In October, I set out to write a story about UC Irvine's Muslim Student Union, in hopes of giving the controversial group more of a voice than probably any other widely circulated publication. The group has been in the public eye for the past several years because of a string of incidents and events interpreted by many as racist, confrontational—possibly even dangerous. These episodes were well-chronicled on national television and the Internet, as well as in newspapers.
But that coverage seemed pretty one-sided-mostly descriptions of things the group had been accused of, such as disrupting an anti-Muslim speaker. I'm not sure why the news reports never provided much from the Muslim perspective. Maybe, for some reporters, spending quality time with a group of Muslims who have been compared to terrorists by the likes of FOX News' Sean Hannity didn't sound like much fun.
When I first approached the group about a story, they were suspicious—and understandably so. I was an outsider with a different set of values, customs and expectations. I was watching them, interpreting what they did through a lens formed from a different set of cultural tools.
The first time I was in front of a group of MSU members, all of their eyes fixed on me, I reflexively stood taller, kept a straight face and lowered my voice. The lump in my throat told me to leave, but I had to commit. Besides, I had already promised the story to my boss.
So I stayed, gradually stopped posturing and started acting normal. Some of the more reticent among them stopped staring at me and began introducing themselves.
Eventually, we kind of got used to one another. I spent a couple of weeks with them as they prayed, held recruitment meetings, went bowling and celebrated Ramadan. I wrote the story—and then came the letters.
"What a piece-of-shit article," wrote one guy.
"It is a disgusting situation here at UCI and needs to get the widest attention possible," wrote another.
A woman wrote, "I find it strange that these first-generation Muslims were born and raised in freedom, with all the amenities that entails, and yet are so anti-American!"
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Those people read my article and saw cause for alarm. It was biased in favor of the Muslim Student Union, they implied. They saw the group as dangerous, even after reading the story.
But this letter came from a woman who read the same article: "Thank you for your view into the struggles, issues and lives of the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine. I especially appreciate your unbiased, truly journalistic view of a culture different than your own."
And from the MSU members themselves? I heard some rumblings that they weren't too happy with the story, but even after I encouraged them to write in, they never did.
We only kind of got used to one another, after all.