Mich. college officials call for changes after column critical of Islam infuriates students

The appearance of a provocative article about religion in the student newspaper at Wayne State University late last month has provoked calls of insensitivity.

The Feb. 26 publication of a column titled “Islam Sucks” in the South End ignited an uproar at the Detroit university and the surrounding community. The paper has since apologized but university officials are now considering the option of hiring a faculty adviser for the independently run publication.

The column, written by student Joe Fisher, offered the actions of Muslim terrorists and extremist Islamic governments as evidence of the religion’s malevolence, and contained several generalizations about Islam as well as statements the paper has since admitted were inaccurate. One passage said, “I don’t think Americans act as sub-human as the Palestinians did following Sept. 11, dancing in the streets and rejoicing. That brief moment in history will forever leave me apathetic to their fate, if not hopeful for their demise.”

In an apology two days later, Fisher wrote, “I unconditionally apologize. My column titled ‘Islam Sucks’ was unnecessarily harsh and insensitive to the feelings of many individuals.” Fisher went on to write that he had intentionally exaggerated and distorted information to prove his point that religion is taken too seriously. He also claimed to have received death threats.

The Feb. 28 edition also contained an apology from South End editor Jason Clancy and around 50 letters to the editor. Managing editor Rian Michel estimated that the paper had received nearly 500 such letters, mostly critical. More letters were published in Friday’s and Monday’s issues.

The incident also generated coverage from all of the local news networks as well as some national media. Wayne State has one of the largest Arab-American student populations in the country. “I would say probably that 99 percent of the student body who are Arab-Americans are Muslim,” said Charles Brown, vice president of student development and campus life.

“I think it was a bad decision on behalf of the students,” Brown said. “First of all, it was inflammatory, and I don’t think free press endorses [that]. When you talk about censoring, I don’t believe in that but I think you have to use common sense when you write stories. How many daily newspapers would write a story like that? That’s what I ask students.”

Brown said he is planning diversity-training activities for the newspaper staff and that he will hire a consultant to review the way the paper operates.

“And that’s not to censor because I am a believer in independent student newspapers,” Brown said. “But I think that newspapers that are owned by the university have a responsibility to represent the university in an enlightened manner. And that’s not to say that you don’t write stories that are controversial. Not at all — that’s a part of it. But you don’t write stories that are so inflammatory, and that carry a tone of discrimination [at] the core of the article.”

Brown said he would also like to bring in an adviser, if budget funds allow. “This is the only institution that I’ve worked at where we don’t have a full-time director of the student media operations,” he said. He added that the role of the adviser would be to offer help, not control content.

The South End, which plans to institute new guidelines concerning publication of articles, is not averse to getting some help.

“We’d like the journalism department to be more instrumental in our paper,” Michel said, “but we don’t want them to have a say in content because we want to remain independent”