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Cartoon Display Protested

Muslim students and supporters assail a UCI forum displaying Muhammad cartoons.

March 01, 2006|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

Praying, shouting and waving signs, about 200 Muslims and their supporters converged on the UC Irvine campus Tuesday evening to protest a forum on Islamic extremism that included the unveiling of cartoons lampooning Muhammad.

The caricatures, first printed in European newspapers, incited riots worldwide that led to dozens of deaths last month.

Organizers of the UCI forum, which drew about 250 people to an auditorium at the student union, said the event was aimed at having an open discussion about the cartoons and the furor they'd caused.

The drawings were displayed alongside anti-Semitic and anti-Western cartoons that organizers said were published in Muslim nations.

Protesters denounced the event, which was co-sponsored by a student Republican group, saying it would incite "Islamophobia" and offend local followers of Islam. The religion forbids any depictions of Muhammad.

Protesters gathered well before the 7 p.m. forum behind security barricades. They placed mats on the ground and held prayers. Later, they waved placards and shouted to those waiting to enter the auditorium.

"Hey, Republicans! Stop the hate. All you do is instigate!" the crowd shouted.

"Yes to Freedom of Speech, No to Hate Speech," a sign read.

Osman Umarji, former president of UCI's Muslim Student Union, compared the Muhammad cartoons to Nazi Germany illustrations that "denigrated and dehumanized" Jews.

Across from the Islamic demonstrators, about a dozen counter-protesters waved U.S. and Israeli flags and sang "God Bless America."

Ted Hayes, an activist for the homeless in Los Angeles and one of four panelists invited to speak at the forum, criticized the Muslim students.

"Why don't they protest against terrorism?" he shouted before entering the auditorium.

Other panelists included Abed A. Jlelati of Free Muslims Coalition; Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a conservative minister; and Lee Kaplan, spokesperson for the United American Committee, which co-sponsored the event with the campus College Republicans. The Council on American-Islamic Relations was invited but boycotted the event.

Inside the auditorium, six easels held covered drawings that were unveiled shortly into the program. Three of them were of Muhammad.

The scene was unruly at times, with speakers shouting at hecklers and over one another. Police escorted at least two people out.

Jesse Petrilla, founder of the United American Committee, defended the event.

"It really comes down to free speech," he said. "How can we address the issues that we face if we're afraid?"

Petrilla, 22, said his group "promotes awareness of Islamic extremism."

He said he chose UCI because the campus has been a hotbed of debate over Islamic extremism. Two years ago, Muslim students created a controversy by wearing green stoles to graduation, which critics viewed as supporting the Palestinian extremist group Hamas. The students countered that the stoles were worn for religious reasons, not political ones.

Petrilla said the forum was initially planned as a discussion about Muslim groups in the U.S. not doing enough to fight terrorism, but that the controversy over the cartoons offered new material for discussion.

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