Are Muslims permanent foreigners in the US? by Ryan Bell

Today the LA Times reported that “After more than two days of deliberation, an Orange County jury…found 10 Muslim students guilty of two misdemeanors to conspire and then disrupt a February 2010 speech at UC Irvine last year by the Israeli ambassador to the United States.” [1] This comes on the same day that Palestinian leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, introduced the Palestinian bid for statehood by the United Nations. All indications are that this request will be denied. This strange coincidence leaves me feeling that the challenge of peace in our world is more fragile than my optimistic nature would like to believe.

For a year now, interfaith leaders have been advising restraint in this case. UC Irvine administered disciplinary actions against the 11 students for their behavior, but many have felt that the criminal prosecution of conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor was excessive and a political move on the part of the Orange County District Attorney.

In October of last year, the Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative, of which I am honored to be a part, wrote a letter to the DA urging him to cease the criminal investigation and leave the disciplinary action to the University. Earlier today the University also agreed that the disciplinary actions meted out by the administration was “sufficient.” [2] One of it’s law professors called the case “unnecessary” and “harmful.” [3]

At stake in this debate is the question of free speech and the inflaming of Islamophobia, especially in Orange County. According to an LA Times report, “Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council, called the ‘Irvine 11’ guilty verdict the ‘death of democracy in our country.’ He said the verdict reflects a “growing malaise of Islamophobia” in the United States. [4]

As a Christian, I find the conduct of the Orange County DA profoundly unhelpful. While the behavior of the Irvine 11 was unacceptable in that context, this kind of legal action will not build a more peaceable Orange County. A profound learning moment was missed here – and on a University campus where this kind of robust debate and exposure to differing ideas should be celebrated and protected.

In a community featuring some of the largest Christian churches in Southern California, Muslims have one again been declared as outsiders. In the words of Shakeel Syed, “I believe the heart of America has died today…. This is clearly an indication that Muslims are permanent foreigners, at least in Orange County.” [5]

Christians are called to welcome – and even, love – the stranger; those on the margins of society. There nothing Christian whatsoever about cultivating xenophobic communities and nurturing fear and suspicion of the “other.” What our communities need are leaders – women and men who can stand between opposing sides and create a space of dialogue and understanding. When we have done this in our congregation on a range of topics, we have watched understanding erode fear. Unfortunately today, in Orange County, fear had the last word. This verdict and the resultant anger is not quarantined, either. It will have repercussions around the country. People of faith and good will must stand against this kind of action and build enduring relationships, which will create pathways of peace and understanding.


[1] “‘Irvine 11’ jury finds all 10 students guilty,” Los Angeles Times, (accessed Sept 23, 2011).

[2] “‘Irvine 11’: UC Irvine says it supports free speech,” Los Angeles Times, (accessed Sept 23, 2011).

[3] “‘Irvine 11’: UC Irvine law school dean calls convictions ‘harsh,'” Los Angeles Times, (accessed Sept 23, 2011).

[4] “‘Irvine 11’: Islamic group calls verdict ‘death of democrasy,'” Los Angeles times, (accessed Sept 23, 2011).

[5] “‘Irvine 11’: Shock, anger greet verdict,” Los Angeles Times, (accessed Sept 23, 2011).

Photo credit: Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press

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8 thoughts on “Are Muslims permanent foreigners in the US? by Ryan Bell

  1. Sadly, some in the US understand Islam to be a nationality, rather than a religious tradition, and are very confused about the content of that religion, based on the behavior of a tiny minority of Muslim extremists. This is misunderstanding with tragic consequences. Shame.

    1. Hi Chrystal,

      That’s a really interesting point. I never thought that people might consider Islam a nationality, but that would not be entirely surprising. I guess a lot of folks have difficulty ‘categorizing’ the ‘other.’ Very insightful!

      All the best,

    2. The perceptions are not just based on what they see of the “few extremists”. There is a whole concerted effort, a planned and executed movement to create fear in people about Muslims by telling lies about them and what Islam is. It’s even been discovered that some of the “x-Muslims” reporting out there about how “bad” Islam is, were never Muslims.

  2. Hi Ryan,

    I think this is a really neat and important article. I’m wondering, though, about the association between the U.N. vote and the conviction of the Irvine 11. I am not of the impression that they are at all related. Could you say more about the connection you are drawing between them?

    All the best,

    1. Joshua,

      I’m afraid I left that a little unclear. I’m actually not trying to draw a very deep and strong parallel between the two events. The only point I was trying to make is that peace is fragile. People’s attention has been focused on the Palestinian bit at the UN, but meanwhile, in Orange County, Palestinian and Arab students were rebuffed in an over-the-top prosecution for expressing their anger.

  3. “While the behavior of the Irvine 11 was unacceptable in that context, this kind of legal action will not build a more peaceable Orange County.”

    Wrong, wrong wrong.

    There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING wrong with this kind of behavior. These are students exercising their right to free speech – even if it was found to be disruptive. I’m embarrassed of our country. I myself was at Oxford not two years ago listening to the Prime Minister of Israel speak at the Sheldonian Theatre on Campus when the EXACT SAME action was taken by individual students: they got up, spoke out prepared statements, sat down one after the other. Other people clapped, other people yelled “shut up!” and the Prime Minister even occasionally stopped speaking and responded, as well as the head of the Oxford Union.

    NO ONE got arrested and no action was taken against those students even by the University. WHY? Why is it that England has adopted the most basic attitude toward free speech and student activism and the US, who supposedly fought against the tyranny of Great Britain in our revolution has now suddenly switched places with them?

    So I may like this writer but he is irresponsible in taking this stance, even though he is sympathetic to these students. Fair reporting does not mean being on two sides at once. Look at the laws of this country and when you see them broken don’t justify them by the above statement – which is FALSE. You may not like the behavior of students interrupting a speech but it’s their right on a campus to do so. It’s called REAL democracy.

    1. In the U.S., the issue is also one of private property. People are allowed to exercise their right to free speech in the public square or their own property. Yet they can be trespassed (and arrested) for doing so on others’ property.

      So the issue is more complicated than you originally suggested, B. Topal. However, I agree that the university’s disciplinary action was more than enough — and that the criminal charges were unproductive and surprising.

    2. B.Topal,

      I’m sympathetic to what you’re saying, but Joshua is correct. There was no free speech violation here. A person does not have a free speech right to impede the free speech rights of others (I’m not a laywer so I’m not sure I’m saying this exactly right). Even the Muslim leaders of CAIR and MPAC here in Los Angeles agree that the Irvine 11 did not act in the proper way.

      That being said, the Palestinian students at UCI certainly do have a right to express their views in a safe and peaceful environment. The prosecution, in my opinion, was not warranted and contributes to Islamophobia.

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