11 Muslim students protested the speech of Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren at a public university in Southern California.  They face criminal charges for their act of peaceful protest and civil disobedience.  This is their story.

The Facts.

February 8, 2010.  Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was invited to speak at the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine).  10 students, 7 from UC Irvine and 3 from UC Riverside, stood up individually and made statements of protest, disrupting Oren’s address (video here).  The heckling students left the room after making their statements, cooperatively and voluntarily meeting the policemen who waited for them. At some point, the 11th student, also from UC Irvine, was singled out of the crowd of protestors who were walking out of the room during Oren’s speech.  All 11 students were handcuffed, arrested, cited, and detained.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcaryZbL3gE[/youtube]

The individuals then faced university disciplinary measures.  UC Irvine’s Muslim Student Union (MSU) was also disciplined for its alleged participation in the protest, dealing with sanctions that resulted in a quarter long suspension of the organization and subsequent 2 year probation, which it continues to serve.

February 4, 2011.  California’s Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas charges the Irvine 11, as they have come to be known, with 2 misdemeanor counts each: a disruption of a meeting charge and a conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor charge.

March 5, 2011.  The Irvine 11 campaign  hosted a town hall meeting, community forum and press conference (video here), in order to inform the community on developments of the case and to harness community support for the 11 students.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/20778054[/vimeo]

Their arraignment date is this Friday, March 11.

The Issue of Free Speech

The actions of the Irvine 11 quickly became controversial—with both enthusiastic support for and opposition against their actions.  Although the protestors aimed to voice their outrage to an Israeli state official at the Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people, the debate that sprung up was focused about the issue of free speech and method of protest used.  The content of what the Irvine 11 had said was quickly muted and smothered underneath the issue of upholding Constitutional 1st amendment rights, and this is where the current criminal prosecution stems from.

At the recent town hall meeting, Executive Director of CAIR-LA, Hussam Ayloush stated, “more important than free speech [with the Irvine 11] is the issue of courage, the courage to stand for your principles, and it is extremely important to recognize these students.  These young students did what many people, including governments and public officials, don’t dare to do…at least these students have the guts, courage, and principles to stand up and say what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is wrong.”

The dialogue that developed about the Irvine 11, however, failed to recognize what the students really meant to accomplish.  The issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations was once again dodged.  Now the conversation that takes place about these students is about if their method of protest is constitutionally protected or not, and this is where the current criminal prosecution stems from.

Rachel Roberts, law student and representative of the Jewish Voice for Peace, also spoke at the town hall meeting about her personal involvement in a similar protest in New Orleans 9 months after the UC Irvine protest.  This time, it wasn’t Ambassador Oren who was being protested, it was the Prime Minister of Israel himself, Benjamin Netanyahu.  When discussing the issue of the method of protest, she admitted that “sometimes, in certain circumstances, expressing outrage is more appropriate than sitting still and writing down your grievances on a 3×5 index card which a moderator may or may not read or being forced to stand on a sidewalk, where the speaker can ignore you, where his supporters can go on pretending that they have the right idea and that you’re just a bunch of crazy people.”

To interfaith community leader Reverend Wilfredo Benitez, it was obvious that these students’ actions were “born of the prophetic directive to denounce injustice wherever it may be,” and idea “deeply ingrained in all Abrahamic faiths.”  To him, it seemed that“from a theological perspective [the students] had every right to do what they did…because it was for them a matter of faith and conscience and thus they could not be silent.”

University Actions & The MSU

The UC Irvine campus was one of the main places the actions of the protestors and the freedom of speech debate took place.

The protest occured at the UC Irvine campus, and the administration of the schools took it upon themselves to discipline the UC Irvine & UC Riverside students who had engaged in the protest.  The Irvine 11 legal team head attorney Reem Salahi said that the individuals “underwent months upon months of administrative University proceedings…[lasting] as long as 8 months for some of them.”  The punishments of the students are undisclosed due to privacy policies.

Not only was the UC Irvine administration bent on disciplining the individual Muslim students who participated in the protest as individuals, it also pursued disciplinary actions against the campus’s Muslim student organization, the MSU.

Based on its alleged involvement with the Irvine 11 protest, the MSU was suspended for an academic quarter and is now serving a2 year probation. MSU spokesperson, Hamza Siddiqui,   said that the “increasingly draconian” stance of the UC Irvine administration, and of the UC school system as a whole, carried out “unprecedented suspension [of the MSU] for political speech.”  He reported that the reasons that other campus organizations have been suspended in the past are due to alcohol and hazing.  These measures against the MSU have dampened the atmosphere on campus, creating a “stigma” against the MSU, its members, and more broadly, all Muslim students on campus.  A campus-wide email was sent to all students, including incoming freshmen, announcing the University’s punishment of the MSU, projecting a negative impression of the organization and its members from the outset of the school year.

Check out the video that was circulating around campus in order to gain support against the punishment of the 11 students and the Muslim Student Union.  Set to a powerful address by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, the footage of the student protest is incredibly moving.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52aXasRvdAc&tracker=False[/youtube]

**this is a great video to share with others**

And check out another video about selective punishment of disruptive protests at UC Irvine.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hie6y2-PRkE[/youtube]

The MSU is a huge and highly active organization on campus, boasting with about 75 active members and 250 members in total.  The MSU has been a positively contributing organization on campus since its instatement.  It recently received the Social Justice Award from the UC Irvine Cross Cultural Center and in the greater MSA community, won the 2011 MSA West Funnies Video Contest (video here).  MSU collaborates with other organizations on campus and hosts events that promote Islam awareness, humanitarian causes, and student issues.  Not merely an organization committed to serving the campus community, the MSU provides much needed religious services to all Muslims, undergraduates, graduates, and even faculty members.  From the daily congregational prayers to weekly Friday prayers to regular religious classes with local scholars and religious figures, the MSU is a platform on which Muslim students can implement their faith on a regular basis as well as developing it.

