Against the Wall

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

According to Hill, some of those protesting against the Muslims co-opted the event for their own agenda, leaving him and others with regrets.

"The whole thing just got blown out of proportion," he says. "People inside the auditorium were yelling obscenities at the Muslims outside. It was . . . It was bad. That was not how we wanted it to go down at all.

"Most of the people outside were not students," he says. "They took it way too far. I was embarrassed of these guys. They were out there holding American flags, kind of using them as rhetoric tools. They were saying, 'You guys are a disgrace to America—get out. Go back to your own country.'

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

"You know, this probably is (the MSU students') home country. To say something like that, it completely renders our argument useless. It did us more of a disservice."

Whatever regrets they have about the event, Galbraith says, it was never meant to be insulting, only to open discussion. The MSU cites the same reason for their more controversial events, but, Galbraith says, their delivery makes other students just "roll their eyes." Galbraith believes more students would listen to the MSU, whether they agree with them or not, if they turned down the volume of their rhetoric.

"Their overall disposition is one of hostility. . . . It's 'The evil Western imperialists have come in and destroyed everything we know, so retaliate,'" he says. "I really resent the cries of racism and (you're an) Islamophobe.

"It's not a question of whether they're Muslim; it's what they're advocating."

*     *     *

After coffee with Hill and Galbraith, I meet up with Marya Bangee, 20, current MSU vice president and last year's official spokeswoman for the group. For the past few years, because of all of the media and blog pressure, the group has had a spokesperson talk to the media and generally asked members to defer to that person. Her role has its drawbacks, she says, including one blog page that was dedicated entirely to her. The page featured her picture, her status as a UCI student and MSU member, and several quotes she described as out of context.

"Almost any quote can be taken out of context and make someone look bad," she says. "A lot of our members feel they have been misquoted or quoted out of context."

We are standing at their recruitment booth during the first week of classes, and I ask if I can join a bowling trip she's organizing for just the women of the MSU.

Bangee asks some of the other girls, and they agree to allow me to tag along.

Around 3 in the afternoon on a weekday, 19 Muslim women and I enter Irvine Lanes. About half of them wear hijabs. Among those, some also wear traditional Muslim dress. Others wear jeans and a shirt. Some of the women are dressed entirely in contemporary styles.

The Muslim women rent four lanes, with five players per lane. They laugh giddily and run from rack to rack, finding bowling balls to fit their hands.

When the balls start rolling—to varying degrees of success—the fun begins. There are some early strikes, but the gutters see their share of action. Two little kids stare curiously at the spectacle of the Muslim women crying out and stamping in frustration when they gutter, high-fiving and laughing when they hit spares and strikes.

Hijab-wearing Elhamm Shahh asks me if I know how to become a movie producer. I tell her, "Well, I think first you need a lot of money and experience in the movie business." She looks momentarily disappointed, but not deterred. She wants to make a movie "kind of like 300," she says, a battle film about a small band of Spartan warriors who fight to the death against numerically superior Persian invaders, but different.

She doesn't get time to explain which historical battle she would like to focus on because when I ask if I can record the conversation, Bangee taps my shoulder.

"I'm sorry," she says, "but Omar asked that you don't do any more interviews until after he speaks with you this afternoon."

I ask Shahh if I can interview her later, after I talk to Omar. I reach out my hand to shake hers.

"Muslim women don't shake hands," she says shyly.

"Oh, sorry, I didn't know," I fluster.

Without the option of working, I'm left to concentrate on my bowling game.

*     *     *

The MSU's first meeting of the year is scheduled after the bowling outing. About an hour later, I arrive outside UCI's Cross Cultural Center.

A man is speaking to a group of male MSU members outside the building. He appears vaguely Middle Eastern and dresses in a hip-hop style with an old-fashioned plaid golf hat and a matching oversized beige coat. I listen from a distance, as walking into the huddle seems somewhat inappropriate.

From what I can gather, the man is discussing the recently announced release from Iranian prison of Ali Shakeri, a prominent member of UCI's Center for Citizen Peacebuilding. Shakeri was put in prison for four months when he returned to Iran to visit his mother, who died while he was there, according to the Associated Press.

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