النوامس

A comment on the history and contemporary affairs of the Middle East, without the media hype.

Netanyahu: Repetitive fear-mongering undermines US-Israeli relations

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu—who bypassed the White House in accepting House Speaker John A. Boehner’s invitation to address Congress on Iran’s nuclear programme—proceeded in a fashion that has come to typify his leadership; namely exaggeration, fear-mongering and hypocrisy. Netanyahu’s visit sparked a fierce debate before the Israeli Prime Minister even set foot on U.S soil, with critics suggesting it was a political ploy intended to court voters in the upcoming Israeli election, an accusation he was quick to deny in his speech on Tuesday. Despite heaping praise on the continued U.S governmental and Congressional support for Israel, which earned him several standing ovations and universal applause from both sides of Congress, Netanyahu’s overtures concealed the divisiveness of his visit; close to 60 democratic members boycotted the speech in protest of its supposed partisan motivations.

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Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s take on the Netanyahu’s Congressional address

After a waxing lyrical about the “common destiny” of Israel and the U.S for a few minutes, Netanyahu got down to the real impetus for his visit in typically apocalyptic fashion, making regular references to the holocaust, Iran’s “Islamist medieval creed” and Ayatollah Khamenei’s devious plans to “annihilate my country”. Speaking on the eve of the Jewish festival of Purim, which celebrates the salvation of the Jewish people in Ancient Persia from an evil King’s plot to murder them, Netanyahu relished the opportunity to refer to the 2500 year old story as evidence of Iran’s longstanding animosity towards the Jewish people. However, beyond the fiery rhetoric, Netanyahu’s speech proved to be all bark and no bite, containing, as President Obama rightly noted, “nothing new”. The President added that the Israeli Prime Minister “didn’t offer any viable alternatives;” Netanyahu’s only proposal was the continuation of existing nuclear restrictions and international sanctions against Iran, which have failed to prevent the development of the Iranian nuclear programme thus far and have had devastating consequences for Iranian citizens.

When Netanyahu’s speech is unpacked, it reveals the Israeli Prime Minister’s selective memory, historical ignorance and questionable political analysis. His suggestion that the Islamic Republic harbours genocidal intentions towards the Jews across the globe belies the fact that Iran possesses the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel, and that the Anti-Defamation League’s 2014 Global Index of anti-Semitism placed Iran as the least anti-Semitic nation in the Middle East and North Africa region. His allusions to ancient history are equally uninformed; as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pointed out, the Purim holiday celebrates Queen Esther’s persuasion of the Persian ruler not to exterminate the Jews. Zarif also pointed to Persian ruler Cyrus the Great’s historic protection of Jews; Iran’s Jewish population, which has existed since long before the birth of Islam, claims descent from the Jews who fled ancient Babylon and sought refuge in the former Achaemenid Empire. Notwithstanding Ayatollah Khamenei’s reputation for incendiary Twitter rants against the state of Israel, Iran’s track record regarding their Jewish population is much less tarnished than many other Middle Eastern states. In line with Islamic doctrine which requires the protection of ‘people of the book’, Article 13 of the Iranian constitution explicitly protects Jewish minorities.

Netanyahu’s analysis of the unfolding battle against militant Islam is equally misguided, replete with inflammatory exaggerations. By describing “Iran’s goons in Gaza” and the Golan Heights, he ignored the split that has occurred between Iran and Hamas over Syria. He referred to Shiite militias “rampaging across Iraq”, despite the fact that those very same militias are leading the charge against the Islamic State, rendering them (perhaps temporarily) America’s de facto allies. He accused Iran of “gobbling up nations,” describing them as “the foremost sponsor of global terrorism” and equating them with ISIS, a gross oversimplification which ignores the great cleavages that exist between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Netanyahu’s suggestion that Iran is seeking to build an “Islamic empire” also appears a desperate overstatement; in a response published in The New York Times, Iranian Ambassador to the U.N, Gholamali Khoshroo, pointed out that Iran “has not invaded another country since America became a sovereign nation.” Israel’s short history, on the other hand, features numerous incidents of aggression against sovereign states, notwithstanding the continued occupation of the West Bank, Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu’s distortion and oversimplification of the political situation in the Middle East is useful for stirring fear and unease among American and Israeli viewers, but is inimical to the quest for a real and lasting peace in the region.