The MSU does more than just providing much-needed religious services, it has a large “social element… [which] provides a space in a comfortable environment” for Muslim students to connect with other Muslim students on campus.  The MSU goes “beyond basic, elementary [religious services],” Siddiqui said.  Muslim students can “find a family here at the MSU,” a family of “like-minded and socially conscious” individuals that “facilitates growth, both spiritually and socially.”  The members of MSU have “created an inclusive and diverse culture,” the holistic organization “producing well-rounded individuals.  [MSU] allows young Muslims to feel confident in and comfortable with sharing their Muslim identity.”  With the suspension and subsequent probation that the MSU is following, the capacity of the MSU to function in the way that students need and expect it to is cut off and severely limited.

Not only is the punishment of the MSU a disservice to the Muslims on campus, it also is a disservice to other students.  Additionally, the punishment has consequently fostered an environment of prejudice and intolerance of Muslim students.

The actions of the university also send strong messages to other students who wish to engage in protest and express their dissenting views.  Siddiqui said that the disciplinary measures have caused students to be “afraid of the consequences of expressing their sincerely held political views” because they “don’t’ know what repercussions to expect for their actions.”  This “more repressive and less tolerant” attitude has been seen on the other UC campuses of UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and UC Riverside.

The Implications of this Case

Despite university discipline of the students, the criminal charges against the 11 still stand.  Acting against the will of the UC Irvine administration and faculty (100 of whom signed a petition and letter to the DA), DA Tony Rackauckas is, as attorney Reem Salahi put it, “interjecting himself into a process that has already taken place.”  Meddling in what many regard a campus issue that has been resolved, Lekovic of MPAC agreed with Salahi, saying that “it was handled on campus and it needs to be left on campus.  It was a campus matter.  And those people in the campus community oppose this issue being taken on to a broader level.”

She called this case a “disproportionate attack on these students compared to what has happened in other exact same situations.  They have suffered consequences that other individuals facing the same individual have not suffered.  That is not fair, that is not American, that is not justice

The DA’s Office undertook excessive measures to investigate what happened and spent tax dollars to do so.  Salahi reported that the OC District Attorney had taken 362 days to investigate the case, hiring at least 2 investigators who allegedly posed as police and FBI to get forced testimonies.  Additionally, 6 students who witnessed the event were subpoenaed by a Grand Jury.

The discrimination that this specific group of students is facing is troubling.  The DA’s Office has “engaged in a witch hunt, where his office has literally targeted the weakest and most vulnerable elements of society…targeting students, youth, and in a post 9-11 world, Muslims,” Salahi said.

Ayloush called the community to wake up to a “reality check” and contextualized the Irvine 11 case with the other events occurring in Orange County.  He asked “Where is Orange County?  What is Islamophobia?” Recent events have exposed the discriminatory attitudes that Muslims are facing locally.  A protest organized and supported by public elected officials against an ICNA fundraising dinner in Yorba Linda (check out the recent MM article!) is one of the most recent and extreme examples of this.  The larger Muslim community in Orange County, not only the 11 students, has experienced increased anti-Muslim sentiments.  Reverend Benitez thinks that this is a“step backwards in interfaith relations.  {The DA] is sending the wrong message” one of “intolerance that some would interpret as Islamophobia.”

The impacts of this case are larger than the Orange County community.  For college students, the criminal prosecution of these 11 students would set a “terrible precedence,” one that will stunt student protest all over the country,” Lekovic said.  “It might be these 11 students today, it might be 11 Muslim students today, but tomorrow, it could be any other students, any other members of our community…and other members of any other community who are standing up to speak their minds and to peacefully demonstrate.”

Essential American principles are at stake with the fate of these 11 students.  Salahi attested that “protesting and expressing dissent makes up the very fabric of the American society.”

What You Can Do To Help

The Irvine 11 campaign has been the major proponent with expressing and gaining support for these students.  You can check out the website to access more resources and for more information on the 11.  You can also “like” the Irvine 11 Facebook page, which is updated with the latest developments on the case.

Check out the latest Irvine 11 campaign video produced through MSA West that shows state-wide support for the students against their current criminal prosecution.  Supporters include current students and alumni,  One Legacy Radio (Muslim radio channel in Orange County) “In the Mix” show host DJ Halal, international artists LowKey and Shadia Mansour, UC Berkeley Professor Hatem Bazian and UC Irvine Professor Rei Terada, CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush, and even Imam Suhaib Webb!

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9o3DqLyxV-w[/youtube]

  1. Sign the petition.
  2. Email the Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas <tony.rackauckas@da.ocgov.com> and tell him to stop the criminal prosecution of these 11 peaceful student protestors who have already faced disciplinary actions from the university.
  3. Spread the word and educate others.
  4. Most importantly—make dua.

I leave you with Edina Lekovic’s closing statement.

“Their voices have been muted, silenced. We all have the opportunity to break that silence for them, by sharing their stories and telling our stories as local Muslim Americans.”

I am proud to say, that I stand with the 11.