When a Muslim organization on a campus known for free speech tries to shut up those with a different viewpoint, what's the right penalty? At the University of California, Irvine (UCI), home to approximately 23,000 students and one of the most virulent Muslim student groups in the nation, administrators are choosing a slap on the wrist.
UCI's 2010 travail began in February when the Muslim Student Union (MSU) orchestrated a protest of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's speech at UCI. Emails obtained by administrators revealed the MSU plan for students one by one to heckle the ambassador. Campus officials issued a warning the group chose to ignore.
The interruptions continued-consuming more than 30 minutes of the ambassador's speech-until police escorted from the building and arrested 11 protesters, eight of them UCI students. Then the remaining protesters exited, chanting slogans in unison as they left. UCI suspended MSU, which is funded by compulsory student fees, for 12 months, but in September cut the suspension by two-thirds: The suspension will now end on Dec. 31, with MSU remaining on "probation."
MSU has a history of disturbances and support for terrorist groups.
In May it sponsored a speech by Amir-Abdel Malik-Ali, an imam associated with the Muslim organization As-Sabiqun. Malik-Ali gripped a campus podium displaying the slogan "Israel, the Fourth Reich" and called Jews "the new Nazis." He thrust forward a thinly veiled threat: "Your days are numbered. We will fight you. We will fight either until we are martyred or until we are victorious!" A group of students responded with the jihadist battle cry, "Allahu Akbar!"
Joe Wolf, one of the few "observant" Jews at UCI, should feel that threat. A Ph.D. candidate in physics, Wolf wears the traditional kippah and strictly follows religious laws-even dismantling his refrigerator light during holy days so he won't violate laws some interpret as prohibiting any form of "work." Wolf is also 6'2" and originally from the East Coast-two factors that prevent him from being intimidated by the MSU and its tactics, he says.
Wolf frequents MSU rallies, always prepared to ask specific questions and armed with facts, sources, and copies of texts for speakers to examine. His demeanor is confident but respectful. He believes that the Michael Oren protest was the least damaging of the MSU's many endeavors: "When they use hate speech and actually intimidate people and raise money for terrorists-these actually hurt people."
After this year's "Israeli Apartheid Week," Wolf launched a campaign to refund a portion of the estimated $6,500 in mandatory students fees allocated to the MSU for the four-day event. Malik-Ali's vocal support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad-all considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. government-constitutes a breach of campus policy, Wolf said. Last year MSU hosted British politician George Galloway and allegedly solicited funds for his organization, Viva Palestina, which has links to Hamas documented by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
The university has not reached a decision about the student refunds, but the ultimate goal, according to Wolf, is to prevent future student fees from being used to sponsor speakers like Malik-Ali or Galloway.
Neelie Milstein, a December 2009 graduate of UCI, says she hadn't felt attacked for being Jewish until she came to the university in 2006. She recalls her first encounter with some of the MSU's more visual propaganda: "I first saw an Israeli flag and thought, 'Where's the hate in this?' And then as the flag continued to blow in the wind, I realized there was blood all over it."
Many radical Muslim groups attempt to make a distinction between Zionism and Judaism, claiming they are not guilty of anti-Semitism when they call for Israel's destruction. Milstein disagrees: "Some argue that it's just the Israeli flag and doesn't have anything to do with being Jewish, but I beg to differ because, as you know, the Magen David [Star of David] is the center of the Jewish flag and it's also the symbol of Judaism."
Other visual demonstrations are equally disturbing: posters of Muslim women saying, "God bless Hitler," swastikas and the Star of David displayed side by side, a mock "apartheid wall" complete with students dressed as Hamas "freedom fighters," and posters of Muslim women sporting AK-47s are a few of the group's choice props.
Some Jewish students claim they've also been physically attacked. None has reported serious injuries but many are clearly frustrated by what they say is a lackluster response on the part of the university. "They cause a lot of hate on campus," Milstein said.
UCI, like other college campuses, appears to be entangled in a discussion about First Amendment rights. The crux of the disagreement centers on the definitions of free speech and hate speech and to whom these rules apply. Radical Muslims maintain a double standard-one that regards any negative comment about Islam or Muhammad as hate speech (and deserving of punishment or death, according to some) but considers violent rhetoric against Israel and the Jewish people a duty, according to Islamist interpretations of the Koran, and a constitutional right under the First Amendment.
MSU leaders have historically avoided the media spotlight and have attempted to keep both media and non-Muslim students from attending their meetings or filming their events, but one post-protest gathering after a 2007 speech at UCI by Daniel Pipes is on tape: "It's just a matter of time before the state of Israel will be wiped off the face of the earth. . . . Our weapon, our jihad, our way of struggling in this country is with our tongues. We speak out and we deflate their morale, and it's the best we can do right now. And our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world are handling business in their own way. May Allah give them strength."