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Commence by Talking

June 23, 2004

There's no question that Muslim students at UC Irvine had the right to appear at commencement ceremonies wearing a long band of green fabric over their shoulders lettered with two Islamic sayings. The only real question is whether Jewish and Arab students learned anything from the resulting conflict about the lifelong worth of approaching sensitive issues with scholarly inquiry and a willingness to talk -- especially with the people with whom they have the least in common.

Some Jewish students called the stoles a sign of support for Arab terrorism, saying the color and the sayings on them resembled armbands worn by Hamas members. In fact, the words reiterated the basic Islamic tenet that "there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger," and, fittingly, the prayer, "God, increase my knowledge." Only Muslims were called on to explain or defend their symbols, though students at the Irvine commencement commonly wear all manner of costumes and sashes, some with deep cultural meaning, others meant for a laugh.

But relations between Jewish and Muslim students have been no laughing matter at the suburban campus. Bad feeling grew into open rancor this year, especially after a Muslim student group sponsored an anti-Zionism week with speakers whose oral histories of the Middle East were one-sided at best.

Too bad that during four years of what was supposed to be intellectual discovery, students in both groups clung instead to the worst traits of popular culture -- a tendency to simplify matters into jingoism and to articulate slogans instead of reasoned debate.

After the Saturday ceremony, a handful of Muslims and Jews talked informally about the incident. Chances are, they didn't agree. But they talked. That's a commencement.

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