Against the Wall
Praying, eating and bowling with the most hated student group at UC Irvine
DEREK OLSON | October 18, 2007
With a brief red flash, the sun disappears behind the trees at Aldrich Park in the center of the UC Irvine campus as I pray.
"Pray as if this is your last prayer," instructs a man standing in front.
I place a digital recorder on the ground. A dark-skinned man at my side says, "Follow my lead." We bow and then lie prostrate on cooling cement. I stand at the end of a row of 30 men, shoulder-to-shoulder. Behind us, another row has nearly the same number of women. All the women wear hijabs, or scarves over their hair and neck. We bow in unison.
The man at the front is named Kareem Elsayed; he's 21. He leads the prayer with a musical and mournful verse. His cracking voice invokes an abysmal melancholy. I have no idea what he's saying, but the suras—chapter of the Koran—flow meditatively, centering and calming the Muslim Student Union (MSU) of UCI. Suddenly, familiar words: "Allahu Akhbar." Followed by several beats of silence. "Allahu Akhbar."
God is Greatest.
The phrase, in its most reverent use, is a parallel of the Judeo-Christian "Hallelujah" (Praise to God). But the words "Allahu Akhbar," repeated melodically, strike a cold chord. A simple statement of belief that has become, to many non-Muslims, synonymous with extremism, a jihadist battle cry. Much like the group that now utters it, the phrase has become indelibly linked in many minds with intolerance.
The prayer ends. I dust off, feeling content and serene. I haven't prayed in months. The Muslim prayer seems as good as any other, I guess.
It's dusk, and the students begin ambling toward a picnic table near Ring Road, a narrow walking and biking road encircling the park. They are hungry. It is late September, and the holy month of Ramadan is in full swing. The students break their sun-up-to-sundown fasting regimen—no food, water, sex—with a sweet date.
I eat a date, too; it's good. Elsayed tells me that dates are high in glucose, providing an instant rush of energy and potassium for rehydration. The perfect appetizer for a thirsty, starving Muslim.
The women and the men of the group eat at separate tables. It's part of tradition, one of the students tells me. Like the conservative dress of the women, eating separately is a way to avoid the distractions of physical attraction so one can focus only on God.
I pile delicious lamb and some kind of spicy rice on a plate and move to a table full of solemn faces. "Mind if I sit down?" I ask with a smile.
They neither object nor invite. They barely look at me, instead staring at their plates. Three thin freshmen and a man in his 40s who looks like an Arab Tony Soprano sit at the table. Not a word is said for several minutes. One of the young men is somewhat sloppily eating with his hands; the rest use plastic cutlery.
"So," the Soprano look-alike asks me, "how long have you been a Muslim?"
"I'm not a Muslim," I answer.
He raises his eyebrows and turns his attention back to his food. He seems to regard me suspiciously, not surprising considering the MSU is likely the most hated––and feared––student group at the university.
* * *
Critics call the MSU an anti-Semitic hate group that supports the destruction of Israel with terrorism. Bloggers, from local activists to Jewish hate-watch websites, track every public move of some prominent MSU members, sometimes dedicating entire pages to profiling individuals.
The controversies began when most of the MSU's oldest current members were still in high school. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times wrote that members of the group participated in a flag-football tournament for Muslims using team names such as "Mujahideen, Intifada and Soldiers of Allah." In 2004, the group made headlines again by wearing green "shahada" armbands to UCI's commencement ceremony, bands some associate with Hamas, but which the MSU contends are simple declarations of their faith. In 2004, someone painted a Star of David dripping with blood, an act that the Zionist Organization of America has tried to tie to the MSU.
In 2006, a controversial event put on by the College Republicans that displayed the infamous Danish cartoon of the prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him, as a Muslim would say—wearing a bomb-turban spurred administrators to seek such intensive security measures as rooftop snipers, bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors at building entrances and 15 to 20 police officers. In January, the MSU staged a protest and walkout of a pro-Israel campus group's invited speaker, Daniel Pipes, a man who believes Muslim Arabs in Palestine cannot be reasoned with and must undergo the "crucible of defeat."
