Against the Wall

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

Last May, a confrontation between an MSU student and an FBI agent confirmed in many people's minds the group was being watched. The student confronted a man who had been following him in a Ford Taurus with tinted windows. The man, whom the FBI later confirmed to be an agent, revved the engine and, according to MSU witnesses, almost ran the student down. Another student allegedly threw a cinderblock at the car as it sped off. An FBI spokesperson later denied the agency was watching the Muslims.

Because of the MSU's outspoken ways, UCI has been painted as a hotbed of radical Islam and anti-Semitic activity by national media figures on the political right such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity of Fox News.

"(Many people) feel that we are an extremist, hardcore, loud, in-your-face kind of organization," current MSU president Omar Zarka says. "That's very understandable given the kind of coverage we get, especially with the blogs and other free media."

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

The 30 or 40 students who will make up the group this year, largely first- and second-generation Americans in their late teens to early 20s, will decide what path the group takes from here. These sons and daughters of immigrants from India, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Uzbekistan or one of the dozens of countries called home by more than a billion Muslims of the world plan to continue delivering their controversial messages at UCI, regardless of what others say.

In many ways, the MSU is a typical college club. They help one another with studies, match younger members with mentors, and organize fund-raisers and other philanthropic endeavors. Members lament that most of that goes unnoticed: What people talk about is their "Anti-Oppression Week." During this weeklong event, the MSU erects a wall on campus in representation of what it refers to as the "apartheid wall." The facsimile wall, the first version of which was burned down by vandals in 2004, represents a system of concrete walls and electric fences throughout the northern West Bank, Jerusalem and Bethlehem that separates Palestinians from Israelis.

Students and outside groups have criticized the "apartheid wall"—which is decorated with graphic photos of violence and statistics about the lives and deaths of Palestinians in Israeli military-occupied territories—as using "shock tactics," being racist and inaccurate.

MSU members defend the wall—and the group's often-criticized stance on Israel—by saying it provides a much-needed counterbalance to a media landscape that picks its facts based on prejudices, alliances and agendas.

Heated words and mad-dog eyes might be commonplace exchanges between students on both sides of the debate, but no violence has been documented.

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Some college peers have accused the MSU of being difficult to approach, standoffish and a bit scary. I'm starting to understand why, but that first step into an unknown culture is the most difficult. Things should get easier.

Before going back to spend more time getting to know the MSU, I meet with Brock Hill, the former president of UC Irvine College Republicans, and the current president, Cameron Galbraith, at a Starbucks in Costa Mesa.

Hill and Galbraith say their relationship to the MSU is one of mutual distrust and apprehension.

"The second we walk through the door, they stare at us," Hill says. "They know exactly who we are, and we know exactly who they are."

In 2006, the College Republicans organized an event with another conservative campus group, a panel discussion titled "Domestic Organizations: In Support of Terrorism or Not?" The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) declined to attend, saying the event was biased.

The group intended to discuss and show the infamous Danish caricature that stirred uproar in the Islamic world. The cartoon depicts the most revered man in the Muslim world wearing a bomb with its fuse lit in his turban. In the incendiary drawing, the Muslim prophet has a sort of brutish and crude countenance. Since depicting Muhammad in any way is considered sacrilege, bringing it up for panel discussion was a provocative move.

Hill and Galbraith say they didn't see why discussing the caricature was such a problem considering the MSU has invited such provocateurs as radical activist Amir Abdul-Malik Ali, whom, Galbraith says, "referred to Israel as the Fourth Reich, called the Constitution a fascist document and justified suicide bombing."

The two Republicans say any criticism volleyed at them from the MSU amounts to a "double standard."

Once word leaked to the media about the event, Hill says, school administrators panicked. The group was told it had to raise money to pay for security measures, they said. Administrators even tried to get the two groups to broker a truce.

"We thought we were going into a meeting with the administration only," Hill says. "Well, it ended up that they had tricked us into coming into a meeting with us on one side of the table and the officers of the Muslim Student Union on the other side of the table.

"We said, 'Thank you for trying to set up this meeting, but no thanks,' and we walked out of the room."

The night of the event, protesters at the campus' Crystal Cove Auditorium totaled more than 1,000—according to signatures gathered by MSU. The scene deteriorated as protesters on both sides exchanged their version of the "N-word": Anti-MSU protesters called the MSU "Nazis" for their alleged antisemitism; pro-MSU protesters called the College Republicans "Nazis," comparing the Danish cartoons to the dehumanizing ways Jews were portrayed leading up to the Holocaust.

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