Against the Wall

Praying, eating and bowling with the most hated student group at UC Irvine

With a brief red flash, the sun disappears behind the trees at Aldrich Park in the center of the UC Irvine campus as I pray.

"Pray as if this is your last prayer," instructs a man standing in front.

I place a digital recorder on the ground. A dark-skinned man at my side says, "Follow my lead." We bow and then lie prostrate on cooling cement. I stand at the end of a row of 30 men, shoulder-to-shoulder. Behind us, another row has nearly the same number of women. All the women wear hijabs, or scarves over their hair and neck. We bow in unison.

MSU members at afternoon prayer. Photo by John Gilhooley.
MSU members at afternoon prayer. Photo by John Gilhooley.

The man at the front is named Kareem Elsayed; he's 21. He leads the prayer with a musical and mournful verse. His cracking voice invokes an abysmal melancholy. I have no idea what he's saying, but the suras—chapter of the Koran—flow meditatively, centering and calming the Muslim Student Union (MSU) of UCI. Suddenly, familiar words: "Allahu Akhbar." Followed by several beats of silence. "Allahu Akhbar."

God is Greatest.

The phrase, in its most reverent use, is a parallel of the Judeo-Christian "Hallelujah" (Praise to God). But the words "Allahu Akhbar," repeated melodically, strike a cold chord. A simple statement of belief that has become, to many non-Muslims, synonymous with extremism, a jihadist battle cry. Much like the group that now utters it, the phrase has become indelibly linked in many minds with intolerance.

The prayer ends. I dust off, feeling content and serene. I haven't prayed in months. The Muslim prayer seems as good as any other, I guess.

It's dusk, and the students begin ambling toward a picnic table near Ring Road, a narrow walking and biking road encircling the park. They are hungry. It is late September, and the holy month of Ramadan is in full swing. The students break their sun-up-to-sundown fasting regimen—no food, water, sex—with a sweet date.

I eat a date, too; it's good. Elsayed tells me that dates are high in glucose, providing an instant rush of energy and potassium for rehydration. The perfect appetizer for a thirsty, starving Muslim.

The women and the men of the group eat at separate tables. It's part of tradition, one of the students tells me. Like the conservative dress of the women, eating separately is a way to avoid the distractions of physical attraction so one can focus only on God.

I pile delicious lamb and some kind of spicy rice on a plate and move to a table full of solemn faces. "Mind if I sit down?" I ask with a smile.

They neither object nor invite. They barely look at me, instead staring at their plates. Three thin freshmen and a man in his 40s who looks like an Arab Tony Soprano sit at the table. Not a word is said for several minutes. One of the young men is somewhat sloppily eating with his hands; the rest use plastic cutlery.

"So," the Soprano look-alike asks me, "how long have you been a Muslim?"

"I'm not a Muslim," I answer.

He raises his eyebrows and turns his attention back to his food. He seems to regard me suspiciously, not surprising considering the MSU is likely the most hated––and feared––student group at the university.

*     *     *

Critics call the MSU an anti-Semitic hate group that supports the destruction of Israel with terrorism. Bloggers, from local activists to Jewish hate-watch websites, track every public move of some prominent MSU members, sometimes dedicating entire pages to profiling individuals.

The controversies began when most of the MSU's oldest current members were still in high school. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times wrote that members of the group participated in a flag-football tournament for Muslims using team names such as "Mujahideen, Intifada and Soldiers of Allah." In 2004, the group made headlines again by wearing green "shahada" armbands to UCI's commencement ceremony, bands some associate with Hamas, but which the MSU contends are simple declarations of their faith. In 2004, someone painted a Star of David dripping with blood, an act that the Zionist Organization of America has tried to tie to the MSU.

In 2006, a controversial event put on by the College Republicans that displayed the infamous Danish cartoon of the prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him, as a Muslim would say—wearing a bomb-turban spurred administrators to seek such intensive security measures as rooftop snipers, bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors at building entrances and 15 to 20 police officers. In January, the MSU staged a protest and walkout of a pro-Israel campus group's invited speaker, Daniel Pipes, a man who believes Muslim Arabs in Palestine cannot be reasoned with and must undergo the "crucible of defeat."

The FBI has basically admitted to—and later denied—watching them. In 2006, when asked if the MSU at UCI posed a threat, FBI agent Pat Rose, head of the agency's Orange County al-Qaida squad, said to a group of business people at the Pacific Club, "That's a tough question to answer," according to an article in The Orange County Register. The vague answer led to speculation the group was under FBI surveillance.

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