The Lies of American Sniper

A guest post by @historianess.

Fallujah

I have a very vivid memory of when I first heard the Adhan‘s call, on an early July day in 2012. I was in a car in Lahore with two friends; their father was driving. It was twilight, a moment in which the buildings around Liberty Market were cast in shades of rose and violet, and the air shimmered with sunset colors. At that moment, mosques around the area starting broadcasting the evening Adhan. The sounds of the Takbir (Allahu Akbar, or, God is Great) echoed with the fading light. For a moment, traffic stopped, and the attention of all seemed to be focused on the evening prayer. This didn’t feel foreign to me; it felt, on the contrary, rather familiar. I remembered the passage in Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages about the sound of bells in the late medieval European city. “But one sound always rose above the clamor of busy life and, no matter how much of a tintinnabulation, was never confused with other noises, and, for a moment, lifted everything into an ordered sphere: that of the bells. The bells acted in daily life like concerned good spirits who, with their familiar voices, proclaimed sadness or joy, calm or unrest, assembly or exhortation.”1

The Adhan, I immediately understood, was like the sound of bells in a European city. The effect of hearing the call to prayer was not one of alienation for me. Instead it reminded me of a commonality between Islam and Christianity–the use of sound to govern the liturgical day and to foster community.

In the film American Sniper, the Adhan serves the opposite purpose. The film opens with the Adhan and a panoramic shot of a city with many minarets. It is meant to be Fallujah, and it is meant to evoke a feeling of strangeness and foreignness in the moviegoer. The viewer experiences a frisson of fear–the muezzin calling Allahu Akbar is a threat, a representative of a civilization that our hero Chris Kyle (most confirmed kills of any American sniper! Ever!) will repeatedly call “evil” and “savage.” The Adhan is a symbol of barbarism. This is the film’s first lie.
Continue reading The Lies of American Sniper

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  1. Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages trans. Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 2. []

Whence Muhammad?

‘Muhammadanism’ was always a heresy, a contamination, a deviation – and hence, always needed satire. Where humor inserts the uncanny into the mundane, satire exposes the decay inside the ordinary. Muhammadanism has always been understood through the satirical gesture, whether couched in scholarly objectivism or bazari insouciance.1

The earliest Christian polemics saw Muhammad as a corruption, and as an imposter who was taking on the crown of Christ. The eighth century epic The Song of Roland – written in the eleventh century – depicts Muslims as idol-worshippers of a trinity of gods – Apollin, Tervagant and ‘Mahomet':

“From Tervagant take they his ruby, and into a ditch they throw/ Mahomet, where foul swine rend him, and dogs hale to and fro.”

The histories of Crusades written in the twelfth centuries – such as the Gesta Dei per Francos – cast ‘Mathomus’ as an epileptic who was inspired by the devil to corrupt Christians. The effort to portray a bumbler, foamer-at-the-mouth, a charlatan is a theme in many of these narratives. This is most legible in the tradition of a biography of Muhammad – Vita Mahumeti – that cast him specifically as a Christian heretic who got a garbled message of Christianity from a Monophysite or an Arian or a Nestorian or a Jewish monk.
Continue reading Whence Muhammad?

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  1. Since long, I have been meaning to finish an argument about the centrality of the Prophet to Pakistan but … the work remains; and one import of my argument will be to demonstrate that the European understanding of the centrality of the Prophet is now the reigning understanding in Pakistan, in distinction with the pre-colonial. []

Death is Iconic

Death is Iconic IThis summer, Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip, killing hundreds of civilians, bombing schools and hospitals, and even UNRWA shelters. This might just have been another chapter in the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories, but this summer, there was something new: an unprecedented number of photographs and videos made it through to the international community via twitter and other social media platforms. Those who refuse to believe the extent of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, or who believe the oppression of the Palestinian people is strategically justified for the survival of the Israeli state, were in denial about the many images rushing into the rest of the world.