The real substance of Netanyahu’s address to congress came is his warnings about the Iranian nuclear programme. He raised a number of accurate points, which the Obama administration is doubtlessly aware of. He claimed that the proposed deal will most likely reduce Iran’s ‘breakout time’—the time it takes to amass enough weapons grade uranium for the construction of an atom bomb—to around a year. He reminded Congress of Iran’s checkered past when it comes to international nuclear inspectors, likening their actions to those of North Korea. Finally, he used the existence of secret Iranian nuclear facilities in the past to suggest that “Iran could be hiding nuclear facilities that we don’t know about”. A similar argument was promulgated to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003; a catastrophic failure based on unfounded information, and one that Netanyahu was a vocal supporter for.

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Netanyahu at the U.N in 2012, asserting that Iran was less than a year away from developing nuclear weapons (with the help of a handy chart)

This last fact is relevant when one considers Netanyahu’s long history of exaggerating the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear project. As a member of the Israeli parliament in 1992, Netanyahu predicted Iran would be able to produce a nuclear weapon in three to five years. In 1996 he addressed Congress to stress that “time is running out” to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb and in 1997 asserted to the BBC that Iran was “building a formidable arsenal of ballistic missiles.” Most recently, in a speech to the U.N in 2012, Netanyahu declared that Iran was within a year of acquiring an atomic bomb, a fact that was quickly contradicted by Mossad, his own intelligence agency. Absent from Netanyahu’s speech was the reality of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Israel in fact has a large arsenal of over 70 nuclear warheads, and is not a signatory to the U.N Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran itself is a party to. It therefore appears that Netanyahu’s aversion to Iran’s nuclear programme is not motivated by any real threat posed to Israel, but a desire to maintain the balance of power in the Middle East and an aversion to seeing Iran recognised by the U.S as a major player in the region.

Overall, Netanyahu provided an entertaining and emotive speech; Steve Cohen, the Jewish Democratic representative for Tennessee, remarked after: “I thought it would be political theatre and indeed it was worthy of an Oscar.” However, a thorough analysis reveals it to be a short-sighted, inflammatory piece of propaganda, big on rhetoric but short on facts and clearly intended to court voters back home. However, an Israeli poll in the wake of his Congressional address saw 90% of voter’s state that the speech had not inspired them to change their vote, with the centre-left opposition party Zionist Union edging slightly ahead in some polls. In essence, Netanyahu’s speech appears to have achieved little, other than to further alienate his government from their greatest and closest ally. The U.S-Israeli relationship will undoubtedly recover. Whether Netanyahu’s reputation will remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, due to the hard drive crashing on my laptop, I am unable to post the citations for this post at this time. As soon as the original document is retrieved I will update. Many Thanks

Originally published @ http://www.occidentalweekly.com on March 7th 2015

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Somalia: Short-sighted U.S foreign policy risks revitalising terrorist groups

Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist group that has wreaked havoc in the war torn nation of Somalia over the last decade, has kept a relatively low profile in recent months. Banished from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, by African Union (AU) troops in August 2011, al-Shabaab’s control over Somalia has gradually shrunk. In the same year, their legitimacy in the eyes of the population was severely damaged by their refusal to accept foreign aid during a famine which killed as many as 260,000 people, half of them under the age of 6.

Al-Shabaab fighters training in Somalia

Al-Shabaab fighters training in Somalia

In 2012, they were forced from the port of Kismayo, which provided a vital source of funding through its lucrative charcoal trade. Although many still suffer under the fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law enforced in the rural areas still controlled by al-Shabaab, it appears as if their reign of terror in Somalia had gradually drawn to a close.

