By Yasmin Mogahed
Earlier this month, students at the University of California at Irvine and Berkeley passed a resolution in support of 11 UC-Irvine students who interrupted Israeli Ambassador Oren’s speech on February 8. Similar resolutions were passed at UCLA, UC-San Diego, and UC-Davis. Despite the support, theIrvine students still face expulsion and even misdemeanor charges. But what many do not realize is that the protest at Irvine was not unique.
In January 2008, another group of protesters did the very same thing. That time the speaker wasn’t an ambassador. He was a presidential candidate who is now president of the United States. While Barack Obama was speaking in Rochester N.H., a group of 10 anti-abortion protesters interrupted his speech to make a statement. But what is most interesting is not what the protesters did during his speech; it is what happened just after they were escorted out. Obama addressed the audience and said: “Let me just say this though. Some people got organized to do that. That’s part of the American tradition we are proud of. And that’s hard too, standing in the midst of people who disagree with you and letting your voice be heard.”
The American tradition we are proud of”? What? Looks like the president has a totally different take on this type of protest than the administration at UCI. Those officials argue that the protesters impeded the ambassador’s First Amendment right to free speech. That seems like a hard sell. Oren was not prevented from speaking; he was able to finish his entire talk with time left over. The interruptions were brief, did not constitute hate speech and did not incite violence.
It is important to note that the protest at Irvine was not some sort of emotional outburst by a group of angry Muslim men. The incident needs to be framed as it was: a controlled, deliberate act of civil disobedience. Rosa Parks was tired when she refused to get up from her seat, but she did so deliberately to make a statement against injustice. At the time, no doubt, many people thought she was out of line.
The Irvine students weren’t just standing up for Muslim rights. They were using their freedom of speech to stand up for the human rights of those whose voices would otherwise go unheard. And isn’t that the very “American tradition” this country was founded on? In fact, freedom of speech is the tradition Gallup finds ranks among the highest in what Muslims admire most about the West. Yet, Gallup also finds that most Muslims don’t believe we live these values in our treatment of them.
Excluding Muslim Americans from the very tradition we value most sends a chilling message to an already marginalized group–and to the entire world. Moreover, pushing Muslim Americans out of the normal political sphere, only serves as a recruiting point for the very group we’re trying to defeat: the radicals.
Yasmin Mogahed is a writer and professor of written communication at Cardinal Stritch University.