Jeffrey Herf

American Sniper on campus: Letting students judge for themselves

Efforts to pass BDS resolutions and the use of the term “Islamophobia” to stifle legitimate criticism of the connection between Islamist ideology and terror have met with success at some universities in Europe and the United States. But they did not meet with success this past week at University of Maryland in College Park, located in the suburbs of Washington, DC.

I’m glad to report that the Muslim Student Association’s (MSA) effort to prevent the on campus screening of Clint Eastwood’s film American Sniper has failed. Unfortunately, it met with initial success but a backlash in support of freedom of speech and expression emerged on campus.

The editors of the student newspaper, the Diamondback, agreed to print the following essay that I wrote in support of the principles of freedom of expression and of screening the film on campus. I reprint it here with their permission:

The history of the principles of freedom of speech and of tolerance is inseparable from the history of suppression of speech and intolerance. That is because ideas have been suppressed when they are held to be offensive to existing institutions. That was the case when the Catholic Church condemned the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei for the “heresy” of insisting the Earth revolved around the sun, when Christian fundamentalists objected to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, when the Nazis burned books that they found to be “degenerate,” when the Soviet Union banned Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s work about the Soviet prison system as treason against the Soviet regime and when the New Left sought to ban ideas it labeled as racist on the grounds that such intolerance was “repressive.” In all these different cases, these censors believed they were defending the morality of the day and keeping their societies safe from the corrosive impact of dangerous ideas.

The Muslim Students Association’s petition to cancel the screening of Clint Eastwood’s film American Sniper stands in this long and regrettable tradition of censorship in the name of an offended and presumably higher morality. The initial decision of Student Entertainment Events to cave in to this demand reflects a lack of understanding of the university’s core mission. That mission is to search for truths about important and difficult issues — a search that rests on respect for evidence, even and especially when theories and evidence challenge cherished beliefs.

The MSA petition claims that the film American Sniper is Islamophobic and racist. It reports that a “simple Google search will give you hundreds of articles that delve into how this film has fueled anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiments.” Further, it “is offensive to many Muslims around the world for good reason” because it “dehumanizes Muslim individuals, promotes the idea of senseless mass murder, and portrays negative and inaccurate stereotypes.” While a work of art is open to a variety of interpretations, these assertions about American Sniper are, in my view, false.

As the MSA petition refers to evidence about the film gleaned from a Google search, it is not clear that the petition’s authors or signers have actually seen the film they are denouncing. Though the dubious concept of Islamophobia rests on a misuse of the concept of phobia, the film does not advocate an irrational fear of Muslims. It does not foster racism or stereotypes, nor does it promote mass murder.

The film is a grim depiction of some of the most intense battles between U.S. armed forces and Iraqis, who took up arms against them. The latter are roughly modeled on the forces of al-Qaida in Iraq led by the notorious terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Far from promoting mass murder, the film presents the difficult decisions combat created when U.S. soldiers were seeking to distinguish civilians from combatants. While there are scenes that depict the intentional murder and torture of Iraqi civilians, those scenes concern the murder of Iraqi civilians carried out by a figure who resembles Zarqawi. In fact, al-Qaida in Iraq was responsible for intentionally killing large numbers of Iraqi civilians. American Sniper does not generalize from the Zarqawi-type figure to all Muslims. It depicts those persons in Iraq who engaged in combat with U.S. forces to either restore the Baathist dictatorship or create a new Islamist one.

The MSA petition obfuscates matters when it asks SEE to “exercise your freedom of speech to help us create a safer campus environment” and suggests that censoring a film will “create a more inclusive and diverse community atmosphere.” A university cannot create a “safe” environment by suppressing ideas or works of art, such as American Sniper, that foster critical reflection about important matters such as the Iraq War. The MSA petition misuses the language of inclusion and diversity to foster exclusion of ideas as well as conformity about its view of the war in Iraq. It would deprive others of the freedom to form their own independent judgments about American Sniper.

The fog of rhetoric first offered by SEE was disappointing. In the same statement announcing it had succumbed to a request to censor a film, it claimed to support freedom of expression. It could not have it both ways. Therefore, it is very welcome news that College Democrats and College Republicans have agreed to jointly sponsor a screening and panel discussion about American Sniper on the campus. Doing so allows members of the university community to do what should have been possible from the outset, namely, to reach their own independent judgment about this film and to discuss it with one another.

About the Author
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. He has published extensively on modern German and European history including Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, He is completing a study entitled “At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989" (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His "Israel's Moment: The United States and Europe between the Holocaust and the Cold War" is forthcoming.
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