• 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.

    Detainment. Humiliation.

    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.

      • Hollye Dexter

      • March 4, 2012 at 2:31 pm
      • Reply

      Wow- great piece, David. I am still shocked by the right wing guy posing as a terrorist. I wonder how much of that crap goes on on an even larger scale. Fanning the flames of hatred…so sad.

      I am proud of you for adhering to tolerance and finding common ground.

      Kudos on your new advisor role.

      • Norbie Kumagai

      • March 4, 2012 at 2:52 pm
      • Reply

      Hello David: You are going through a similar transformation that I experienced shortly after September 11th when Japanese Americans came together (when no one else would) to support our Arab American, Sikh & Muslim brothers & sisters who were targeting for hate crimes. Huge, Huge Congratulations My Friend!!!!

      • Judy N

      • March 4, 2012 at 2:53 pm
      • Reply

      What a strong and well-written piece! I just came from a history reading group in which we discussed a book on the growth of conspiracy theories in the U.S., many involving “alien others.” (Real Enemies). How refreshing to read your piece after that discussion! Proof that with intelligence, openness, and willingness to take risks people can cut through the crap.

      You are rightly proud.

    • I hope it works out for you and for the students. I think anyone has a right to speak without being interrupted or shouted down. Peaceful protest has a place. Confrontation doesn’t change anyone’s mind. Just makes them more convinced their way is the right way and only way.

      • David Lacy

      • March 5, 2012 at 10:42 pm
      • Reply

      Thank you all, and to my friend Norb, for sharing your common lived/emotional experience. We certainly think alike on many of these issues!

      • Faisal Ansari

      • May 12, 2012 at 10:06 am
      • Reply

      Thank you so much Mr. Lacy for telling us your experiences with the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine. I feel many people who have said hateful speech toward this organization don’t understand the full picture of what the MSU does and believes in. And I commend you for taking that extra step and researching the organization on your own time and making your own conclusions about the MSU

      As you have stated, the MSU is a beautiful organization. How could they ever be supporters of Hamas when you said they have shown so much kindness and respect. Silent protesting, insisting you break your fast first, and not forcing any type of religion upon you.

      I hope many people read your article, I feel like it would really open many peoples’ eyes up to what the organization is really like. As a member of the MSU, I want to specifically say thank you so much for having an open and understanding mind and heart and communicating that with others.

      **Also on a side not, I was extremely close to taking your writing 39C class winter of the 2010-2011 school year! I came into your class as wait listed, unfortunately didn’t make it in, but still remembered how relaxed and easy going you were! Thank you!

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