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Salam Al Marayati Headshot

Free 11 Muslim Students Representing America's Conscience

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Civic and Political life at the University California of Irvine (UCI) will never be the same after 11 Muslim students chose to speak out at a UCI event sponsoring Israel's Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

The Orange County Register reported on the incident:

Eleven people were arrested Monday evening during a raucous lecture at UC Irvine where Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren came to talk about U.S.-Israel relations. (UCI earlier said that 12 were arrested.)

Oren was interrupted 10 times Monday while trying to give his speech before 500 people at the UCI Student Center, where there was heavy security. Oren took a 20 minute break after the fourth protest, asked for hospitality and resumed his speech, only to be interrupted again by young men yelling at him every few minutes. Many members of the audience also applauded Oren.

After the 10th interruption, several dozens students who opposed Oren's talk got up and walked out and staged a protest outside. It is not clear whether they were members of the UCI Muslim Student Union, which issued an email earlier in the day condemning Oren's appearance on campus.

(See video below.)

One may disagree with the style and tactics demonstrated by the 11 students, but the central issue is not responding to the disruption by the students. Rather, the main focus should be on understanding what led to that action. The protest of Ambassador Oren's speech did not occur within a vacuum, but rather as a reaction to a string of numerous attempts to stigmatize Muslim students of UCI and squelch their free speech.

In May 2006, FBI Agent Pat Rose, head of the Al-Qaeda Unit, told a group at the Pacific Club in Orange County that her squad was monitoring Muslims students at UC-Irvine. Rose was quoted as saying, "We live in Irvine. I can't tell you how many subjects' names come up, and they live right down the street from me." She was garnering support for the Patriot Act.

The university needs to acknowledge the history of institutional harassment of Muslim students as they engage in campus activism. Muslim students complain that their requests for Palestinian speakers to be hosted by the university, similar to the hosting of Ambassador Michael Oren, are typically rejected or ignored.

In contrast to the treatment of Muslim students at UCI, anti-abortion hecklers against the President of the United States do not receive the same scrutiny as pro-Palestinian Muslim students at Irvine. Two individuals heckled the President at Notre Dame's commencement last year when President Obama resided as principal speaker. "Abortion is murder!" and "Stop Killing Babies!" they yelled, after which they were escorted out. They were opposing Obama's pro-choice stance, and no arrests were made. Over 100 protesters demonstrated at Notre Dame as well.

No doubt the Palestinian-Israeli discourse is volatile and many political leaders shy away from the discourse. But the lack of discourse on the issue requires more engagement with the students, not arrests and threats of expulsion or failure in their classes. Each side, Muslim and Jew, pro-Palestine and pro-Israel, have had their share of firebrand speakers, agitating and provoking the other side. The Muslim side has no institutional support for addressing their concerns. In fact, they have dealt with institutional marginalization and prejudice in the form of selective enforcement of policies and heavy-handed repercussions.

Our government leaders are concerned about the alienation of young people in our country, especially young Muslims -- who are offered no platform for voicing their concerns and views. Shunting student voices, especially when it is presented in a non-violent manner, tells them their opinions are disconnected and irrelevant to the mainstream discourse. I've met with government officials who "protested and took over buildings" in their college lives to get attention for their causes.

Suppressing the voice of these students by threatening them with failure and arrest in order to prohibit them and future students from expressing their views on Palestine is tantamount to telling them not to be American. The Muslim students' actions at UCI epitomize the confrontation against institutional injustices by means of peaceful exercise of free speech, a great American tradition.

The 11 Muslim students took a stand for another people's human rights, for what the best of America represents, and for what millions of people around the world admire Americans. So I thank the students for reminding me of why I am a proud American -- because I have the responsibility of celebrating my freedom by demanding it for others.

Email the Chancellor of UCI and the Dean of Students now to offer your support for free speech of the 11 Muslim students -- chancellor@uci.edu and deanstu@uci.edu. Then call the District Attorney of Orange County at (949) 476-4650 to drop all charges against the students.