinctive.  It denies the work of Arab-American professor Jack Shaheen (with whom Dean is quite familiar), the author of Reel Bad Arabs and The TV Arab, who has researched and delineated a history of racist stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood and the media over many generations.

This leads me to a few questions.  In Dean’s world, do instances of racism and bigotry stand alone?  Is there no context?  Is there no history?  Such a view might look at the Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice killings devoid of any background framework of institutionalized and systemic racism.  Such a view might only see racism when it is undisguised and overt, instead of seeing it as a phenomenon that is ordinary, permeating our everyday lives.  Such a view might damage our efforts to root out bigotry against Arabs and Muslims.

American Sniper has been championed by Fox News.  Right-wing commentators and activists have exalted it.  Sarah Palin and Pamela Geller have celebrated it.  Rupert Murdoch has commended it.  Dean Obeidallah finds himself in strange company indeed.

So, when is enough finally enough?  When can we, as Arabs and Muslims in America, no longer accommodate horrific depictions of our people?  What level of racism is too much?  If we can reconcile, legitimize, and explain away the racism of American Sniper, then what else might we accept?

It has always bothered me that the targets on the video game Call of Duty all look like my dad.  Thanks to Clint Eastwood, I now know what that looks like on a much larger screen.

About the author

* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, and speaker living in Michigan. He is also the editor of “The Civil Arab.” Email Amer Zahr.

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