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Debate Colors Muslims' Plan to Wear Stoles at UCI Graduation

Campus officials seek mediator to decide whether garments show faith -- or support for terrorism.

June 18, 2004|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

The Arab-Israeli conflict has stretched from the Middle East to UC Irvine as students and administrators debate the meaning of green stoles some Muslim students plan to wear over their robes at this weekend's graduation.

The stoles, critics say, are meant to show support for the terrorist group Hamas; the Muslim Student Union says the stoles represent religious solidarity.

Dean of Students Sally Peterson said she held a two-hour meeting Thursday with Muslim and Jewish student leaders, UC Irvine's police chief and Manuel Gomez, vice chancellor for student affairs, to try to reach an agreement over the stoles. Peterson said she had met earlier with a representative of the American Jewish Congress.

She said the two sides were waiting for an unbiased third party to translate the Arabic writing on the garment before releasing a statement calling for a "safe and celebrative commencement."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 19, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
UC Irvine graduation -- An article in Friday's California section about a controversy over what some Muslim graduates would wear at graduation ceremonies said UC Irvine officials provided a statement to Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, but that he did not read it. Fox officials said they did not receive the statement, which disputed his suggestion that the students intended to show support for the terrorist group Hamas by wearing green stoles over their robes.

The dispute demonstrates the level of distrust on campus that Muslim, Jewish and pro-Israel students feel toward one another. Last month, a campus display put up by the Society of Arab Students was burned down. It had depicted the controversial wall Israel is building to keep suicide bombers out of the country.

Merav Ceren, president of Anteaters for Israel, which uses UC Irvine's mascot as part of its name, said Muslim and Arab students had sponsored an Anti-Zionist Week and had brought several anti-Israel speakers to campus, some of whom she said used anti-Semitic rhetoric.

"Mistrust is a good word," she said.

Peterson said that according to the Muslim students, the Arabic lettering on the stole translated as "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger" and "God, increase my knowledge."

Leila Shaikley, a UC Irvine freshman and a spokeswoman for the Muslim students, said the words on the stoles were known as the "Shahada."

Some of the dispute, Peterson said, appears to be over the meaning of the Arabic word shahada.

Ceren said that the word was Hamas' call for Muslims to martyr themselves.

The issue received nationwide attention this week when Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said the students would wear the stoles "apparently signifying their support for the terrorist group Hamas and for suicide bombers in general."

Peterson said UCI provided O'Reilly with a statement, which he did not read, that disputed that.

Appearing with O'Reilly was former Secret Service Agent Ronald Williams, who called UCI "a hotbed for Islamic radical fundamentalism."

Peterson countered: "If we had any terrorists on campus, police would know about it.... For him to make that statement is totally irresponsible."

Peterson said she had received several phone calls as a result of the show.

She said 11 students out of the 6,000 graduates were expected to wear the stoles, which hang on the neck and fall down about a foot on each side.

She said students wore them last year at graduations at UC Irvine, UC Berkeley and UCLA.

Students have long worn a variety of costumes and symbols at graduations, ranging from the political to the religious to the comical. In a letter to faculty, students and staff posted on UC Irvine's Web page, Chancellor Ralph Cicerone said the students' right of expression was protected by the Constitution.

"UC Irvine has never encouraged or prevented such expressions, and by allowing them to take place, we are not endorsing or supporting particular points of view," he said. "We are simply doing our part as a public university to defend the 1st Amendment rights of all individuals in our society. And we will continue to do so, even though it may upset some people. When one group loses rights, the rights of all individuals and groups are at risk."

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