For four years I’ve told myself that our University is trying. Our University is doing its best to listen to its students’ concerns, no matter how big or small, through dialogues, advisory boards and so-called “safe spaces.” On Wednesday, April 8 I learned that I was wrong, and that Muslim and/or Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian self-identified students and all other students discriminated against due to Islamophobia do not and may never matter to this institution.

Let me put my claim in context. On Wednesday April 8, 2015, after receiving an open letter signed by University students and accepting that UMix Late Night was neither the time nor the venue to show the film “American Sniper,” E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, released a statement that reads, it was “a mistake to cancel the showing of the movie ‘American Sniper’ on campus as part of a social event for students.”

Harper’s office released this statement after several Muslim and/or Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian self-identified University students received threatening messages via e-mail and Twitter, for their opposition to the Center for Campus Involvement sponsoring this movie screening. This University has had multiple units and initiatives including the Program on Intergroup Relations, the Inclusive Language Campaign, Expect Respect, the Center for the Education of Women and the Race and Ethnicity Winter 2013 theme semester that aim to promote diversity on campus. Additionally, these programs educate the students at this University to question what is happening around them and to propose ideas for making Michigan a safer and more just environment. When the institution is trying to uphold values of diversity and tells its students to question their surroundings and stand up for social justice, why is it punishing its students for doing exactly that? Time and time again, when Muslim and/or Middle Eastern, North African or South Asian students are the ones on the receiving end of discrimination, hate speech and threats, this University fails to uphold its own values.

So why did we petition against the screening at UMix?

The film doesn’t bother making a distinction between the thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians who also suffered loss and died during the war. The natives are cast only to provide a backdrop for Kyle’s story. They’re used as a prop for a film that disregards the terrorism they’ve been forced to endure. This black and white picture of good versus evil casts all Iraqis as evil savages, and American soldiers as the only good guys. The premise frames the conflict in a way that erases all the moral ambiguities of the war. Any criticism of Kyle and the U.S. presence in Iraq becomes a criticism of American values.

Films like “American Sniper” ignore what should be obvious: that not all Muslims or Middle Easterns, North Africans and South Asians are terrorists or anti-American. Rather, we are also affected by conflicts and terror occurring abroad and we are also interested in coexisting peacefully. But peaceful coexistence cannot happen through denying our narratives and expecting us to stay silent when our safety is threatened.

Let me be clear, I am not proposing that universities around the country should ban films such as “American Sniper.”

I am, however, vehemently against screening this movie at a venue such as Umix Late Night,, which claims to offer opportunities for fun while “interact(ing) responsibly” and serves “…the interests of a diverse population.” I am against showing a film like “American Sniper” that demonizes Muslim and Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian identities, at a venue that fails to provide a setting in which any dialogue or discussion can follow. And, finally, I am disappointed that the same University officials who talk about creating dialogues turned their backs on the Muslim and Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian self-identified students and organizations that were targeted with Islamophobic hate speech and messages, under the guise of “free speech.”

So here’s my question: should freedom of expression come at the cost of a particular group of students’ safety at the University of Michigan?

Freedom of expression should be a right that protects our voices, our lives and our communities. While our University claims that it places high value on this right, it used “freedom of expression” as an excuse to allow for further discrimination and silencing of Muslim and/or Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian self-identified students. Such students received threats and offensive messages calling for them to move back to their homelands and depart from this country for circulating an open letter that called attention to the negative stereotypes propagated against them and their communities in the movie “American Sniper.”

To be frank, I am a Pakistani-Muslim and America is my home. I, just as any other student here, whether they are for or against the screening of “American Sniper,” have an equal right to freedom of expression. Unlike those who supported the screening of “American Sniper” at UMix, the students who stood against the screening were standing up for the safety of their peers and overall campus community.

Given the commitment to diversity that the University claims through its various programs and offices, the University must also be responsible with the material it showcases and promotes. Showing movies like “American Sniper” in a setting such as UMix where there is no dialogue or clear intention following the screening would promote further hate and bias against Muslim and/or Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian students and exacerbate their exclusion from the many mirages of “safe spaces” and “dialogues” on this campus.

Furthermore, there could have been productive steps taken toward exploring why students felt alarmed by the showing of “American Sniper.” There could have been screenings followed by discussions led by students or professors that could have educated viewers on why this film is offensive and compromises the safety of Michigan students. However, as long as the University of Michigan continues to claim that it upholds values of social justice, inclusivity and diversity, I will always see this institution’s decision to take back its original statement as hypocritical, a violation of the safety of its students and a breach of my right and other self-identified Muslim and/Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian students’ rights to freedom of expression.

What could have been an opportunity for learning and real dialogue will always be remembered as the time my school chose to abandon its students and their safety because they were no longer convenient.

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. 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.

Editor’s note: The author of this piece asked to use only her last name due to safety concerns.

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