Amid 'American Sniper' controversy, students cite incidents of racist remarks, threats

By Rachel Premack, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 10, 2015

Following the University’s decision to cancel and then reinstate a showing of “American Sniper” at Friday evening’s UMix event, Muslim and Arab students have said they have faced escalated intolerance on campus.

A Tumblr created by a University student has compiled messages and Facebook comments by those both outside and within the University community targeting Muslim and Arab students on campus. The posts show redacted versions of messages the University’s Muslim Students’ Association and individual students have received messages containing racist tropes, insults to Islam and suggestions for these students leave the United States.

LSA senior Saher Rathur, president of the Muslim Students’ Association, said her experience on campus this week has been “awful.”

“The amount of hateful messages we have received just since Wednesday night is ridiculous and so disheartening,” Rathur said. “It was so hard to pull myself together and sit in class and pay attention because I was constantly thinking of the intense hate that exists for people like myself who identify as Muslim.”

The messages range from non-specific and violent — inviting students to kill themselves or “eat shit” — and racist. The latter category’s messages and comments include a piece of bacon on the Quran, insinuations that students are involved in terrorism and should stop “blowing themselves up” or should be put on a watchlist.

The controversy began earlier this week when UMix advertised “American Sniper” as its Friday feature film. The 2014 movie centers around Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American history who served four tours in Iraq. Kyle’s autobiography was turned into a biopic directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, and received six Oscar nods and won for Best Sound Editing. The film has also been critiqued for its portrayal of the Iraq War and Muslims.

More than 200 students signed a letter asking the University not to show the film on Friday, citing the need for Muslim and MENA students to feel safe on campus. The movie was cancelled, but later reinstated after a petition was created, currently with 600 signatures.

“The movie ‘American Sniper’ is not about a racist mass murderer or a criminal,” the petition reads. “It is about a decorated American war hero who served his country valiantly.”

Alternatively, a Viewpoint published in The Michigan Daily by a coalition of student groups including Muslims Students’ Association, Students for Choice and Jewish Voice for Peace said showing the film contradicts the University’s self-professed values of diversity and inclusion.

“It was clearly outlined in an open letter by self-identified Muslim and/or Middle Eastern and North African students and allies that the film is nowhere near entertaining and, in fact, ennobles the dehumanization and systematic racism against the aforementioned communities,” the Viewpoint reads.

Alternatively, students and administrators in favor of the screening said the “American Sniper” screening reflected a desire to honor the U.S. military, protect free speech and expose students to a different perspective. E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, affirmed these thoughts in a statement apologizing for the initial cancellation of “American Sniper.”

“The initial decision to cancel the movie was not consistent with the high value the University of Michigan places on freedom of expression and our respect for the right of students to make their own choices in such matters,” Harper wrote.

A Michigan in Color article, written by a MiC contributor identified by only her last name, Khan, said students affected by Islamophobia “do not and may never matter to this institution.”

“I’ve accepted that there truly is no safe space on this campus for me and other students who have complex realities attached to their identities,” Khan wrote. “There is no dialogue open to hearing the voices of marginalized students or communities. The safe spaces and dialogues that this University offered were a fantasy I tried believing in for four years. But as my undergraduate career comes to an end, so does the dream that I was living in.”

Rathur, MSA’s president, felt similarly after Harper’s statement.

“Michigan needs to recognize the harm that Muslim, MENA and South Asian students were put in and forced to face due to their unprofessional act to go back on their decision to postpone the screening of ‘American Sniper’ to a more appropriate time and place,” Rathur said. “That statement from Royster Harper was the reason behind all of the hateful, violent, threatening and Islamophobic messages we have received and are still getting.”

In response, Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones sent an e-mail to University students late Friday afternoon stating the importance of ensuring the campus is safe and welcoming for all students, specifically for students of Muslim and Middle Eastern and North African heritage.

“Expect Respect is a simple, clear, powerful statement that serves as the foundation for the University of Michigan's institutional values and commitment to civility and respect,” Jones wrote in the e-mail. “This value encourages and promotes the acceptance of individual differences and similarities. It affirms respect for the personal dignity of others.”

Jones also encouraged students who believe “he or she is not being respected in our community” to report a bias incident at the Expect Respect website, report any threats of violence to the University Department of Public Safety and Security or the Ann Arbor Police Department or seek a space of understanding and diversity at the Counseling and Psychological Services or the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs.

“Ideally, I would like to think that Muslim, MENA and South Asian students have a place in this campus,” Rathur said. “But after this week and the University's slow response to our concerns, it forces me to question whether there is any safe space on this campus for us.”

The University is planning to show both “American Sniper” and “Paddington” at tonight’s UMix, which begins at 10 p.m.