American Sniper Misfires at the Oscars

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 15:  (L-R) Sienna Miller, Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper arrive at the 'American Sniper' New York
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 15: (L-R) Sienna Miller, Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper arrive at the 'American Sniper' New York Premiere at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on December 15, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

In Pakistan, my classes were unusually small, 10 students compared to 100 students for other professors.

Then I found out the reason why.

"No one wanted to take your class," my former student explained to me in an email. "You were American; we hated you. You come in here and kill our people and then call us terrorists."

In the minds of those who live with ongoing daily violence in the Middle East and Pakistan, America has become part of the problem. We have become the terrorists we seek to eradicate.

I remembered my student's e-mail as I left the movie theatre the other day after seeing the Oscar-nominated American Sniper, the movie that celebrates U.S. Navy Seal Sharpshooter Chris Kyle who killed 160 Iraqis during the war.

I'm glad it didn't win a major Oscar.

My student had put her finger on something so essential, so basic as to why we keep getting the Muslim world so wrong.

Who for people like my students are the terrorists?

Of course they are the Taliban and those responsible for sectarian and ethnic violence. But America is right there in the mix, sowing hatred as we attempt to bring peace.

You can't have it both ways.

Less than 100 miles from where we sat in the classroom last year, American drone strikes were targeting the Northwest Frontier Provinces near the Afghan border and in the process wiping out civilians as well.

And then there was the case of CIA contractor Raymond Davis who, on a spurious mission in 2009 yet to be fully explained by the CIA, had gunned down several Pakistanis from his SUV in Lahore. Two more were run over by the SUV behind him.

For Pakistanis it is not Bin Laden but Raymond Davis who sticks in their mind. In post 9/11 Pakistan we were supposed to be building trust, not infiltrating their intelligence.

And that is what is the matter with American Sniper. It celebrates the very values that are driving a wedge between the U.S. and the Muslim world. It celebrates hate, it celebrates Islamophobia, and it celebrates killing.

We are living in a highly charged, highly sensitive time in our relations with the Muslim world in general.

The message American Sniper carries is neither new nor surprising in Pakistan. Pakistanis already have their fill of American pop culture's view of the Muslim world as an undifferentiated mass of fundamentalists from season four of the TV series Homeland featuring Claire Danes as CIA station chief in Islamabad.

I console myself with the fact that only Pakistanis with satellite TV were able to see it and that the show was not dubbed or subtitled for a South Asian audience.

Even fewer will see American Sniper in Pakistan. It is not playing at any of the big theatres and probably won't. "Show a film like this" in the words of a Pakistani friend of mine, "and you might simply incite a suicide bomber to buy a ticket."

As I walked out of the theater I thought of Chris Kyle's tortured plea in the movie to a young Iraqi boy to put down the Kalashnikov rifle he has just picked up lest he have to shoot him. I remembered the 132 school boys who were gunned down in Peshawar with another 121 wounded on Dec. 16 this past year by the Taliban.

I doubt that anyone in Pakistan has any emotional room left for a film that celebrates killers and shows how traumatized they are by their actions.

American Sniper has thus far raked in $250 million at the box office and was nominated for six Oscars including best actor for Bradley Cooper.

The fact that it won in no major categories is irrelevant.

What is relevant is this: in the misguided belief that we can police the world we export the very hatred that incites the countries we are trying to "save" to more violence. No one wins these kinds of wars. No one wins from this kind of film.

Least of all the people we think we are saving.


Adele Barker teaches in the Russian Department at the University of Arizona and is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. She recently spent six months teaching at Fatima Jinnah Women University in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.