However, the encouraging news from Somalia in recent years was brought into question this week as al-Shabaab catapulted themselves back into the headlines, injuring the deputy prime minister in a suicide bomb attack that killed 25 people outside a hotel in Mogadishu. Days later, the group released a propaganda video calling for attacks on shopping malls in Britain, Canada and the Mall of America in Minnesota, which is in an area home to America’s largest Somali population.The sudden re-emergence of al-Shabaab appears darkly ironic in light of a recent change in American foreign policy towards Somalia. Earlier this month, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) issued a cease and desist order to the last U.S bank still processing money transfers to Somalia on the grounds that some of the money may be funneled to al-Shabaab. The ‘hawala’ system of remittances, which allows money transfers from foreign countries to reach even the most remote Somali villages, makes up 50% of Somalia’s GNP and over 40% of the population rely on it for survival.

American Somali’s protest the cutting of remittances in Minnesota in 2012

The ‘hawala’ system has proven astonishingly successful, arguably saving hundreds of thousands of lives during the 2011 famine and reliably providing money transfers to one of the poorest nations of the world at over half the average African interest rate. Around 43% of Somalia’s population still suffer from food shortages, and by cutting off this vital lifeline the U.S. is making it impossible for American Somalis to provide for their families back home. Once again, the U.S government has demonstrated how short sighted their foreign policy can be in the pursuit of the ‘war on terror’.

When interviewed about the decision, Deputy Comptroller Grovetta Gardineer asserted that, “The Somali situation is a terrible human tragedy that cannot be solved by bank regulators,” suggesting that instead “it requires an international government and private-sector effort involving organizations that have greater expertise in providing humanitarian assistance and building the infrastructure necessary.” This statement embodies the blinding ignorance demonstrated by the OCC’s decision. Oxfam America estimates that remittances to Somalia total $1.3 billion a year, more than the combined foreign aid and private investment; not only has the U.S not increased its allotment of aid to Somalia to make up for the losses caused by the ending of remittances, the suggestion that increasing humanitarian aid will solve Somalia’s problems undermines everything that makes the ‘hawala’ system so successful.

American aid arriving in Somalia. Up to half of food aid sent to Somalia is diverted through illicit channels

American aid arriving in Somalia. Up to half of food aid sent to Somalia is diverted through illicit channels

Somalia is identified by the CIA as the second poorest of the world’s 228 nations, tied with Zimbabwe and Burundi, and Transparency International has declared Somalia to be the most corrupt country in the world, alongside North Korea and Afghanistan. The rampant corruption at all levels of Somali society has severely hampered the provision for humanitarian aid, with a UN monitoring group declaring in 2012 that 70% of the money earmarked for development and reconstruction had disappeared. The same report suggested that out of every $10 received by Somalia’s transitional government between 2009 and 2010, $7 remain unaccounted for. The New York Times has reported that up to half the food aid sent to Somalia is diverted to a web of corrupt contractors and al-Shabaab militants. Whereas the ‘hawala’ system flourished because it provided small, reliable, low risk transfers of money between family members, the system of humanitarian aid in Somalia suffers through its size. It relies on shady government officials to oversee the distribution of huge sums of money and aid, and consequently much of it is lost before it reaches those in need.

While some money sent through the ‘hawala’ system may indeed have end up being funnel led to al-Shabaab, it is apparent that the system the OCC suggests should replace it increases the likelihood of money ending up in their hands. Equally, by destroying the livelihoods of thousands of people already living in abject poverty, the U.S government risks pushing disenfranchised Somali youth further into illicit activities, be they piracy, the illegal ivory trade, charcoal smuggling or terrorist organizations. In the pursuit of destroying a group estimated to have only around 7000-9000 members, the OCC has alienated tens of thousands more innocent people. It is, as The Guardian’s George Monbiot points out, like “banning agriculture in case fertilizer is used to make explosives.”

