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.”  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.”  One of it’s law professors called the case “unnecessary” and “harmful.” 
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. 
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.” 
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.
 “‘Irvine 11’ jury finds all 10 students guilty,” Los Angeles Times, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2011/09/irvine-11-verdict-1.html (accessed Sept 23, 2011).
 “‘Irvine 11’: UC Irvine says it supports free speech,” Los Angeles Times, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2011/09/irvine-11-university-says-it-supports-free-speech.html (accessed Sept 23, 2011).
 “‘Irvine 11’: UC Irvine law school dean calls convictions ‘harsh,'” Los Angeles Times, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2011/09/irvine-11-erwin-chemerinsky-calls-convictions-harsh.html (accessed Sept 23, 2011).
 “‘Irvine 11’: Islamic group calls verdict ‘death of democrasy,'” Los Angeles times, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2011/09/irvine-11-islamic-groups-call-verdict-death-of-democracy.html (accessed Sept 23, 2011).
 “‘Irvine 11’: Shock, anger greet verdict,” Los Angeles Times, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2011/09/shock-and-anger-greet-irvine-11-verdict.html (accessed Sept 23, 2011).
Photo credit: Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press