Against the Wall

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

The man is telling the group they should be careful if any media ask about Shakeri. Almost anything the group says could be turned against them, the man says, and people will likely be very sensitive about the event.

Then, in the middle of this powwow, the man stops and looks directly at me.

"What?" he asks confrontationally.

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

I look over my right shoulder and see no one. I look over my left shoulder—no one. I poke myself in the chest with my thumb. "Me?"

"Do you need something?" he asks.

"No, I'm just listening," I put up my hands and shrug my shoulders.

He finishes talking to the group and begins to walk away. He looks older than them, probably in his early 30s.

I jog a few steps over to him. "Excuse me," I say. "I was just wondering: Are you an instructor here?" He turns to face me but walks backward to make it clear we are not having a conversation.

"I'm just hanging out," he says.

"Hanging out? You mean you're a student," I say.

"I'm just hanging out." He continues facing me until he's about 10 feet away, and then he turns and walks away with a shoulder-rolling gait.

The male MSU members have gone into the Cross Cultural Center and sit on some couches in the foyer. When I walk in, they turn to look at me and don't say a word. "So, who the heck was that guy?" I ask. They don't answer. Later, I find out he's friends with some MSU members, but not a member himself. I never find out if he's a student.

MSU president Zarka arrives, and the students get off the couch and start walking to another building for their meeting. I ask Zarka what he needed to talk to me about.

"Some of the group members are not comfortable with you," he says.

Zarka is about 6 feet tall, with a deep voice, a confident smile and a non-aggressive posture. He wears a black T-shirt, brown work Dickies and flip-flop sandals. Along with the scruffy beard with no mustache, he has the slightly rumpled and disheveled college-student aesthetic down to a science.

"They're just a little nervous," he assures me. "I don't think they were aware that you were going to be spending so much time with us. And they also are uncomfortable with the tape recorder. I would like to ask you to leave, just until we can discuss what's going on a little more. I guess I probably didn't do a good enough job of letting people know what's going on. Just call me tomorrow, and everything should be fine."

*     *     *

Hussam Ayloush, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations branch in Anaheim, says the MSU members' skepticism is probably because almost any interaction between a Muslim and the media is a losing proposition.

"There is an attempt to place Muslims under siege, intellectually and spiritually, by the daily bombardment of anti-Muslim messages," he says. "In some people, that leads to self-isolation, but for others, it leads them to fighting back. You go the extra mile to establish and assert who you are, through religious and political activism."

But the outspoken attitudes of some members of the group have only served to increase the negative attention for the entire group, he says.

Reut Cohen, a former member of the Anteaters for Israel—a pro-Israeli group at UCI—has maintained a blog about the MSU for about a year. She follows all of the latest claims against the group and archives their events, including videos, photographs and news reports. She says she was inspired to start it based on her interpretation of the MSU's events as "disgusting." The decidedly anti-MSU blog (Reutrcohen.blogspot.com) receives between 300 and 600 visitors on an average day, Cohen says, some of them from the Middle East.

"It's kind of cool to see that people from the Arab world are reading up on this," she says.

Cohen, who graduated in September, says she could not have graduated soon enough. She felt intimidated by MSU members on campus, she says, and she believes the FBI is watching them.

"This group has sponsored things that are against America," she says. "There's a reason why the FBI has been to the campus in the past. I can understand why [the MSU] are being monitored."

Cohen also said the negative attention from the media might be playing right into the group's hands.

"I think they are very aware that there are many people in the media who are watching them . . . but that might be another reason for them to step it up a bit," she says. Other sites that have kept tabs on the UCI Muslims include redcounty.com and littlegreenfootballs.com.

Ayloush labels as "shameful" attempts by local bloggers and activists to intimidate the students into not speaking out by insinuating they are "terrorist sympathizers." Once they are out of college, society will likely pressure them into silence, so why not let them speak their mind while they are young? It is part of the same process of self-discovery all students go through, he says.

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