Most famously, George W. Bush’s former speech writer, David Frum, latched onto a conspiracy theory that held that a series of images of two Palestinian brothers expressing raw grief over the death of their father whom they’d just brought to the hospital was simply a piece of propaganda. According to this theory, the photographs were staged, and this could be seen from the fact that in one, the more distraught brother had blood on his hands, and in another, he did not. The blood had been added for effect, went the theory. Unfortunately for Frum and his ilk, these photos had been taken by numerous professional photographers working for international news services, who spoke up and outlined the sequence of events, showing that while the men arrived at the hospital soaked in blood, in the interim, as their father lay in the operating room, they’d washed their hands. Death is Iconic II

When I saw these striking images, I understood immediately what it was really all about. It was about the iconic nature of the photographs. Two men, in a state of mourning, embracing: they look like figures in classical paintings, or religious icons: figures of saints and martyrs. It was a dangerous turn in the image war, and the Frums of the world were scared.

[My paintings are acrylic on wooden panel, 5” x 7”. The original photographs were taken by Hatem Ali/AP, and Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters; my hat is off to these brave photographers who put themselves in the path of danger on a daily basis. My desire was to engage with the ways in which the underlying photographs looked like religious icons.]

A Formula for Being Human


I am a man in exile in Beirut in 1982 – cast out by a military dictator.

On this ground too
unfurls
my blood stained standard

where the flag of Palestinian home
flows

Your Master has destroyed
one Palestine;
My wounds
have prospered
how many Palestines.


I am a woman; long hair, dreadlocked; ashes covering my naked body; living inside a tree; in love with an apparition. I am hunted by the emperor.

I, Lalla, set out
wanting to flower
                       like the bloom of cotton:
that was I, tenuous,
      whom the seed-picking cleaner
then the carder so abused
    when the woman spinning
had lifted me off
  thread by trembling thread
that was I, so cruelly used,
    set to hang in the weaver’s room.

I have seen a serious man hunger, and of hunger dying:
   as a leaf being taken in winter
         by the least wind,
                       ever so gentle.

I have seen a moron murderously beating a cook
      and since then I, Lalla, am waiting —
           will it not be torn? This love,
                  ever so delightful.1


I am a man; wandering; obese; in love with a young man who follows me, at some distance. I am sought by emperors for conversation. Eventually, they cut off my head.

O Sarmad, you won such fame throughout the world
After converting from kufr to Islam
And yet, in the end, what fault you found with Allah and the Prophet?
that you became a disciple of Ram and Lakshman?


It is hard for us to imagine what it means to speak outside of our privilege – to look at the world through the eyes of the dispossessed. We have sequestered our fears.

I quote three individuals: Lal Ded. Sarmad. Faiz. In fourteenth century Kashmir. In seventeenth century Delhi. In twentieth century Beirut. These individuals spoke, and acted outside the worlds which they inhabited. We tend to remember martyrs from the fact of their martyrdom but their life and words before had enough courage to achieve immortality. Seeing them as immortals before their deaths, allows us to conceive of the courage to speak and express our critical world view as an everyday courage, and a everyday concern.

Like many of you, I have done little but read the news from Gaza in the past few weeks. I have shuddered in witnessing how everyday life in Gaza has vanished under plumes of smoke and under debris. I feel helpless and I try to read poets and I try to reconcile my sorrow at a world spinning away.

For Gaza, for Syria, for Iraq, for minorities in Pakistan, this summer of destruction is etched in poetry. For resistance, for hope, please read Lal Ded, Sarmad, Darwish, and Faiz:

Forever thus
have people tangled with tyranny;
nor their rituals new, nor our ways new.

Forever thus
have we blossomed flowers in fire;
nor their defeat new, nor our victory new.


I am a woman; writing books and pamphlets in prison; working to unionize workers in Berlin. I am kidnapped, shot in the head, and my body is dumped in the canal.