With the shocking military successes of ISIL in the Middle East and Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria stealing headlines this year, it is easy to view the recent resurgence of al-Shabaab as the desperate attempts of a fading group attempting to remain relevant; their new propaganda video, for example, is clearly styled on the slick media productions of ISIL. However, as Anton de Plessis, managing director for the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa, suggests, “they are still a force to be reckoned with,” and the ending of remittances increases the risk of funds being captured by al-Shabaab by forcing money transfers underground. In light of the news that HSBC processed billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels, but were allowed to continue operating because of the threat to American jobs, the OCC reveals the racist hypocrisy embodied by their short-sighted policy. To destroy al-Shabaab and begin the arduous task of rebuilding a nation wrecked by three decades of civil war, the American government must permit money transfers to Somalia, and instead focus their attention on increasing the transparency of ‘hawala’ system, a tactic that has already proven successful in Britain. By outlawing remittances, the OCC risks revitalizing a terrorist organization that finally seemed to be falling apart.

Originally published @ http://www.occidentalweekly.com

References:

Al-Jazeera; Where are Somalia’s Missing Millions? – http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2012/07/201272081233390153.html

Associated Press; Somalia: Famine Toll in 2011 Was Larger Than Previously Reported http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/30/world/africa/somalia-famine-toll-in-2011-was-larger-than-previously-reported.html?_r=0

BBC News; Who are Somalia’s al-Shabaab? http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-15336689

Getleman, Jeffery & MacFarquhar, Neil; Food Aid Bypasses Somalia, UN Study Says http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/10/world/africa/10somalia.html?_r=0

Ibrahim, Mohammed; Somali Deaths Climb To 25 In Hotel Attack – http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/world/africa/attack-in-mogadishu-on-friday-leaves-25-people-dead-and-40-wounded.html

Monbiot, George; The careless, astonishing cruelty of Barack Obama’s government –http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/10/racist-cruelty-barack-obamas-government-somalia-humanitarian-crisis

Reckard, E. Scott & White, Ronald D.; Money transfers cut off to Somalia – http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-merchants-bank-somalia-20150206-story.html

Smith, David; Al-Shabaab video shows how far it lags in ‘jihadi draft’ – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/23/al-shabaab-video-jihadi-draft-propaganda-somali

Taibbi, Matt; Gangster Bankers: Too Big To Fail – http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/gangster-bankers-too-big-to-jail-20130214

The Game of War: The American military is blurring the lines between virtual reality and warfare, with chilling consequences

Two videos, from two very different perspectives, caught my attention this week. In the first, 13 year old Mohammed Tuaiman documents his life in Ma’rib Province, Yemen, in the months after the death of his father and brother, who were killed by a U.S drone strike whilst herding camels. The strike left Mohammed to struggle with the responsibility of caring for his 27 siblings, and his video gives a snapshot into life in an area that has become a hotbed for Islamist organisations, instability and violence. The CIA, Pentagon and Yemeni government have refused to comment on the attack, and Mohammad states that the only support his family has received is from the local al-Qaeda group, who provide money and hand out leaflets; an al-Qaeda flag hangs conspicuously from the rear-view mirror in his car. The video ends on a chilling note: “on January 26th 2015, Muhammad himself was killed in another drone strike”, whilst travelling to a neighbouring village with his brother-in-law and another man – once again the CIA has refused to confirm whether any of them had been identified as al-Qaeda militants. Mohammad’s video paints a chilling picture of the human impact of the ‘war on terror’.

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An American ‘Reaper’ drone

The second video flips the direction of the lens completely; focusing instead on the young soldiers tasked with piloting the U.S drones, and, consequently, with taking the shots that killed Mohammad and his family members. The video is an abridged version of a feature length documentary film entitled ‘Drone’, due for release at the end of this month. Far removed from the arid deserts of central Yemen, the video features interviews with two former drone pilots about their experiences, as well as a number of experts criticising aspects of the use of drones. One of the documentary’s greatest insights is its examination of the recruitment process for drone pilots, revealing another facet of the unsettling relationship between war and entertainment touched on in last weeks post. As Lt. Col. Bryan Callahan of the 42nd Attack Squadron, United States Air Force, reveals, the military authorities are “trying to get our arms round what really does make the best candidate for unmanned aircrafts, and how can we identify these people early”. As the camera pans around the thousands of flickering screens at Dreamhack, the giant European gaming convention, we are informed that one method that has proven successful thus far is the development of virtual reality and video games aimed at identifying prospective pilots, allegedly targeting children as young as 12.

