Colleges wrestle with screening 'American Sniper'

The portrayal of Muslims in two movies – 'American Sniper' and 'Honor Diaries' – is generating controversy on US college campuses. 

Warner Bros. Pictures/AP
This photo provided by courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in 'American Sniper.'

In recent weeks, two films being screened on US college campuses, “American Sniper" and “Honor Diaries,” and have become catalysts for both protest and debate about the portrayal of Muslims.

“Honor Diaries,” a documentary about nine Muslim women, victims of abuse including genital mutilation and honor killings, is scheduled to be shown Wednesday night on the Oklahoma State University campus as part of April’s “Sexual Violence Awareness Month.” But screenings of “Honor Diaries” were cancelled at both University of Michigan at Dearborn and the University of Illinois in Chicago following protests.

This Oklahoma State screening comes over the objections of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), according to CAIR Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper.

"In fact, whenever we object to a screening of this film [‘Honor Diaries’], the first thing we say is 'Don't cancel the event. Just cancel the film,” Mr. Hooper says in an interview. “Have the event to discuss domestic violence, female genital mutilation, whatever issue you want, but bring representatives of the Muslim community, bring other people, other experts, and have a legitimate discussion. Don't just have a propaganda film that hijacks a legitimate issue."

The film “American Sniper” has also been protested and temporarily cancelled on various campuses, then brought back with the addition of post-screening forums.

Clint Eastwood's Oscar-nominated adaptation of Navy Seal Chris Kyle's Iraq war memoir has drawn praise across the political spectrum, from Michelle Obama to Sarah Palin.

"While I know there have been critics, I felt that, more often than not, this film touches on many of the emotions and experiences that I've heard firsthand from military families over these past few years,” Mrs. Obama said in January during the launch of “6 Certified,” an initiative toward accurate portrayals of veterans and military families in movies and television. 

But the film has drawn criticism from others for its apparent dehumanization of Iraqis.

"I think a lot of the controversy about the movie [American Sniper] is not about its actual content, but more with the life and the views of the actual sniper, who had who had written a number derogatory things about Islam and Arabs ... so that seeps into it beyond even the content of the movie itself," says Hooper. "This movie has elicited a wide variety of emotions from a kind of the super-patriotism reactions to the reaction that it perpetuates anti-Muslim stereotypes and even violence. So, there's a broad range of opinions about the movie and it's good to have those opinions aired and discussed."

One excerpt from Mr. Kyle's memoir is widely quoted for his belief that everyone he shot was a “bad guy,” and his comment that he "hated" Iraqis, whom he described as "savages."

Hooper adds, "Here's a film that there's a wide variety of opinions about, good and bad, and let's discuss it and see if we can come up with any conclusions about it or use it as a teaching tool. But don't just slap it up there  – where a guy is shooting Muslims down and shooting Arabs down – and take it as some sort of patriotic emblem."

After the Muslim Students Association at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York complained about “American Sniper” negatively stereotyping Muslims, the planned screening, set for last Friday, was cancelled, according to published reports. However, it will play with an educational forum in the future, according to published reports.

Similarly, last week, the University of Michigan announced the cancellation of a screening of the film "American Sniper" after nearly 300 protesters spoke out, saying the film advances "negative and misleading stereotypes" against Muslims according to the university website Michigan Live.

Twitter reacted strongly to the potential cancellations of American Sniper at the University of Michigan.

However, according to an interview with University of Michigan spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald, “The movie did end up being shown at the original time and venue last Friday night.”

“There was some concern raised by some Muslim students originally,” Mr. Fitzgerald adds. "But it was shown at the school's UMix Late Night program, which is a very inclusive social event that drew over 1,500 students last Friday night.”

In a U of M statement, supplied by Fitzgerald, the cancellation of the film was called “a mistake.”

“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,” the release states.

Fitzgerald adds, “However, in deference to Muslim students, we also showed the alternative movie – ‘Paddington.’” 

[Editor's note: The original story was removed because it contained inaccurate quotes, which have been corrected. The story has been refiled and includes additional information about the movie "Honor Diaries."] 

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