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Art and propaganda share an intimate relationship. Particularly today in the US, where the wartime film stands as a sacred genre - intimately depicting everyday Joes plucked from mundane middle America, then planted within the perils of a foreign battleground where they become larger-than-life heroes.   

The newest edition of this genre, "American Sniper", centres on Iraq. The Clint Eastwood-directed picture contains every essential hallmark of the wartime film genre; the lionised soldier protagonist, the good versus evil paradigm, and the accompanying illustration of the latter as unyieldingly wretched, menacing, and bent on the destruction of everything pure and civilised.

Art and propaganda share an intimate relationship. Particularly today in the US, where the wartime film stands as a sacred genre - intimately depicting everyday Joes plucked from mundane middle America, then planted within the perils of a foreign battleground where they become larger-than-life heroes.   

The newest edition of this genre, "American Sniper", centres on Iraq. The Clint Eastwood-directed picture contains every essential hallmark of the wartime film genre; the lionised soldier protagonist, the good versus evil paradigm, and the accompanying illustration of the latter as unyieldingly wretched, menacing, and bent on the destruction of everything pure and civilised.

"American Sniper" does not disappoint, and delivers these damaging binaries bolstered with the banal tropes of Iraqis and Muslims that attracted viewers in droves. So much that the film set a box office record its opening weekend, which is set to continue as the movie stretches into its second week.

Debating art

Film is art - and creative expression should not be legally restricted. However, art has the potential to incite, particularly when the villains in a box-office hit are flatly constructed, maliciously misrepresented, and positioned as the irredeemable opponents of America and its gun-toting hero.

US Senator John McCain discusses the anti-Muslim film

In "American Sniper", Iraqis are nothing more than fodder and foes, whom Chris Kyle is hell bent on gunning down to carry forward a parasitic patriotism that a robust segment of the US is not only drawn to, but also committed to perpetuating.

Every single Iraqi in the film is presumed guilty. And thus, deserving of the twisted justice Kyle is more than willing to dish out, over and again.

While the familiar misrepresentations on the screen are damaging, the racist backlash inspired by "American Sniper" evidences that the film is equipping hatemongers with even more ammunition.

And the targets are Arabs and Muslims, "ragheads" and anybody resembling the Iraqi caricatures in "American Sniper".

"American Sniper" is far more than merely a character study. The main protagonist, Chris Kyle, is an American everyman, who thoroughly embodies the utter disdain for Muslims which is endemic - and intensifying - in the US today. Further, Kyle views his tour in Iraq as an opportunity to avenge the 9/11 terrorist attacks, reducing patriotism into a blood vendetta against a populace utterly disconnected and disassociated from that attack.

Caricature study?

These ideas, and the worldview from which they emanate, are not Kyle's view alone. Rather, through the film positioning of Kyle as an archetype, Kyle represents a grand perspective held by a substantial segment of the US. Moreover, these views are not being relayed through a tragic figure or a nihilist.

But a hero, donned in military fatigues, a baseball cap, and played by Hollywood A-lister and heartthrob Bradley Cooper - who views his indiscriminate mowing down of 255 "despicably evil savages" as both a political and spiritual crusade.

Through Kyle's distorted gaze, the viewer similarly sees Iraqis as targets. Whether a veiled mother, young boy, or the fictitious rival Mustafa - the black-clad, brooding embodiment of evil that is committed to the demise of Kyle, and everything he represents.

Through Kyle's distorted gaze, the viewer similarly sees Iraqis as targets. Whether a veiled mother, young boy, or the fictitious rival Mustafa - the black-clad, brooding embodiment of evil that is committed to the demise of Kyle, and everything he represents.

Both art and propaganda, "American Sniper" carries forward the tradition of the wartime film genre. But, within the context of considerable anti-Arab and Muslim bigotry in the US, the film is reminiscent of another critically heralded yet racist wartime epic, DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation, which, paralleling the binary in "American Sniper", lionised Klansmen by way of deplorable depictions of black Americans. Subsequently, it calls its viewers to take arms against the villains.      

Like scores of films before it, "American Sniper" conflates Iraqis with Arabs and Muslims, "al-Qaeda" and "jihadists".

For Kyle, and Eastwood, the distinctions are irrelevant. Redeploying age-old Orientalist images, the film's Iraqis are thinly constructed foes of the democratic and divine - who must be methodically gunned down for both God and country. A belief, in the US today, that is far more fact than fiction.  

Following the release of the film the, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) issued a community advisory and warned of a "significant rise in violent hate rhetoric targeting the Arab and Muslim-American communities".

The advisory was issued in response to the significant number of violent messages targeting Arab and Muslim Americans following the release of the film "American Sniper". Many of the threats were made over social media.

Box-office backlash

The threats advocate for the murder of Arab and Muslim Americans, one going as far as posting: "Great f**king movie and now I really want to kill some f**king ragheads." In another threat, since deleted, Twitter user Dex Harmon wrote: "American Sniper makes me wanna go shoot some f**kin Arabs," which was followed by emojis of three handguns.

Hate speech and threats such as these should not be ignored. Instead, they must serve as a warning sign. Hate speech and rhetoric will only continue to add to the culture of violence, which will lead to more incidents and more attacks. Particularly within an already rife context of anti-Arab hatred and Islamophobia. 

Statistics gathered by ADC, as well as by the Southern Poverty Law Center, show that there was a 50 percent increase in the number of reported hate crimes against Arabs, Muslims and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim in the US. The increase is correlated with the start of the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy, which is surely to intensify with the domestic and global backlash against Arabs and Muslims following the Charlie Hebdo attack.  

For as long as the negative imagery and permissible hatred against Arabs and Muslims exists, members of the respective communities will continue to live in a state of constant fear that they may be the next victim of a hate crime. The precedent is there, and history has shown us that as the rhetoric worsens, the culture of collateral indictment and the prospect of violence increase.

"American Sniper" is art. But it is also ammunition. The right of creative expression should be tempered by responsibility. Otherwise, "American Sniper" is only performing what propelled its central figure into the limelight - indiscriminately targeting Arabs and Muslims for simply being. 

Which, we hope, isn't the film's aim.   

Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.

Abed Ayoub is the legal director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, DC, and is a native of Detroit.

Source: Al Jazeera