This unsettling revelation sheds light on a number of worrying trends in the ongoing ‘war on terror’ and the future of modern warfare more generally. The relationship between video games and violence has been a subject of debate for decades, flaring up periodically in the American media in response to events like school shootings and gang violence. As somebody who has played, enjoyed and consequently defended video games from an early age, the practice of using gaming as a recruitment tool targeting children and teenagers seems all the more unsavoury. The argument about whether video games encourage violent behaviour has always seemed nonsensical to me; children have been exposed to violence for thousands of years – the last public execution in the USA was under a century ago – and at the end of the day, it is just a game. However, by blurring the lines between virtual reality and real warfare the American military is breaking down this boundary in a particularly disturbing way, deliberately playing on the psychological detachment created by pilot’s geographic and mental distance from their targets.

One of the most revealing interviews featured in ‘Drone’ is with Michael Hass, a former U.S drone pilot who was stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada before he was 20 years old. It becomes clear that the military played on his familiarity with video games; when asked about his recruitment, he replies “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world… I get to play a video game all day!” Now no longer employed by the military he is candid about the impact that his extreme level of detachment from the act of killing had upon him; “it’s easy to have that lack of empathy for human life, and its easy just to think of them as something else… they’re not people, they’re just terrorists.” It was easy for him, he claims, “almost too easy.” Divorced from the impact of their actions, the young drone pilots act entirely at the command of their superiors, themselves relying on the CIA’s notoriously shaky information (only 7 of the 779 inmates held at Guantanamo Bay were ever convicted of a crime). This combination of emotional detachment and questionable intelligence may go some way to explaining the disproportionate number of civilian casualties caused by U.S drone strikes.

The aftermath of a drone strike in Waziristan, Pakistan

The aftermath of a drone strike in Waziristan, Pakistan

Seeing nothing but faceless shadows on a computer screen – “bugsplats” as drone operators call them – removes the pilots from the reality of their actions, but the cost to those, like Mohammad and his family, who live under the drones, is all too real. Data released by the human rights group Reprieve in November 2014 suggests that even when drone strikes are targeting individuals – what Obama calls “targeted killing” – they often result in many more deaths and require multiple strikes. As of 24 November last year, the CIA has attempted to target 41 individual suspects. In the process, an estimated 1,471 people, most of them unknown, over 100 of them children, were killed, and several of those 41 are still at large. This is only a snapshot into the overall picture; Reprieve’s data focused only on individuals targeted more than once. Absent are individuals killed on the first attempt or those killed in “signature strikes”; strikes aimed at unidentified groups based on repeated patterns of suspicious behaviour. What is perhaps most shocking is that these murders were carried out in Pakistan and Yemen, two countries that America is not even at war with, so doesn’t even scratch the surface of the potential civilian casualties caused by drone strikes during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The ability for individuals to bomb targets from thousands of miles away, in any country in the world, with absolutely no oversight, is a chilling prospect for the future of warfare.

Despite this, a new global arms race is under way to acquire military-grade drones, as nations scramble to get their hands on the technology that, arms manufacturers hope, will revolutionise warfare. The UAV industry is projected to reach $18.7 billion turnover by 2018, and a number of countries other than the United States have begun assembling their own unmanned armies. At a NATO conference in 2012, former Turkish president Abdullah Gül expressed his intention to use drones to suppress Kurdish rebels. Israel have utilised their own ‘Hermes’ drones during the recent offensives in Gaza. The Iranian military, working with a captured American UAV, have allegedly successfully reverse engineered their own stealth drones. Even in the United States the impact of drones has manifested itself by facilitating unprecedented levels of surveillance; California police are now allowed to fly spy drones without any probable cause, thanks to a veto by Gov. Jerry Brown on a bill that would have forced them to obtain a warrant first. Unfortunately, it appears that drones are here to stay.

