Controversial Cartoons Spark Outrage at Local University
IRVINE -- Dozens of Muslim students and supporters protested Tuesday at the University of California, Irvine, against plans by organizers of a panel discussion on Islamic extremism to show cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb-laden turban.
Members of the Muslim Student Union gathered outside the auditorium where the panel convened. The Council on American-Islamic Relations - an invited guest - planned a boycott.
Two men were escorted out of the auditorium after the panel discussion began. One of them had been repeatedly heckling panel members. When a second man angrily approached him, police escorted both from the meeting.
The protest began when about 200 Muslim students, many wearing green armbands, placed mats on the barricaded street and said a prayer. When it ended, about 15 counterprotesters raised U.S. and Israeli flags, shouted "USA! USA!" and sang "God bless America."
Thousands of Muslims worldwide have protested, sometimes violently, against the drawings after they were published in a Danish newspaper in September and then in other papers in Europe. The drawings are offensive to Muslims because Islamic tradition bans any depiction of Muhammad.
Osman Umarji, former president of the Muslim Student Union, equated the decision to display the prophet drawings to the debasement of Jews in Germany before the Holocaust.
"The agenda is to spread Islamophobia and create hysteria against Muslims similar to what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany," said Umarji, an electrical engineer who graduated from UC Irvine last spring. "Freedom of speech has its limits."
Organizers said unveiling the cartoons was part of a larger debate on Islamic extremism sponsored by the College Republicans and The United American Committee, a fledgling group not affiliated with UC Irvine.
Brock Hill, vice president of the College Republicans, said his group had a right to display the cartoons under the First Amendment and noted that the panel was to include a representative from the Free Muslims Coalition.
"We're not going against Islam whatsoever," he said. "This is about free speech and the free marketplace of ideas."
The panel also was to discuss anti-Semitic and anti-Western drawings that have appeared in Middle Eastern newspapers and discuss Islamic militancy on U.S. college campuses, said Jesse Petrilla, 22, a Glendale Community College student and UAC founder.
Petrilla said he believes Muslims overseas are using the prophet drawings as an excuse to commit violence against Western nations.
"We're hoping to bring light to the subject and get people talking about it," he said. "People don't realize it's not just the cartoons - there's motivation behind it that's rooted far deeper."
Organizers of the Muslim demonstration said the green armbands signified unity and did not represent allegiance to the militant group Hamas.
The Muslim Student Union at UCI last drew attention in 2004 when more than two dozen students wore green stoles to their graduation. They said the stoles symbolized their faith, but others said the clothing represented allegiance to Hamas and was meant to intimidate Jewish students.
Kareem Elsayed, 20, a biomedical engineering student, said the Muslim Student Union would donate a health kit to victims of domestic abuse for every person that signed a petition against the unveiling of the cartoons.
"There's a lot of hype about this and we wanted to say we're Muslims and we're compassionate," he said. "They're looking for an event that's destructive, that's pitting civilizations against each other."
Counterprotesters held signs that read "I support the First Amendment."
Roz Rothstein, 45, of the Los Angeles-based organization Stand With Us, said she supported the students' right to display the cartoons. Her group advocates the Israeli point of view in political debates.
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