I’m telling you that as soon as I can stick my nose out again I will hunt and harry your society of frogs with trumpet blasts, whip-crackings, and bloodhounds-like Penthesilea I wanted to say, but by God, you people are no Achilles. Have you had enough of a New Year’s greeting now? Then see to it that you stay HUMAN… Being human means joyfully throwing your whole life “on the scales of destiny” when need be, but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud. Ach, I know of no formula to write you for being human…

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  1. translation from Kashmiri original by Sonam Kachru []

My Dear Americans

My Dear Americans
My Dear Americans
Happy July 4th, my dear Americans. Here is a short made by Arpita Kumar, being screened at PBS ONLINE FILM FESTIVAL.

Here is what Kumar told us about the short:

I made My Dear Americans during my Project Involve fellowship at Film Independent in Los Angeles. We were asked to pitch short film projects focused on the theme of traditions. I thought it would be interesting to focus on an American tradition but from the point-of-view of an outsider. I chose to build a narrative around the 4th of July tradition since it’s the most American and patriotic of the holidays. And, I decided on a Sikh couple as the outsiders largely because around that time there was a shooting in a Sikh Gurudwara in Wisconsin. The white supremacist perpetrator associated the Sikhs with Osama Bin Laden and it shocked me that there was such ignorance about the Sikh community still. It had been more than a decade since 9/11 and the backlash continued. I realized that we cannot do much about the ignorance of others. What we can do is change our reaction to their ignorance. And, that inspired the film and the actions of the wife, Tejpreet.

I arrived in the U.S. eleven years ago with the unbearable enthusiasm of Baldev – the husband in the film – for all things American. Over the years, the enthusiasm has not tapered but my mind has gained a more complex understanding of national identity, displacement, and the idea of home. The film is a window into that mindscape.

Additionally, every time I start a film I give myself a challenge and for this one it was to tell a story with as little dialogue as possible. Watch and let me know if I succeeded. Also, vote.

Fifteen Years After Eqbal Ahmad: A Call

eqbalahmad Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the passing of Eqbal Ahmad (1932 – 1999). Who was Eqbal Ahmad?

On 10 Feb, 1971, a letter appeared in The New York Times titled “Eqbal Ahmed: A Defense” signed by faculty at Princeton.

To the Editor:

Leaders in the movement to end the prolonged, cruel and useless violence against millions in Indochina have now been indicted by the Justice Department for conspiracy to blow up a heating system and kidnap a Presidential adviser. As Fathers Daniel and Phillip F. Berrigan have already right said, such a plot would be a “grotesque” response by “deranged” people – a “caricature” of the dedicated mass action still required to end the war.

We are writing about one of those indicted – a former student at Princeton and a good friend, Eqbal Ahmad, now a Fellow at the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs.

Everything we know about Dr. Ahmad is contrary to that of which he is accused. He is a scholar in political science who has established an international reputation with his published work on revolution. He has also translated his analysis into action.

He was one of the first to denounce romantic revolutionaries for substituting personal heroics for truly difficulty task of fashioning new links among the exploited, the powerless, the excluded and those who know what sustained work is required to transform individuals and society.

His writings have analyzed the disadvantages of conspiracy and terror when used by revolutionaries and emphasized the need to concentrate on isolating all unjust regimes morally and politically. A group of extreme leftist students last year stormed into the Adlai Stevenson Institute and deliberately destroyed Eqbal Ahmad’s research notes.

In our view, Eqbal Ahmad understands well the underlying social forces that impel rulers to persist in runious wars, and allow revolutionaries with deep roots among their own people to succeed despite the might brought against them by great powers. This among other things has made him a first-rate teacher and analyst and also one of the most persuasive opponents of the Vietnam war on campuses in this country and abroad.

Eqbal Ahmad’s public record of scholarship and advocacy makes the accusation appear highly implausible to us.

Henry Bienen, Kathyrn Boals, Henry H. Eckstein, Richard A. Falk, Manfred Halpern.
Princeton, N. J. Feb. 1, 1971
The writers are members of Princeton University faculties

Edward Said, when remembering Eqbal Ahmad, did so with such love and grace that every single time I have read those words, I have found myself transported to those conversations Said notes – with Darwish, or Faiz or Paley.