What we are seeing is the unfolding of a new chapter in the history of war. Gone is the valorised warrior, the humble soldier, the idealistic revolutionary. In their place we have young men, sitting in bunkers in the Nevada desert, causing untold suffering to thousands of families around the world at the bequest of unseen CIA officials based on unseen intelligence. Decades of research, one of the most famous examples being the 1963 ‘Milgram Experiment’, has shown us that distance from the victim breeds indifference and increases obedience to authority. The American military is preying on young men and boys by bridging the gap between virtual reality and warfare, suggesting to impressionable minds that war really is just a game after all. “It just feels like were going through a bad science fiction novel” says another former drone pilot Bryan Bryant. “If we dehumanise war, if we take the human aspect out of it, what’s to stop us from just sending a bunch of automaton robots into another country and let them wipe out the entire population?” [sic] This dystopian nightmare may not be as far away as we thought; in 2010, British weapons manufacturing giant BAE Systems revealed that it was working on the ‘Taranis’, a completely unpiloted drone, launched by the click of a mouse. Until the CIA and the Obama administration remove the thick veil of secrecy surrounding the use of American drones and open up space for an honest, open discussion of the ethical ramifications of drone strikes, we have no idea how many more families like Mohammed’s will be torn apart by drones. Worse still, by refusing to provide support, or even an explanation, to families affected by drone strikes, we have no idea how many innocent young men will be pushed into the hands of al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups. When the only people providing victims with aid is the most wanted terrorist organisation in the world, you have to ask yourselves who the real terrorists are.

‘Drone’ will be released in cinemas 27 February 2015.

Originally posted @ http://www.occidentalweekly.com

References:

We dream about drones, said 13 year old Yemeni before his death in a CIA strike – Video: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/10/drones-dream-yemeni-teenager-mohammed-tuaiman-death-cia-strike

Drone Wars: the gamers recruited to kill – Video: http://www.theguardian.com/news/video/2015/feb/02/drone-wars-gamers-recruited-kill-pakistan-video

Dara Kerr – California police can fly drones without a warrant: http://www.cnet.com/news/california-police-can-fly-drones-without-a-warrant/

Matteo Congregalli – From the Age of the Warrior to the Age of the Drone: The New Face of Modern Warfare: https://urbantimes.co/2013/01/age-of-the-drone-new-face-of-modern-warfare/?allpages

Stealth Drone Proliferation: Iranians Reverse engineer captured US Spy Drone: http://www.juancole.com/2014/11/proliferation-iranians-captured.html

Spencer Ackerman – 41 men targeted but 1,147 people killed: US drone strikes – the facts on the ground: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/nov/24/-sp-us-drone-strikes-kill-1147

S. Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) Market Forecast 2013-2018: http://www.marketresearchmedia.com/?p=509

US Uses Video Games to Recruit Drone Pilots as Young as 12 http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/US-Uses-Video-Games-to-Recruit-Drone-Pilots-as-Young-as-12-20141008-0015.html

 

American Sniper – Violent, Racist, But Can We Be Surprised?

Some of the more unsavoury responses to American Sniper

Some of the more unsavoury responses to American Sniper

The release and surprise success of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has polarised popular opinion in the United States, with many celebrities taking sides on social media and an army of patriotic conservatives announcing their renewed desire to ‘kill some ragheads’ over Twitter. However, in the context of a long history of Arab and Muslim representation in American film, neither Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of sniper Chris Kyle or Eastwood’s depiction of the Arab world are particularly surprising or innovatory. Dr Jack Shaheen provides an authoritative account of the history of the demonization of Arabs and Muslims in his 2008 documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People, identifying consistent images of the Arab world that have existed since the earliest days of Hollywood. In an analysis of 1000 films featuring Arabs between 1896 and 2000, Shaheen found that an overwhelming 90% of them were negative, usually featuring stereotypes that evolved directly from 19th century European Orientalist art, and that popular film since the Second World War has demonised Arabs and Muslims in an increasingly aggressive way.

