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The Region

UCI Graduation Controversy Is Overblown, Muslim Students Say

Arabic on stoles to be worn over gowns praises God, the group says. Critics say Hamas militants wear similar items.

June 19, 2004|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

A UC Irvine Muslim student group on Friday denounced critics who accused the organization of planning to show support for terrorists by wearing Islamic stoles at today's commencement ceremony.

"I think it is ridiculous that something so minimal has been made into a national issue," Osman Umarji, president of the Muslim Student Union, said during a news conference at the Irvine campus.

The student group and the university came under the media spotlight this week when Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said on his program that UC Irvine Muslim students would wear stoles -- strips of cloth over their gowns -- "apparently signifying their support for the terrorist group Hamas and for suicide bombers in general."

The stoles bear white Arabic lettering that reads, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger," and "God, increase my knowledge," the Muslim students say.

Hamas militants are often seen in green headbands and similar stoles, critics of the Muslim student group say.

"To suggest there is only [a religious] meaning is disingenuous at best," said Kevin S. O'Grady, an associate regional director with the Anti-Defamation League, who attended the news conference.

But Umarji and other Muslim leaders say that to equate their faith with support for radical groups is not only unfair, it is dangerous.

"We fear what might happen next," said Umarji, who was wearing a stole. "Will I be a target because of my beard? Or will a woman wearing a scarf?"

The 22-year-old junior, who will not be part of today's graduation ceremonies, said about 15 students are expected to wear the stoles. "It is a symbol of unity" among Muslim students, said Umarji. "Bill O'Reilly doesn't state the facts. He makes up lies as he goes along."

University officials have already said that they will respect the students' 1st Amendment rights and allow them to wear the bands. They pointed out that Muslim students wore stoles at graduation ceremonies last year at UC Irvine, UCLA and UC Berkeley without incident.

But the controversy demonstrates the level of distrust at the Irvine 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 out Palestinian suicide bombers.

Merav Ceren, president of Anteaters for Israel, which uses UC Irvine's mascot as part of its name, said Friday that a Holocaust memorial on campus had been similarly destroyed.

"You worry about your safety after a while," said Ceren, who spoke to reporters after the Muslim Student Union news conference.

She was surrounded by Muslim students who watched her and shook their heads in disapproval.

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