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The Irvine 11: An Example of UCI’s Islamophobia Towards Campus Activism

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On Feb. 8, 2010, 11 students — eight from UCI and three from UCR — disrupted a speech given at UCI by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. One by one, the students rose and interrupted Oren’s talk, reciting lines from international laws that Israel has violated. The students were detained, and ten of them were convicted of misdemeanor charges. The group became known as the “Irvine 11.”

On Nov. 15, 2022, twelve years after the Irvine 11 disruption, multiple audience members interrupted former presidential candidate Andrew Yang as he gave a speech at UCI. One of them was ushered out of the room while the others were ignored.

The Irvine 11 and the interruptions of Yang’s discussion were both forms of disruption, yet, the reaction to the Irvine 11 was significantly harsher. This indicates UCI’s discriminatory reaction to student activism and free speech, which is based in Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism.

UCI administration did not respond to a request for comment on the Irvine 11 and the Andrew Yang incident.

In an interview with The New University, Shaheen Nassar, one of the Irvine 11, described the dehumanizing way that he and his fellow peaceful protestors were treated as a result of disrupting Oren’s speech. He felt the handcuffs were cutting into his wrists, and his shoulder almost popped out of his socket due to the way the officers handled him. They were detained for hours, and the only reason they weren’t put in jail was because there was not enough room for them. 

“It’s part of the general trend of the racial criminalization of Muslim men. Yeah, it was frightening, it was dehumanizing,” he said.

In contrast, the Andrew Yang protestors were either escorted out of the room without force or ignored. The difference between these protestors and the Irvine 11 is that the latter were Muslim and protesting a speech concerning Israel, provoking a cruel reaction rooted in anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia.

Osama Shabaik, another member of the Irvine 11, detailed much more disruptive protests that occurred at UCI around the time of their own disruption in an interview for a documentary on the event. In these other protests, students disrupted lectures and classes, yet they were not detained, attacked or given misdemeanor charges. 

Nassar said that he and his fellow protestors knew that they risked the possibility of being discriminated against for exercising their right to free speech. It is startling to think that these students expected to be criminalized and treated cruelly for protesting as Muslim men post-9/11. This expectation reflects on UCI’s failure to empower its Muslim students to freely voice their opinions without fear of being oppressed. 

“What…made it evidently racist was how it deviated from the norm of the administration’s behavior towards other student protesters who, as I mentioned before, were way more profane, inappropriate and rude compared to ours. Ours was actually very polite, you know, relative to many other protests on campus,” Nassar said.

Tony Rackauckas, the Orange County District Attorney who filed criminal charges against the Irvine 11, wrote that the First Amendment rights of Oren and the 700-member audience had been violated. He claimed that the audience was robbed of the question and answer section of the speech and Oren was deprived of his right to give his speech.

Nassar argued that violations of free speech can only come from powerful institutions, and that a very obscure law was used in the misdemeanor charges. He felt that the Irvine 11’s freedom of speech was violated because their demonstration against Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians was criminalized. Considering UCI and the U.S.’s passionate claims to protection of free speech, it is evident that the Irvine 11’s free speech was violated because Muslims and Palestinians are not included within that protection.

Another glaring indicator of the discriminatory treatment of the Irvine 11 is the title of Rackauckas’s article in the Orange County Register: “Rebuttal: (Tony Rackauckas) Drawing a line against organized thuggery.” The key word is “thuggery,” a label that appeared in Nassar’s recounting of his experience. He explained that while he saw himself as a young, intelligent person on campus showing outrage for a worthy cause, he was seen as a threat to public safety — a Muslim thug. This demonization of Muslim students perpetuates harmful stereotypes about Muslims and encourages violence. It dehumanizes students who participate in peaceful protests and conveys to Muslim and Palestinian students that they are not allowed to speak out.

Rackauckas’s usage of “thug” is especially harmful because it falsely paints the Irvine 11 as unthoughtful ruffians who caused disruption without reason. A study conducted by UCI Professors Jonathan Alexander and Susan Jarratt revealed that the Irvine 11 attempted various forms of activism prior to choosing disruption. From debate to silent walkouts, the group thoughtfully discovered that the only way for their voices to be heard was to cause a disruption. 

As for those human rights violations Nassar mentioned, the Irvine 11’s protest was deeply connected to Operation Cast Lead, a 22-day military assault Israel conducted against the Gaza Strip, a densely populated region which in 2008 was home to nearly 1.4 million Palestinians. Between 1,385 and 1,419 Palestinans were killed, a majority of them being civilians. Soon after this mass killing, Oren was invited to UCI. 

The Muslim Student Union at UCI provided a statement detailing Oren’s connections to Operation Cast Lead, including his participation in the Israeli Defense Force, his support for the war in Gaza and his refusal to cooperate in a fact-finding mission accusing Israel of human rights violations. The invitation of Oren showed Muslim and Palestinian students at UCI that their university condoned ethnic cleansing and mass murder. The silencing of the Irvine 11 reaffirmed this Islamophobic, racist devaluing of Muslim and Palestinian students. 

“The position that supports colonization or ethnic cleansing or apartheid is morally and intellectually invalid…This is not something that should be celebrated in an institution of higher education,” Nassar said.

Anteater Spirit: Student Activism That (Re)shaped UCI, 1965 to Now” is an exhibit in the Langson Library that takes its viewers through various eras of student activism at UCI. Current students in UCI’s popular “Humanities Core” track were asked to visit this exhibit for an assignment. The exhibit has a section dedicated to the Irvine 11 with a neutral, surface-level description of the events, which is disappointing but unsurprising. 

As Nassar puts it, the acknowledgement of the Irvine 11 is a small victory, but the exhibit does not acknowledge the hurtful implications of Oren’s visit to UCI for Palestinian and Muslim students. The exhibit fails to address the actual reason that the Irvine 11 protested, while descriptions of other events in the exhibit do include such reasoning. 

“It doesn’t talk about how, for example, white phosphorus, [a] chemical weapon that has been outlawed internationally, [was] used against the unarmed civilian population, against children, causing chemical burns… I think that they’re sort of taking advantage of the… popularity or buzz that came around with [the case] showing sort of like almost a disdain for the very sadistic apathy that we were challenging,” Nassar said.

It is reasonable to mention Operation Cast Lead or any reference to human rights violations in Palestine that provide vital context for Irvine 11, yet the exhibit jumps straight into a “disruption” whose motivation is nowhere to be found. The Islamophobic and racist reactions to the Irvine 11 have clearly impacted the event’s perception even over a decade later. 

The Irvine 11 protest may have occurred over a decade ago, but the Islamophobic, racist treatment of peacefully protesting students at UCI bleeds into the current campus climate. From the incomplete story showcased in the Langson Library exhibit to the Andrew Yang disruptions receiving little to no backlash, the discriminatory attitudes are clear. UCI needs to acknowledge that its Muslim students were treated unjustly in order for all students on campus to feel valued and included. 

Siraj Bajwa is an Opinion Intern for the winter 2023 quarter. He can be reached at sirajb@uci.edu.