The evolution of a villain

“Politics and Hollywood’s images are linked; they reinforce one another” Shaheen argues. He points to how things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (in which American support for Israel has been unwavering) and the Iranian revolution have caused the presentation of Arabs in Hollywood film to evolve from the racist but jovial depictions in films like The Happy Hooker and Father of the Bride 2 to the psychopathic sadists and frenzied mobs depicted in films like Rules of Engagement and Navy Seals. The events of September 11th 2001 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have only accelerated this process, and consequently it is easy to view American Sniper as simply the latest stage in a long-standing pattern of demonization in American cinema. In fact, some of the most shocking scenes in Eastwood’s film have clear parallels to existing films. The already controversial scene of ‘The Butcher’, the merciless antagonist in American Sniper, torturing and executing an Iraqi child with a drill visibly resembles a similar scene in the 1987 film Death Before Dishonour, in which Palestinian militants kidnap and torture an American marine, again using a drill. Equally, in the same film, a Palestinian haphazardly drives a truck into a building before detonating a suicide bomb, mirroring a scene in American Sniper where an enemy soldier surges towards American tanks in a car, detonating a suicide bomb moments after being shot by Kyle.

Since American Sniper’s release, Eastwood has been accused of failing to give a voice to any of the Arab characters in the film, and of failing to situate the Iraq war within the political context from which it arose (one particularly pertinent example sees the action flick from Kyle witnessing the attacks of the World Trade Centre on TV to his deployment in Iraq, despite the fact that the two events have been proven to be unconnected). The Arab men in the film are terrorists, deceitful civilians or passive, silent victims. The women, universally clad in cloaking burqas, or as Shaheen describes them “bundles in black”, hover in the background, never speaking other than to notify Kyle’s fictional sniper rival, ‘Mustafa’, that the ‘Legend’ has been spotted. When they meet their violent ends at the hands of the omnipotent Kyle we are comfortably reassured by him, and others, that they are nothing more than savages.

Eastwood paints a black-and-white picture of the conflict, where the simplistic bad guys are cast in stark contrast to the American soldiers, who display emotional depth and have loving relationships with families back home. This again, is nothing new, and countless films about the Middle East over the last few decades are equally guilty. Hollywood has systematically erased the Arab voice from its productions, and consequently the most shocking thing about the portrayal of Arabs in American Sniper is how familiar it is. The treacherous, irrational and inherently violent Arab has become as recognisable a stereotype in 21st century America as the hook nosed, greedy Jew was in Germany on the eve of the Second World War.

Above: Inspired by Shaheen’s documentary, Jackie Salloum created this montage showcasing the racism of Hollywood’s depictions of Arabs

Chris Kyle and Hollywood Hyper-masculinity

The second issue in American Sniper that has caused controversy is Cooper’s admittedly compelling portrayal of sniper Chris Kyle. Cooper’s Kyle is an all American hero, a likeable man who tends to let his actions do the talking, but when he does speak usually imparts some words of wisdom to help embolden his comrades in moments of despair. He agonises over having to pull the trigger on a young child, and returns home constantly tortured by his experiences. This appears to be in sharp contrast to the Kyle who wrote the book American Sniper, who boasts about killing “savages”, and laments “I only wish I had killed more” adding “I loved what I did … It was fun. I had the time of my life.” Are we really to believe that Cooper’s Kyle is the same man who claimed to have sat on the Superdome during Katrina and assassinated civilians? The man who paraded around with shirtsleeves cut off to display his crusader cross tattoo? The man who painted Marvel’s The Punisher logo onto his flak jackets and incorporated it into the logo of his private security company with the phrase “Despite what your momma told you… violence does solve problems” emblazoned around it?

