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A Political Yet Peaceful Graduation at UC Irvine

About 30 Muslim students wear green garments that carry Arabic writing praising God. They show unity with Hamas, critics say.

June 20, 2004|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

Students, friends and family members celebrated graduation at UC Irvine on Saturday amid heightened security and moments of disagreement about the meaning of stoles worn over the robes of a handful of Muslim graduates.

The broad strips of green cloth have been the focus of a heated debate between Muslim and Jewish students for several days.

Muslim student leaders said about 30 graduates wore the stoles -- double the number predicted on Friday -- as an expression of their faith.

Each stole bore Arabic lettering on one side reading, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger," and on the other was a symbol meaning, "God, increase my knowledge."

Critics say the stoles signify support for the militant Hamas movement and are part of a campus campaign to intimidate Jewish students.

On Saturday, five members of the American Jewish Congress from off campus spent part of the day at UC Irvine to show support for the Jewish students. They accused the university's administration of ignoring Muslim students' threats and speeches that incite violence toward Jews.

"We acknowledge it [lettering on the stoles] is a call to God," said Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the group. "However, we also acknowledge that the symbol and expression has been used to glorify the act of suicide bombing."

At the graduation ceremony Saturday for the School of Social Ecology, one of seven commencement exercises held during the day, she and several others in the group confronted members of the Muslim Student Union.

"Just as other organizations wear sashes for honors awards or clubs, so the same way [Muslim students] show their club and religious affiliation by wearing" the stoles, said Osman Umarji, president of the group. "It's completely a nonissue," he said.

Student Omar Sharif, who was wearing one of the stoles, said it was merely an expression of his faith and suggested that critics are appealing to unfair stereotypes.

"The Muslim community here is nothing but doctors and lawyers and engineers. They're living the American dream," said Sharif, who said he was qualified to participate in the ceremony although he will not complete his course work until this summer.

Security was tight Saturday as police prepared to head off any clashes over the stoles.

Campus Police Sgt. Steve Monsanto said nearly every campus officer was on duty, reinforced by the Irvine Police Department and some private security guards.

The day passed without incident, he said.

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