Why an Agnostic/Judeo-Christian-Presbyterian-Mormon agreed to serve as an advisor to a college’s Muslim Student Association
by David Lacy
I still get goose bumps when I recall my first encounter with the Muslim Student Union (MSU) at UC Irvine.
Student members were gathered around a massive wooden “wall” plastered with photo and video images of the atrocities Israeli soldiers had committed against innocent Palestinians. Crimson snapshots of children’s splattered heads. Women in hijabs shrieking in fist-clenched agony as they watched their loved ones brutalized.
Pacing back and forth in front of the protest wall was a dark-skinned man, his face mostly cloaked with a small sheet and adorning a white head scarf. He was milling about the MSU members and lifting a handmade sign high into the air.
In red marker, the sign announced: “9/11 was our warm-up. Death to Infidels.”
The hairs on my arms spiked up. My stomach lurched and I feared that at any moment I might suddenly vomit. I did actually dry retch and then wiped the back of my hand against the spittle that had fallen from my mouth. I raced home and began scouring myriad news websites.
I was sincerely mortified that a classmate at my school apparently not only approved of the attacks of 9/11, but eagerly anticipated a sequel event.
The following day I located the story on the MSU protest in the Orange County Register. And within the catalogue of photos was the jarring image of the man who had elicited chills shivering down my spine.
His name was Max Gibson, 27, “a self-proclaimed Zionist who lives in San Diego and is affiliated with a college Republican group” (OC Register, June 10, 2007).
I read the paragraph several times aloud.
He was a “plant.” A Fraud. He was there merely to confuse and intimidate the misinformed, myself included. And he was doing it in the most rhetorically despicable way imaginable: by pretending to align with the architects of one of the darkest days in American history and relishing its horrific shadow.
I was livid.
That summer I decided to write an essay for a graduate school ethnography course. I wanted to embed myself in UC Irvine’s Muslim Student Union, a local organization known nationally for its high-profile activism. It had been tracked by the F.B.I. It had been verbally eviscerated by guest speakers to the campus.
As I researched the MSU for my project, I learned a number of surprising things. First, I discovered that the group had undergone significant harassment for wearing green graduation stoles with declarations of their faith to their respective schools’ graduation ceremonies. Pundits declared that the Irvine students were supporting Hamas, a laughable declaration as ludicrous as insisting that a Christian fraternity wearing stoles with Bible verses must certainly be aligned with the Ku Klux Klan.
I watched as a far-right political speaker named Daniel Pipes came to campus and blasted what he dubbed “radical Islam” in the U.S. (The video is available on Youtube.) Members of the MSU attended his speech with tape draped across their mouths with words such as “hate speech” scrawled in black Sharpie marker across the tape. I sat in silence as Pipes verbally slammed UC Irvine’s Islamic community. When they all stood up in solidarity and walked out – SILENTLY – Pipes announced, “Well, since we’re talking about radical Islam, I see you’re getting an example of it right here.”
Again, I was caught off guard. I thought about my father’s own feelings toward the Vietnam War. I thought about Woodstock. I thought about the counter-culture and John Lennon and draft card burnings and deportations. I thought about rallies and glass smashing at WTO protests. And I remember clearly thinking that if this silent walk-out was an example of “radical Islam” then, by all means, bring on the radicalism.
I had honestly never witnessed such a mild protest in my life.
A few years later, Orange County Muslim groups would sponsor a charity for a battered women’s shelter. As the Islamic philanthropists entered the function, a group protestors stood at the entrance and screamed things such as “Go home!” “Terrorist!” and “You are perverts who sleep with your daughters!” When I watched the footage on the news the next day, I was once again disgusted. I again felt my stomach lurch into my throat and the nausea sway through my body.
Former UC Irvine MSU president Omar Zarka never attempted to force me into a religious perspective I wasn’t comfortable with. But he did invite me to “unlimited access” to the group. The group did sporadically invite guest speakers I was uncomfortable with, speakers whose fiery rhetoric was too extreme for my own taste (though never violent). But the group also invited speakers who consistently reminded members of the MSU to work with Christians and non-believers toward common humanitarian goals.
I also repeatedly dined with the organization after sunsets during Ramadan. The starving students repeatedly INSISTED that I serve myself before them. Even though I didn’t request this, I often felt selfish when they made this request. But I was also tremendously appreciative for the sincere hospitality. It didn’t matter whether I agreed with the motives behind their fasting; their actions revealed their practical commitments to what they preached.
Last week, a student of mine at Irvine Valley College approached me and asked if I would serve as the faculty advisor to the school’s Muslim Student Association. Without hesitation – and admittedly with a bit of pride – I accepted the offer.
Some Islamic students may question the decision to appoint a Judeo-Christian-raised advisor to their group. I understand this concern; I really do. But what I think is paramount is that I strongly endorse the philanthropic, activist, and community-oriented aims of the Muslim Student Association. Though I do not adhere to the Muslim faith myself, I suspect in many ways my non-adherence could be an interesting — and I like to believe uniquely beneficial — asset to the Association.
I sincerely look forward to working with the organization on a productive year of charity, academics, activism, and – most importantly to the members … faith.
In mutual respect we will proceed.