Mideast News & Politics
- Published on Friday, 21 September 2012 15:26
- Category: News & Politics
Aminah Galal counted 100 audience members at the presentation on Shariah law. It was a good turnout, and most, she noted, weren't members of University of California – Irvine's Muslim Student Union (MSU), which hosted the event.
But as Galal, vice president of the MSU, finished counting, the Q&A turned confrontational. Five of the six who asked questions were from a Christian ministry called Truth Defenders, and to them, true Muslims wouldn't accept the speaker's flexible interpretation of Shariah.
"You are misrepresenting the religion that you say to profess," said Louis Lionheart, the group's leader.
From her perch at back of the auditorium, Galal shrugged her shoulders, covered by a long black dress. A green and blue patterned hijab framed her round face. "I'm used to it," she said, her eyes tired under thin-rimmed glasses.
Since 9/11, the Muslim American community has struggled to respond to the perception of Islam as a threat. Muslim leaders frequently are questioned for their beliefs and affiliations. In the most noteworthy recent case, Michele Bachmann and four other Republicans in Congress accused Huma Abedin, aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other Muslims in the government of being disloyal to the United States.
While other Republican leaders defended Abedin's integrity, young Muslims such as Galal have grown to expect an Islamophobic reaction when they step into the public sphere. And the UC-Irvine MSU is not afraid of expressing opinions; it is entering its last quarter of university probation for its role in a protest that got some of its members convicted of two misdemeanors one year ago this month.
Though most Muslim Americans might not risk arrest for their beliefs, the groups' answer to Islamophobia suggests a potential path for the community: embracing activism as essential to their identities as both Muslims and Americans. Over three parts, this article will look at one day in the life the MSU to explain what the MSU is, how the group shapes its members, and how activism helps them respond to Islamophobia.
The UC-Irvine MSU gained international notoriety in 2010 after 10 young Muslim men shouted down Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in protest of what they see as Israel's unjust treatment of Palestinians. The students, known as the Irvine 11 (an 11th student also was arrested), were convicted in September 2011 for plotting to and disrupting a public meeting. The MSU remains under university probation until December 2012.
The prosecution's case painted the MSU as rude teenagers, if not angry extremists with a history of anti-Semitism. But the MSU and their supporters saw the conviction as a consequence of Islamophobia—proof that Muslim Americans aren't accepted as legitimate political actors, especially on an issue as sensitive as Israel/Palestine. Though the case might seem like a setback—like 9/11 before it—it spurred the 20-year-old MSU to a new level of political maturity. Where there's injustice, Islam inspires them to speak out, and they'll defend their ability to do so at any cost.
“There’s a rights-based narrative around this particular form of protest that I think is different than the education, public outreach narrative that has marked the MSAs (Muslim student associations) in a post-9/11 period," says Lori Peek, a sociologist at Colorado State University and author of Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans After 9/11.
The outspokenness of the UC-Irvine MSU is unique, according to Edina Lekovic, director of policy and programming at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). Still, the group's experiences reflect the reality of Muslim American life after 9/11.
The MSU is affiliated with a national network of student associations, started in 1963 to provide Muslim students with a prayer community on college campuses. Muslim groups often define the college life of their members, just as fraternity and sororities do for other students. At UC-Irvine, the MSU hosts a constant flow of activities—weekly meetings, religious classes, and social events. Between academic classes, MSU members gather in lounges at the Cross Cultural Center, and members live together off campus. About 200 people are somewhat involved, while 80 to 100 students are very active members, Galal estimates.
As at other schools, Galal says, the Muslim community at UC-Irvine grew in numbers after 9/11 and has stayed strong since. In the past 10 years, the Muslim American community was the second fastest growing religious group in the United States, according to the 2012 Religious Congregations and Membership Study. Today, 2.6 million people are associated with mosques, up 1 million since 2002. The growth isn't just from immigration and births. The negative reaction to Islam after 9/11 led Muslims to strengthen their religious identity and join Muslim organizations in greater numbers, according to Peek.
Galal's family moved to Irvine in 2002, as she went into eighth grade, in part to join a Muslim community. In their old city, Santa Monica, her mother had been spat on and told to "go home" in the wake of 9/11. "They didn't want us growing up in that negative environment," Galal says.
Her brother matriculated at UC-Irvine, and through him Galal was introduced to the MSU. "I really admired how people I knew in MSU didn't hide their identity as Muslims," she says. She donned the hijab around the same time, her mother assured that Galal would keep it on in the face of adversity.
Muslim student groups tend to focus on educational, service or community building activities rather than political activities, says Lekovic. In the wider community, mosques, too, aim "to be a religious space rather than political space," she says.
UC-Irvine's MSU also started as a prayer group, but with a defiant streak. At the 20th anniversary gala, a founding member explained how undergrads broke off from the grad student-led MSA because women were forced to remain behind a barrier during worship. Today, the group gathers for three of the five daily prayers in an open space between a tree and vending machines outside the Cross Cultural Center.
The group's spiritual unity is inseparable from its political activism. “If you see an injustice, you should change it with your hand; if you cannot, then speak against it; if you cannot, then you should hate it in your heart, but that is the weakest level of faith,” MSU members say, quoting the same Hadith, or saying of the Prophet, to explain their commitment to justice.
The MSU is most contentious when it speaks out against Israel, but in 2012 its biggest concern was Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad brutally cracked down on his citizens in the wake of pro-democracy protests. The same day as their Shariah event, the MSU held multiple events to raise awareness about the Syrian situation. Their Shariah expert, Ammar Kahf, also is an expert in Syrian politics and gave a lunchtime lecture on recent events, while MSU members tried to attract the attention of passers-by by posing as victims of Assad in the middle of the campus' busiest pedestrian walkway.
Galal, at the bottom of the steps that double as seating, left her morning class early for the talk. She's always cared about injustice, but before joining the MSU she didn't know what she could do about it. "Sometimes I feel like I've learned so many more life skills in the MSU than I have in just going to class," says the history major, in her final year at UC-Irvine.
After Kahf concluded, Galal stretched up to the microphone and thanked him, urging her listeners to return for another protest that afternoon.
By then, it was time for prayer—a welcome break, Galal says. "If it's a busy MSU day, it's a chance for me to remember why am I doing what I'm doing. It's that constant reminder of that religious obligation of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil. All our activism is based on our religion."
This piece is part of a three-part series by Megan Sweas. Read Part II and Part III.
Submitted by Megan Sweas
Photo Credit: Mauro Parra-Miranda