The logo of Chris Kyle's private security company

The logo of Chris Kyle’s private security company

However, when one looks back at the history of hypermasculinity in Hollywood films, Eastwood’s decision to sanitise and humanise Kyle’s violent nature in such a way again ceases to be surprising. Anti-sexism activist Jason Katz deconstructs America’s obsession with violence and masculinity in his documentaries Tough Guise and Tough Guise 2. He examines the way the Hollywood image of the ‘real man’ has evolved and intensified from old John Wayne westerns, through Rambo and Die Hard, to today’s heroes and vigilantes featured in films like Taken and The Dark Night. In all these films, the protagonist is a muscular white male, who speaks little, usually turns to violence to solve his problems, but always possesses a stoic sense of moral justice which in turn legitimises their violent actions. By valorising violent masculinity, the directors make the constant barrage of assaults and murders (the most recent Rambo sees Stallone dispose of 2.59 bad guys per minute), which would be totally abhorrent in the real world, both acceptable and justified.

"Do you feel lucky, punk" - Eastwood as Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry

“Do you feel lucky, punk” – Eastwood as Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry

Thus Eastwood’s decision to gloss over Kyle’s less palatable characteristics is again, nothing new; after all, Eastwood himself, whose most famous roles include Harry Callahghan in Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, has had a huge influence on the history of Hollywood tough guys. The scene in American Sniper where a young Kyle is taught by his father how to be real man; namely by using violence to protect the weak, has become almost a Hollywood stock image, with similar scenes present in The Tree of Life featuring Brad Pitt and Eastwood’s own Gran Torino. With violence being instilled in boys from an early age, can we really claim to be surprised when young men take to Twitter to confirm their belief in Kyle’s assertion that “violence does solve problems”?

Some Conclusions

Overall, the combination of violence and racism that permeates American Sniper clearly has a long history in American cinema, and consequently we cannot be shocked by the violent, racist responses by many members of American society. Racist stereotypes have become engrained in the American psyche making it increasingly difficult for many young Americans to recognise that Arab Muslims in the Middle East could possibly be people with lives and families just like theirs. Their recourse to violent language, and increasingly, violent actions (the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has reported a surge in Islamophobic violence since the film’s release) is understandable in an all-encompassing media culture that promotes a one-sided, black and white view of America’s relations with the Middle East. This is particularly unsettling due to the popularity of Hollywood films across the Arab world. At a time when US and European relations with Muslim countries are worse than ever, we must consider the message that we are sending to the people there who see these films. A concerted effort is required by all facets of the media – film makers, news networks and journalists – to break the monotonous repetition of tired and inaccurate stereotypes, and to address the culture of violent masculinity that has become inextricably tied to them. To not do so is both irresponsible and immoral, and history is littered with examples of what failing to do so may result in.

Originally posted @ http://www.occidentalweekly.com

References:

Reel Bad Arabs – (Dir. Sut. Jhally)  Transcript: http://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/412/transcript_412.pdf

Tough Guise 2 – (.Dir Jeremy Earp) Transcript: http://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/237/transcript_237.pdf

Rambo Kill Count: http://flowingdata.com/2008/02/22/rambo-kill-counts-from-parts-i-ii-iii-and-iv/

The Disgusting Tweets Inspired By The Propaganda Film American Sniper – Charles Topher: http://www.ifyouonlynews.com/racism/the-disgusting-tweets-inspired-by-the-propaganda-film-american-sniper-screenshots/

In The Cross Hairs – Nicholas Schmiddlehttp://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/06/03/in-the-crosshairs

American Sniper film ‘behind rise in anti-Muslim threats’ – BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-30972690

‘American Sniper’ spawns death threats against Arabs and Muslims –  Rania Khalek: http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/rania-khalek/american-sniper-spawns-death-threats-against-arabs-and-muslims