Yet, Said left unsaid what Ahmad would mean to the future, our present. The Harrisburg Seven are now forgotten. I rarely find Ahmad cited in contemporary scholarship and I rarely see his figure evoked in a genealogical manner to the many critical thoughts on empire or global south. He did not leave behind “the big book” I guess. Perhaps most critically, I have rarely heard young scholars of Pakistan incorporate his work into their own.

A small group of us, wish to mark today, the anniversary of Eqbal Ahmad‘s fifteenth year, and raise a call for submissions. We wish to create a small print ‘zine to be published in Fall 2014. We ask for reflections on Eqbal Ahmad’s work and the ways in which it intersects with your own practices and theologies. Please contact me or leave your contact information in comments, if you are interested. We would also like you to read Eqbal Ahmad, if you have not encountered him before. We recommend The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad (2006).

You can also look at the archivization project at our beloved SAADA on Eqbal Ahmad.

We thank you.

Waziristan, U.S.

Drones and the Obama Administration

I gave the following remarks on 26 March 2014.

There currently exists a limit in the liberal critique of the drone program: there is a discussion about the efficacy of the program – and with it an emphasis on collecting numbers of casualties, of some matrices of sorting the dead into militants and civilians; there is a discussion of the legality of the program – with it the implications for state capacity to fight terrorism or to punish individuals; there is a historicizing of drones within imperial histories of violence upon colonized spaces –and with it a linking of US regime to earlier British or European regimes. In any of these cases, there is an assumption that the critic is making a moral case against the usage of drones for imperial over-reach or against blowback, but which stops at not knowing the precise numbers of civilian casualties and hence in suspension.

Priya Satia’s recent essay on the history of drones links British and later US regimes of power and is highly critical of imperial outreach and in an exemplary fashion. Yet Satia concludes: “Only intense public pressure can force lawmakers to have a conversation about what drones should be used for, as has been true of the limits we want to impose on other technologies, from computers to land mine.”1 Satia’s reversion to an idealized liberal democratic politics is incongruent to the critique of lawmakers from the long twentieth century that Satia herself thoroughly documents in her work. What Satia does not do is question the very gaze that allows lawmakers to constitute a space of exception for a vast swarth of subaltern subjects and reject the premise in the first place.

It is not an advisable position to take: after all, the drones ostensibly target a group of individuals (al- Qaeda or Taliban) who as well make no distinction between civilian and military and who have carried out a long string of horrific violence against various states. Being deemed outside of Reason, of History and, markedly, of Time, the only option is to eliminate them with force, and in this particular chain of calculations, the drone program, however flawed, represents the best case scenario.

What I would like to do is point out a particularly US based history (not British or European) both for the targeting of a space as one out of civilization and with categorizing violence on that space as righteous. In an earlier essay, on the question of technology and the act of “seeing” that governs the technical sophistry of drone warfare (“Adam’s Mirror: The Frontier in the Imperial Imagination“) I made a particular argument for us to consider the history of US regimes of power. My argument today furthers that claim by stating that drones do not represent any paradigmatic shift. Rather, the drone program is a continuation of a long history of risk minimization and political marginalization of people-as-population whose presumed opacity helps the US polis imagine the worst. In this regard, the particular spatialization of violence enacted in the drone strikes has been at-home in the foundational ethos of US state-hood.

First, the question of space itself – the un-goverened or semi-governed space, which is thought to lie at the borderlands or at the frontier. It is a site of anxiety, a source of disruption, a place where inclement forces gather to plot, and to attack. It is the space which orients our actions (“Wild West” or “Tribal Areas”) away from civitas to jus bellum. It is regularly invoked elsewhere in contemporary discourse, but it is rather closer to home.
Continue reading Waziristan, U.S.

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  1. Priya Satia, “Drones: A History from the British Middle East,” Humanity 5 (Spring 2014): 1-31. []