UC Irvine's Muslim Student Union says suspension ignores group's religious and charitable activities

Past and current members of UC Irvine's Muslim Student Union say a move to suspend the club for allegedly disrupting an Israeli official's speech is unduly harsh and overlooks the group's history of religious and charitable endeavors.

The Muslim Student Union, which has been on campus for 20 years, faces a yearlong suspension after the university concluded it planned repeated disruptions of a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in February. The group denies organizing the protest and is appealing the recommended suspension.

Members of the group said political events such as this year's Israeli Apartheid Week, which has been labeled anti-Semitic by the Jewish Federation, the Zionist Organization of America and others, make up only a fraction of the group's activities.

"There were so many things that we tried to do as an organization," said Omar Zarka, who was president from 2007 to 2009. "It's really sad that it would get sidelined by something like this."

The MSU drew widespread condemnation by Jewish groups, university officials and politicians after the Oren speech, during which 11 UC Irvine and UC Riverside students were arrested and detained by campus police. The students face possible criminal charges as well as disciplinary hearings.

Suspension of a student organization in a civil disobedience case is rare on campuses, where group-wide discipline more often involves fraternities that engage in alcohol or hazing abuses. The MSU, which has long been a target of groups such as the New York-based Zionist Organization of America, maintains that its suspension is a result of outside pressure.

The group serves as the center of Muslim life for many members, organizing daily prayers and the Friday sermon, weekly religious lectures and dinners in Ramadan to break the fast. Zarka estimated active membership at 50 students and said about 150 additional students were involved or associated with the group. A university spokeswoman said that despite the suspension, the Muslim students would still be offered space on campus for prayers and the Friday sermon.

But members of the group said banning it from campus would have a psychological effect by eliminating — even for a year — the only Muslim group at UC Irvine. The group, for instance, would be banned from participating in the school's Welcome Week, when student organizations recruit freshmen.

"I saw people coming into the MSU and realizing that it's OK to be Muslim, that they don't have to be scared and people don't have to be scared of you either," Zarka said.

Robin Mahmud, a 2009 graduate, said that when his mother died and he was faced with the prospect of moving to Michigan to live with relatives, the MSU's housing committee helped him find roommates and an affordable place to live.

"In terms of the MSU, it really became like an extended family," he said. "I consider the MSU like a second family."

When Arifa Majeed helped found the organization in 1990, the lone Muslim group on campus was focused primarily on organizing the Friday sermon. Majeed and others wanted something that would be more active and serve as a support group.

Back then they performed some of the same activities the union does now: bringing in speakers, organizing an annual Islam Awareness Week and even protesting the first Persian Gulf war, said Majeed, now an attorney who lives in Walnut.

Amana Rafique Siddiqi, president of the MSU during the 1998-99 academic year, attended the group's events when she was a junior high school student in Long Beach.

"I knew I wanted to have a voice, and I thought that MSU would be a good way to do that and finding my niche," said Siddiqi, whose husband was president the previous year. "I feel like if I didn't have it, I would have been more lost in the crowd."

Her 17-year-old nephew will attend UC Irvine in the fall, and she worries about where he will fit in.

When she was president, the group was smaller, focused more on interfaith and religious activities and had a more social vibe, she said. It was before the 9/11 attacks, and politics didn't play a large role in their activities, though the group did protest the anniversary of Israel's founding.

"It was nothing like now with that strong purpose to fight," she said.

Still, more recent members are quick to say the events that garner all the attention — like the apartheid wall they erect each year and the controversial speaker Amir Abdel Malik Ali, accused by many Jewish groups of being anti-Semitic — are a small part of their activities.

"The majority of our events are not political, but the media is not going to write about a group of Muslims who went to a random park and made PB&J for homeless people," Mahmud said.

In the last few years, the MSU raised more than $15,000 in relief funds after Hurricane Katrina and the earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti, Zarka said. One year, during Zionist Awareness Week, the group sent blankets to the Gaza Strip.

"They do raise a lot of money for the victims of the Haitian earthquake and things like that," said Cathy Lawhon, UC Irvine spokeswoman.

One of their biggest events this year was Hijab Day, in which they invited women on campus to wear the headscarf for a day and share their experiences at an event that night. They had expected about two dozen to participate, but more than 100 women signed up.

This year the MSU received the social justice award from the university's Cross-Cultural Center, given to an organization dedicated to tackling and raising awareness of social injustice. A panel of students, faculty and staff reviewed submissions and awarded the honor a week after the university recommended suspending the group.

raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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