United States of Al: Hollywood’s brown saviour project

Chuck Lorre and Reza Aslan’s new CBS sitcom is another iteration of Hollywood’s classic ‘white saviour’ story.

The first episode of CBS sitcom the United States of Al (USoA) aired on April 1, 2021 [CBS/Facebook]

The United States of Al (USoA), a new CBS situation comedy produced by Chuck Lorre and Reza Aslan, received an immediate backlash after the release of its official trailer last month. The plot of the show, which aired for the first time on April 1, is set around the friendship between Afghan interpreter Awalmir or “Al”, and an American marine veteran, Riley. The ongoing controversy is centred on the choice of Adhir Kalyan (South African of Indian descent) to play an Afghan, and the comedic approach taken to war. But there are stakes at hand that extend beyond the representation of an Afghan immigrant in a sitcom.

Americans are consuming the war in Afghanistan curated through media – drone operators treat asymmetrical warfare as a video game, Lorre and Aslan turn war into entertainment. Forgotten seems Baudrillard’s warning that technologies of image consumption put distance between war and the audience, making it seem like atrocities did not happen and are not happening. The war is being sold to the public as something moral and necessary, through the figures of the white saviour soldier and the deserving Afghan/Muslim.

Despite executive producer Aslan’s proclamations of commitments to a “Muslim protagonist”, and his defensive claims that the USoA is centred on Awalmir, it becomes obvious even in the trailer what the show is really about: a white soldier who returned home scarred by war, Riley, and his white American family.

In Aslan’s own words, after Awalmir arrives in the US he continues “to function as Riley’s interpreter, but instead of interpreting language, he’s sort of interpreting life for him … helping Riley to pick up the pieces of his life, trying to reunite him with his ex-wife and his daughter, and to deal with the trauma of coming home from war”.

Telling the story of war trauma through a veteran, as USoA clearly aims to do, is a common trope, where “trauma” functions to eclipse the material realities of war, thereby equating the soldier with the victim.

The Muslim Afghan, meanwhile, is assigned the role of the wise eastern figure whose purpose is to be a vanishing mediator in a story of self-discovery and redemption for the white American family. Even the title of the show gestures to this disappearing act by converting Awalmir, the grateful Afghan, into the assimilated “Al”.

The glamourised designation of the relationship between Awalmir and Riley as a “friendship” masks the power differential constitutive of any relations between the occupiers and the occupied – a curious and discomforting fiction from which to examine the effects of war.

While the show highlights Awalmir’s enthrallment with America, we only catch a glimpse of the horrors that occur in Afghanistan through their impact on the white soldier and his family. America’s post-9/11 wars have a death toll estimated to be more than half a million, many of them Afghans. But an Afghan has seemingly only been included in this show to help an American audience navigate the difficult terrain of an American serviceman’s reassimilation into society after participating in this bloodbath.

Riley, in turn, helps Awalmir settle in Ohio. Awalmir, whose Afghan elders likely sacrificed life itself fighting against the Soviet Empire, can now experience in all its glory what was at stake all along for the US in its “Cold War”: the many bounties of unbridled capitalism, from the “lipstick revolution” to the oasis of Costco.

Moreover, as Maria Ferrari, one of the show’s writers, proudly declared, Awalmir is not only an Afghan, but also a Pashtun – perhaps a first for a main character in a US TV show.

Pashtun men are seen as synonymous with the Taliban and are also casually portrayed as inherently sexually deviant. Countless Pashtun men in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been killed by the US military and its affiliates in the region merely for being Pashtun and speaking Pashto. Will the show attempt to address these misconceptions or will it turn the prejudices that cost thousands of Pashtun men their lives and freedoms into punchlines? Sadly, what we have seen so far points to the latter.

Selling war as something moral and honourable, and reducing its victims to one-dimensional villains or tools to move the redemption story of a white saviour forward is not new to Hollywood. After the 9/11 attacks, a catalogue of films in the tradition of The Birth of the Nation has been created to serve as propaganda for America’s so-called war on terror: Jarhead (2005), The Hurt Locker (2010), Argo (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2013), and TV shows like Homeland, and 24, to name only a few.

Given Hollywood’s archive of war propaganda, and its long history of acting as a prolific hand-maiden to post 9/11 US Empire, what is the purpose of the USoA? Is it in any way different to myriad other shows and films that served to mystify America’s wars and turn them into redemptive projects in the eyes of the American public?

The answer probably lies with the show’s executive producer, Iranian-American religious studies scholar and TV personality Reza Aslan.

In response to the critics who labelled the USoA a “white saviour project”, Aslan claimed it is, in fact, a “brown saviour project” – and inadvertently explained the real purpose of the show: whitewashing an American war, by redubbing Spivak’s descriptive analytics of colonial civilising missions from “white men saving brown women from brown men” to “brown men saving brown men from brown men”.

And Aslan did not transform into a spokesperson for the American empire overnight.

Eleven years ago, in April 2010, Aslan discussed America’s war in Afghanistan with political commentator and television host Jon Stewart on his satirical news programme, the Daily Show. There he revealed his characteristically liberal, and racist, reading of the war and Afghanistan – a reading that demonstrates why Aslan has long been the perfect candidate to further Hollywood’s efforts to whitewash the war.

In their discussion, Stewart and Aslan employed the usual tropes to describe Afghanistan – a corrupt, religious, anti-democratic and irrational narco-state where politicians wear funny hats. They framed the war as an attempt to root out the Taliban from a country that randomly spawned this violent group, without offering any context. They did not, for example, talk of the US role in intervening in the anti-Soviet resistance to advance their own agenda in the 1980s. They have also not talked about how the Americans, who are now claiming to be on a mission to “save” the Afghan people, have been happy to watch them sacrifice their lives to protect a world order that excludes them.

In the narrative peddled by Aslan and Stewart, the US soldiers are the good guys amid a sea of savages, and Afghans are disposable – unless they prove their utility and loyalty to the American Empire.

Aslan’s respectability politics finally came to full relief in the USoA – a sitcom that celebrates a “deserving” immigrant via the “loyal” Afghan who admires the US and works to preserve American values and way of life, without pondering too much about the damage the American Empire caused in his homeland, to his own people.

In the promos for the USoA, Aslan and other members of his team repeatedly spoke of how many interpreters and fixers, like their “lead” character Awalmir, who served alongside US troops have been “abandoned” in Afghanistan and forced to wait three or more years to receive special visas to immigrate to the US.

In none of these conversations in which they voiced the plight of the “deserving Afghans” or, to be more accurate, the imperial collaborators, however, they talked about the millions of common Afghans whose country the US turned into a permanent war zone.

That Aslan, Lorre and the USoA team have chosen as their cause celebre to remove the hurdles Afghan collaborators face in receiving special immigrant visas, and not Afghan asylum seekers in general, is undoubtedly revelatory.

Indeed, in the eyes of western liberals, the only “deserving refugees” are those who have specific vulnerabilities and circumstances that fit into the dominant western narratives about Muslim culture – the oppressed Muslim woman, the ex-Muslim, the persecuted minority, LGBTQ Muslims, and of course, the collaborator.

Only time will tell whether the USoA is going to be successful in developing Awalmir into a multidimensional character. But no matter how sensitive the sitcom ends up being in its representation of this one collaborator, there is little doubt that overall it is going to go down in history as just another iteration of the classic white saviour story. Even if the show at some points decides to seriously engage with the war, it will be an attempt at explaining what the war in Afghanistan means for Americans – with little attention paid to millions of Afghans who have been stuck in a forever war since 1978.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.