The FBI has basically admitted to—and later denied—watching them. In 2006, when asked if the MSU at UCI posed a threat, FBI agent Pat Rose, head of the agency's Orange County al-Qaida squad, said to a group of business people at the Pacific Club, "That's a tough question to answer," according to an article in The Orange County Register. The vague answer led to speculation the group was under FBI surveillance.
Last May, a confrontation between an MSU student and an FBI agent confirmed in many people's minds the group was being watched. The student confronted a man who had been following him in a Ford Taurus with tinted windows. The man, whom the FBI later confirmed to be an agent, revved the engine and, according to MSU witnesses, almost ran the student down. Another student allegedly threw a cinderblock at the car as it sped off. An FBI spokesperson later denied the agency was watching the Muslims.
Because of the MSU's outspoken ways, UCI has been painted as a hotbed of radical Islam and anti-Semitic activity by national media figures on the political right such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity of Fox News.
"(Many people) feel that we are an extremist, hardcore, loud, in-your-face kind of organization," current MSU president Omar Zarka says. "That's very understandable given the kind of coverage we get, especially with the blogs and other free media."
The 30 or 40 students who will make up the group this year, largely first- and second-generation Americans in their late teens to early 20s, will decide what path the group takes from here. These sons and daughters of immigrants from India, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Uzbekistan or one of the dozens of countries called home by more than a billion Muslims of the world plan to continue delivering their controversial messages at UCI, regardless of what others say.
In many ways, the MSU is a typical college club. They help one another with studies, match younger members with mentors, and organize fund-raisers and other philanthropic endeavors. Members lament that most of that goes unnoticed: What people talk about is their "Anti-Oppression Week." During this weeklong event, the MSU erects a wall on campus in representation of what it refers to as the "apartheid wall." The facsimile wall, the first version of which was burned down by vandals in 2004, represents a system of concrete walls and electric fences throughout the northern West Bank, Jerusalem and Bethlehem that separates Palestinians from Israelis.
Students and outside groups have criticized the "apartheid wall"—which is decorated with graphic photos of violence and statistics about the lives and deaths of Palestinians in Israeli military-occupied territories—as using "shock tactics," being racist and inaccurate.
MSU members defend the wall—and the group's often-criticized stance on Israel—by saying it provides a much-needed counterbalance to a media landscape that picks its facts based on prejudices, alliances and agendas.
Heated words and mad-dog eyes might be commonplace exchanges between students on both sides of the debate, but no violence has been documented.
* * *
Some college peers have accused the MSU of being difficult to approach, standoffish and a bit scary. I'm starting to understand why, but that first step into an unknown culture is the most difficult. Things should get easier.
Before going back to spend more time getting to know the MSU, I meet with Brock Hill, the former president of UC Irvine College Republicans, and the current president, Cameron Galbraith, at a Starbucks in Costa Mesa.
Hill and Galbraith say their relationship to the MSU is one of mutual distrust and apprehension.
"The second we walk through the door, they stare at us," Hill says. "They know exactly who we are, and we know exactly who they are."
In 2006, the College Republicans organized an event with another conservative campus group, a panel discussion titled "Domestic Organizations: In Support of Terrorism or Not?" The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) declined to attend, saying the event was biased.
The group intended to discuss and show the infamous Danish caricature that stirred uproar in the Islamic world. The cartoon depicts the most revered man in the Muslim world wearing a bomb with its fuse lit in his turban. In the incendiary drawing, the Muslim prophet has a sort of brutish and crude countenance. Since depicting Muhammad in any way is considered sacrilege, bringing it up for panel discussion was a provocative move.
Hill and Galbraith say they didn't see why discussing the caricature was such a problem considering the MSU has invited such provocateurs as radical activist Amir Abdul-Malik Ali, whom, Galbraith says, "referred to Israel as the Fourth Reich, called the Constitution a fascist document and justified suicide bombing."
The two Republicans say any criticism volleyed at them from the MSU amounts to a "double standard."
Once word leaked to the media about the event, Hill says, school administrators panicked. The group was told it had to raise money to pay for security measures, they said. Administrators even tried to get the two groups to broker a truce.
"We thought we were going into a meeting with the administration only," Hill says. "Well, it ended up that they had tricked us into coming into a meeting with us on one side of the table and the officers of the Muslim Student Union on the other side of the table.
"We said, 'Thank you for trying to set up this meeting, but no thanks,' and we walked out of the room."
