Fate unclear for MSU

Four years ago, Anam Siddiq was a new student at UC Irvine, nervous about what was in store, eager to make new friends and ready to pursue an education that would prepare her for a career.

Her first few days of school coincided with Ramadan, which requires a month of sunrise-to-sunset fasting for devout Muslims. Siddiq, an American born to Pakistani parents, found out about a group of students who put on an "Iftar," an evening ritual during Ramadan where fasting and non-fasting students broke the daily fast together.

That group was the Muslim Student Union, a bustling on-campus religious organization involved in religion, politics, education, volunteerism and social justice.

"I was first a freshman, and it's where I formed a lot of the friendships that I still have today — through these breaking of the fasts," Siddiq said.

Siddiq now holds degrees in literary journalism and history. She graduated in June, and credits the MSU for enriching her experience at UCI and for helping her become a better person and Muslim.

But she leaves distressed about what might become of the organization.

A student conduct committee has recommended suspending the MSU for a year and placing it on probation. The suggestion follows the Feb. 8 incident in which students disrupted a speech on U.S.-Israeli relations by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

After the disruption,

eight UCI students were arrested by campus police, who accused them of disordely conduct and disturbing the peace. The Orange County district attorney's office has not filed charges against them.

Planned or random?

At issue is whether the MSU planned the disruption or whether the students acted on their own accord.

The campus investigation, which examined e-mails, minutes from the MSU's general assembly meeting days before the Oren speech and interviews with the students involved, found that the disruption was organized — the MSU disputes this point.

Some of the students were also accused of lying to university officials about whether the disruption was spontaneous.

Alaa Alomar, who served as MSU's political activities coordinator, said the MSU did not orchestrate the disruption — an activity that she would have coordinated, given her position in the group.

"The point of the meeting was to discuss what we were going to do — we wanted to do something," she said of the assembly meeting, part of which was aimed at discussing Oren's campus visit. "The organization tried to plan a protest, but there was so much disagreement among the membership, so it became a separate thing — and the plan failed."

The students who chose to protest coordinated with each other, but they were not acting on behalf of the MSU, Alomar said.

"Nobody knew what exactly was going to happen until it happened," she said, adding that she couldn't make it to the speech because of a family obligation.

The minutes of the general assembly meeting on Feb. 3, five days before Oren's speech, show detailed MSU plans and this statement:

"… our goal should be that he [Oren] knows that he can't just go to a campus and say whatever he wants."

In response, Alomar said she's aware of what the MSU wanted to do, but plans on how to execute it broke down because of internal disagreements, meaning that the response to the ambassador was unplanned.

A different perspective

Shalom Elcott, president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation Orange County, said the MSU has distorted its actions regarding the Oren visit and should be reprimanded.

"The argument that this was a random group of people is phony and insulting," Elcott said. "I'm saying the MSU is highly organized, highly financed, with a strong backing of community support and global support. These are not innocent actions among well-meaning students."

Elcott said the MSU raised funds for Viva Palestina, which sends food and medical aid to Gaza, and last year invited the group's founder, George Galloway, a British activist, to Apartheid Week on campus. During his speech, the students passed the hat and some money was raised for Viva Palestina.

The Jewish Federation and other pro-Israeli groups complained to UCI administrators and contacted the FBI, asserting that Viva Palestina had ties to Hamas. In that incident, the university found that money was raised for the organization, but without campus permission, as some of the paperwork was improperly filed, UCI spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon said.

"The investigation was unable to determine whether the failure to fundraise within university policy was negligent, reckless or intentional," she said. "That part of the matter has been referred to the office of vice chancellor for student affairs; it's still pending."

As far as an FBI investigation, Lawhon said that the matter remains in the hands of law enforcement officials. Laura Eimiller, spokeswoman for the FBI's Los Angeles office, said the incident was reported to the U.S. Department of Justice, but no more information was available on Friday.

By suspending the MSU, Elcott said, UCI is "sending a message saying, 'We're going to have some elements of civility on campus.' And we need that kind of civility brought back to many of our college and university campuses across the nation."

What is the MSU?

Ahmed Ibrahim, a UCI graduate with degrees in biology and chemistry, and who works for the school's environmental health and safety office, is a former MSU member did postgraduate studies in public health at UC Davis.

Ibrahim said the MSU is more than just a political group. Suspension, he said, would be a disservice to many politically inactive students; in the union, many explore Islam and apply its tenets daily. There are some 300 activities, including Friday prayer services, guest lectures, Martin Luther King Jr. service activities, raising funds for disaster-stricken countries and making sandwiches for the poor.

"We're sort of a well-rounded group, a microcosm of the implication of Islam in daily life," Ibrahim said. "As a member of the MSU, not only are you taking part in the causes of justice, but you're also serving society. We develop ourselves spiritually, academically, professionally, and strive to become the whole person that Islam asks us to be.

Part of speaking out for causes of justice is speaking out for the Palestinians people, Alomar said.

What made Oren's visit to UCI an issue for some of the Muslim students was the fact that the UCI schools of Law and Social Sciences co-sponsored the event, Alomar said. The Anteaters for Israel, a Jewish group that uses the university mascot in its name, also sponsored the visit.

"Part of the protest raised attention to the fact that the speaker was invited by the school, which was outrageous to us," Alomar said.


Could outsiders be the problem?


Mahdis Keshavarz, MSU's spokeswoman, said pro-Israeli organizations have over the years been looking for ways to sanction and silence the organization.

The Jewish Federation has been accused of pressuring the school to take harsh actions against the students. Elcott said the position is untrue.

"One of the problems that we're facing is this is an unprecedented process for dealing with something that is entirely a student matter," Keshavarz said. "These perceived political tensions don't exist on campus in the way that's being insinuated by the Jewish groups."

Elcott also made it clear that the federation has made its position known but will not insinuate itself into campus policy matters.

"While we certainly made our views clear to the administration, we in fact encouraged the community not to pressure UCI," he said. "It was important that whatever transpires that there would be no interference."

Russell Curry is a member of the Black Student Union who considers himself neutral when it comes to the differences between the Jewish Federation and the MSU. He is not Muslim but finds the MSU "one of the most welcoming organizations on campus."

"I have a lot of respect for them because they are on the forefront to stand up for social justice and education on campus," Curry said of the group, which won a social justice award from the UCI Cross-Cultural Center this year.

Decision awaited

The fate of the MSU remains unclear as the university breaks for summer. The MSU is appealing the recommended suspension. A decision is likely to be announced before the new school year begins, Lawhon has said.

Siddiq said she hopes the school doesn't suspend the MSU so that new Muslim students coming on campus in September can reap the benefits like she did in her freshman year back in 2006.

"Honestly, without the MSU, I would've had a very hard time finding a core while at UCI, something that was holding the experience together," she said. "It held the entire college experience into one core."

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