UC Irvine's Muslim Student Union Battles Injustice: Part Three

In Part 1, we met the UC-Irvine MSU, whose political outspokenness is inspired by their faith. In Part II, we see how participating in the group gives its young members confidence and awareness of their unity with Muslims around the world. In Part III, we find that their activism helps them deal with negative perceptions of Muslim Americans.

As a stream of students walked down Ring Road at UC-Irvine between classes, the Muslim Student Union was ready—some holding plastic water guns and others holding signs explaining the connection between UC-Irvine and the Syrian regime. Two blond girls in shorts took note but continued walking. "I'm not passionate about anything," one said.

Recognizing that the silent protest wasn't working, Mustafa Sabha yelled out: "Bashar is a pig. He deserves nothing more than a slap in the face." People stopped. "You and I are enjoying freedom at its best. … They deserve freedom. We at the University of California-Irvine will speak up on their behalf."

A fifth-grade class waiting for a bus after an astronomy field trip was among the gathering crowd. "I think that guy's crazy," one child said.

"It's a protest. That's the nature of it," Juan Sanchez, their teacher at Romero Cruise Elementary, explained. "You want to be heard. And in the U.S. you can protest and you won't go to jail."

MSU members embrace their freedom to protest as American citizens, but as Muslims, they also feel that they have to fight for this right. Each class of students that join the group must learn their tenuous position as minority.

The Irvine 11 could have been imprisoned for up to 6 months for their protest. The judge sentenced them to probation and community service, but lawyers are appealing the conviction, arguing that the law against disrupting a meeting is unconstitutional.

The Irvine 11's lawyers argue that the case was a "political prosecution," due to the unpopularity of the defendants' pro-Palestinian message and their religion. “Do I believe that if they were not Muslim they would have not been prosecuted? Absolutely," says Reem Salahi, a Muslim lawyer who represented the MSU and members of the Irvine 11. The Irvine 11 case, the Patriot Act and the NYPD's surveillance of the Muslim American community contribute to the sense that Muslims' civil liberties aren't guaranteed. "I don’t mean to play the victim card at all, but I think it’s just the reality of the world we live in at this point," Salahi says.

Not all agreed that the Irvine 11 case was a result of Islamophobia. Some Jewish groups said the Irvine 11 protesters violated their First Amendment rights. The Zionist Organization of America, which sees the MSU's anti-Israel activism as anti-Semitic, called on UC-Irvine to revoke the MSU's registered status completely.

Jewish Voice for Peace, on the other hand, backed the Irvine 11's claim of Islamophobia, pointing out that Jewish students weren't arrested while protesting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a similar manner in November 2010.

Though Jewish and Muslim Americans are often on opposite sides of Israel/Palestine debate, Muslim leaders have looked to Jewish organizations to learn how to gain "recognition as equal participants in fashioning the American society," as Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad writes in Becoming American? The Forging of Arab and Muslim Identity in Pluralist America. Partnerships are essential to MPAC's vision of making Muslims valued citizens, Lekovic says. "For Muslims to be truly invested in a broader civil rights conversation, they have to be interested in the civil rights of others."

At UC-Irvine, tensions between the Jewish and Muslim student groups have dissipated, but formal relationships have yet to form. Still, the MSU "fits very well into our space," says Kevin Huie, director of the Cross Cultural Center. The Black Student Union, for instance, will co-sponsor the MSU's Anti-Zionism Week, while the MSU signs on to its protests against racism.

The idea that Muslims belong in the American tradition of civil rights comes naturally to Millennial Generation because of its diversity, according to Winograd, the generational scholar. One in five of those born from 1982 to 2003 have at least one immigrant parent. “It makes the generation more patriotic,” Winograd says. Young Muslims “are shaped by their peers who say, ‘everybody needs to be included; America is a place where you can speak your mind,’ and they’re shaping [their generation] by going ahead and acting on those attitudes and beliefs.”

Protesting Syria is not nearly as controversial as protesting Israel, but the MSU still found it important to partner with other student groups. The coalition convinced the student government to pass non-binding legislation demanding Chehabi's removal from the board. Interfaith groups from outside the university signed a letter of support as well. "It was more of a collective effort in the whole project," Halabi says.

Yet MSU members were disconcerted by Chehabi's response. Student government representatives met privately with Chehabi and reported back what he said. "He used the same rhetoric that was being used by the al-Assad regime in Syria," Galal says. "He even said that the people who are opposing him are just Islamic fundamentalists."

Calling somebody a fundamentalist is "the boogie man narrative," Lekovic says. "It's used as a way of discrediting people."

Muslim Americans are still struggling to figure out how to respond to such accusations, she adds, but the MSU's public activities, such as the Shariah event that capped their busy MSU day, allow students to learn how to respond to hostility.

Louis Lionheart came to UC-Irvine looking for fundamentalists. After the Shariah event's Q&A, small groups formed at the front of the auditorium to continue the debate about what constituted Islam. Asaad Traina, a grad student and one of the Irvine 11, and Lee Weissman, a local Hasidic Jew and friend of the MSU, took on one of Lionheart's associates.

Mohannad Abu Alrub, a sophomore who had lived with Traina as a freshman, positioned himself just outside the circle. Alrub had participated in all of the Syria events that day and sat in the second row at the Shariah talk, growing angry when Lionheart started asking pointed questions. He wore a tight black T-shirt and a trim beard lined his jaw. His eyes were intense, but he remained quiet, watching how the two men he respected responded calmly.

When MSU leaders finally pushed the crowd out of the auditorium, Alrub found himself walking out next to the anti-Islam activist. "Why do you follow the Prophet? He was a womanizer, terrorist," Alrub says the man asked him. "That didn't fly with me."

In the lobby of the student center, Lionheart made another statement about the Prophet while his partners held a video camera. Alrub wasn't sure what he said, but he could guess. His face reddened. "What did you say about the Prophet?" Alrub asked forcefully, stepping toward him.

Before Alrub could react, his brothers pulled him away. Traina took him outside and explained that Lionheart was looking to provoke a reaction that he could film, put on YouTube and make the group look bad.

The next day, Alrub sent out apologetic email over the MSU discussion list. His father confirmed what his brothers had told him: It's best to simply ignore the "enemies of Islam," as he called the antagonistic audience members. "I definitely learned from this experience and I wanted to share what I learned with you guys. In sha' Allah (God willing) this is just a reminder to the MSU," Alrub wrote.

Muslim student groups, Peek says, allow "young Muslims to come together and share their concerns and grievances and try to figure out a way to act in response to feeling really disempowered and stigmatized.”

But Muslim Americans don’t know what works to counter the likes of Lionheart, Lekovic says. "Ultimately all you can do is be truthful about who you are and… let your track record speak for itself."

While Alrub learned it for the first time that night, Galal already knew to distance herself from Lionheart. She will carry away from her college experience a valuable lesson: Rather than fighting with such people, it's more effective to project a different image of Muslims—of activists fighting for justice. "We have to build our identity for ourselves," Galal says, "or somebody is going to do it for us."

Submitted by Megan Sweas
Read Part I and II
*Photo Credit: Varin Tsai

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