The night of the event, protesters at the campus' Crystal Cove Auditorium totaled more than 1,000—according to signatures gathered by MSU. The scene deteriorated as protesters on both sides exchanged their version of the "N-word": Anti-MSU protesters called the MSU "Nazis" for their alleged antisemitism; pro-MSU protesters called the College Republicans "Nazis," comparing the Danish cartoons to the dehumanizing ways Jews were portrayed leading up to the Holocaust.
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.'
"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.
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.
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.
"There is a time when they will leave the campus and go into the world, and society will exert those limitations and restrictions on them," he says. "I think if we deny students this right, it would be a great injustice."
This year's Anteaters for Israel president, Isaac Yershalmi, says he and other group members met over the summer with the MSU, in hopes of co-sponsoring an event. The Muslim Student Union suggested a debate between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine guest speakers.
But a debate didn't seem like the right choice of events, Yershalmi says. "I feel like a debate sort of separates people rather than brings them together."
Instead, Yershalmi suggested the two groups have a social event to just get to know one another. The MSU refused.
Zarka said the MSU's priority is getting its message heard, rather than making peace with other campus groups they feel do not respect their religion. "We've gotten a lot of attacks religiously . . . and then somebody wants to come and shake our hand. It's like, 'I'm going to talk trash on you, and then I want to work with you.'"
Yershalmi believes the MSU doesn't necessarily want to improve relations. "I don't want to speak for them, but maybe easing the tension is not part of their purpose," he says. "Maybe they're so focused on what they're doing that they want to ignore all of the externalities."
Although he hasn't changed his views, Yershalmi says he does have a broader understanding of the conflict because of the MSU. "I can't say that they have influenced me," he says. "But one thing I have to give them credit for is giving people something to think about."
* * *
After a night of uneasy sleep, I make another attempt with the MSU. The group plans to hold its new-student orientation in a large meeting room. Through glass doors, I see probably around 100 Muslims, most of the men with beards and most of the women wearing hijabs. I recognize most of them now, which adds to my anxiety. The seed has been planted in my mind that some of them don't want me around.
When I enter, some of the women from the bowling trip smile and wave. That settles my nerves. I enter a room where chairs are set up in two sections, one for the men and one for the women.
I find Omar, who says he spoke to whoever raised concerns and all should be fine. Some of these students are the children of immigrants who escaped dictatorships, he explains. They have an almost ingrained mistrust of media—and especially recording devices.
Inside, the meeting room is buzzing. The group presents a short comedy skit for a group of jittery transfer students and freshmen who have come to learn about the MSU. The students giggle throughout. It's a self-deprecating parody in which a naïve college student convinces his thickly Middle Eastern-accented father he will stay away from those "dirty" Muslims he saw on the news.
After the skit, Elsayed, a recent graduate, speaks to the group about the MSU's reputation. Whatever their message, he says, Muslims in America are considered the "other." A distinction that many minorities have had to endure throughout the country's history. But, he says, that shouldn't make them afraid.
"You would think that with everything that's being said—about the Muslims at UC Irvine in particular—that the Muslims would be so scared," he says. "'Oh, my God, they're saying all of this stuff about us; we can't do this anymore. We have to, like, hide, you know, and let's put our heads in the sand. Let's not do anything, or let's not say anything. We don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.'
"But it's the complete opposite. We have self-confidence and self-esteem. We know what's the right thing to do, and we do it. We're not scared of anything or anyone, or whatever anyone can say," Elsayed says. "Some people said the FBI is watching us. The FBI is not watching us; Allah is watching us. That's what we think."
When the meeting ends, the group heads to a courtyard in front of UCI's new Student Center. Some students are bringing large pans of food for the Iftar, the breaking of the fast. First, the students must pray.
Elsayed leads the prayer again, while foot traffic heads in every direction.
"Pray as if this is your last prayer," he says before beginning the suras in a heartbroken melody.
Some students walk by and stare at the Muslims. They are lined up in three rows, with the men in front and the women behind.
Some students ignore the scene. Some stop and watch. Some walk almost directly into the middle of the group as if they're blind or just don't care. One young man sips a large soda and looks askance at a buddy walking beside him. They snicker.
The Muslims don't notice. They bow and pray in unison.