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On Chris Kyle Day, Texas celebrates 'American Sniper' amid simmering tensions

Texas' governor named Monday Chris Kyle Day in honor of the veteran who inspired the film 'American Sniper.' But the celebration comes at a raw moment for the state.

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Former Navy SEAL and author of the book 'American Sniper' poses in Midlothian, Texas, in this 2012 file photo. The Texas governor declared Monday Chris Kyle Day in honor of the late Mr. Kyle.

Paul Moseley/The Fort Worth Star-Telegram/AP/File

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First there was the book. Then came the movie. Now the man synonymous with "American Sniper" has been honored with a day of commemoration in his home state.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) declared Feb. 2 Chris Kyle Day in the state of Texas, adding to the controversy percolating around the legacy of the former Navy SEAL and the man dubbed the deadliest sniper in American history. 

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"I have declared Feb. 2 to be Chris Kyle Day in Texas," the governor proclaimed of the date that marks the two-year anniversary of Mr. Kyle's death. "We honor our military heroes."

The decision met with much fanfare in Texas, with his supporters generally invoking military heroism as they rallied round the Iraq war veteran's memory. Rep. Pete Sessions (R) of Texas took to Twitter, declaring:

A petition aimed at garnering the Medal of Honor for Kyle has already attracted more than 5,000 signatures. 

Yet, like the movie, the commemoration highlighted the divisive figure Kyle has become. Some used social media to question the validity of the day, with critics referring to him as a "mass murderer" and "a traitor."

The cultural chasm between these two points of view fit into the larger atmosphere of division just a day before Governor Abbott announced the establishment of Chris Kyle Day. In ugly scenes outside the Texas Capitol in Austin last Thursday, protesters vowing the United States would never become Islamic wrestled away a microphone from those conducting a rally to mark Texas Muslim Capitol Day, an annual political awareness event.

In an echo of those sentiments, state Rep. Molly White used her Facebook account to instruct Muslims visiting her office to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and pledge allegiance to the United States.

Dave Atwood, an executive committee member of the Houston Peace and Justice Center, says the key to overcoming societal tensions lies in real contact with individuals of other faiths and backgrounds. He has twice attended Texas Muslim Capitol Day in solidarity with Muslims over shared political views on policing, immigrant communities, and how Muslims are perceived.

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"What is happening is what is happening in many other states in America: the Muslim community is getting bigger, more visible," he says. "There are people that because it is new and different, have a reaction. People like myself embrace it, the cultural divide, the religious divide – it is a positive thing."

Mr. Atwood, who is white, says he tries to take the same approach with the Muslim community as he does with the African-American and Latino communities. "Their values are my values – they want a good life, a family life, a community life."

Studies that show the people with the most negative views of Islam have never met a Muslim, notes Ruth Nasrullah, the communications coordinator for the Houston chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

She says the group recently "got a phone message about another beheading, blaming it on us. When these things happen, we get more of a backlash. But it is also a good opportunity."

The council aims to screen of a film about Muslim views on terrorism, women's rights, and America. Texas churches, too, are joining the effort.

The Austin Stone Community Church kicks off a month of classes next month aimed at creating greater understanding between Christians and Muslims. Called Bridges, they teach participants about Islamic tradition and Muslim beliefs.