Thursday, February 11, 2010
The Future Leaders of the Muslim World in Action at UCI
Muslim students tried to silence Israel's U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren when he spoke at UC Irvine's Pacific Ballroom on Monday afternoon, February 8.
Ambassador Oren had come to share his historical and personal perspective on the U.S.-Israel relationship. An author, professor of history, and diplomat, Ambassador Oren is politically centrist and regarded as an expert on many issues of vital interest today. But the Muslim students were determined to silence him, deny him the right to free speech, and deny the audience the right to have civil, intellectual discourse at UCI.
The Muslim students had carefully planned their tactics. Shortly before the event began, large numbers of them gathered for prayers outside the Ballroom. They then entered and scattered throughout the room in order to disrupt the speech from different locations. They did. After every few of Ambassador Oren's sentences, a student would stand up and scream unintelligibly at him while the other students involved raucously clapped and howled. The student whose turn it was to disturb the event would then walk proudly out of the Ballroom, escorted by police, while glaring at the understandably upset and frustrated audience of over 500 people who had come to hear the Ambassador's remarks.
After at least ten interruptions, the uncivilized demonstrators marched outside to a spot closest to the wall of the Ballroom. From there, they shouted more slogans, hoping they could continue to disrupt the event.
But they could not.
The Muslim students angered the audience and embarrassed the UCI administration. They ignored pleas and reprimands from UCI officials who took the microphone. They ignored Ambassador Oren's request that he be granted the civil hospitality due to a guest of the University. They ignored his urging that they raise their concerns during the Q and A. The good news is that Ambassador Oren refused to be silenced. He had come to UCI to share his thoughts and did not abandon his right to free speech even as dozens of students coordinated this hostile demonstration. With his elegant manner, he remained calm, and stood his ground.
He stood up for free speech.
There are lessons to be learned from this event. The University will need to identify the participating students and decide what consequences they will suffer for their uncivilized behavior. The organizers of the protest were seen coordinating the screams from their seats by text messaging on their cell phones, and the Muslim Student Union president may have been among the eleven arrested for disrupting the event. The UCI administration will need to consider sanctions for the MSU since it was clear to everyone in the audience that the MSU had orchestrated the raucous effort to prevent free speech.
Every speaker can learn from Ambassador Oren's example. Whether the speaker is a U.S. General, an academic, or a representative from another country, his or her right to free speech may very well be challenged. We have seen this pattern spread throughout the U.S., especially this past year. Just a few hours before Professor Oren's event, Israel's Senior Legal Advisor, Daniel Taub, had spoken at the UCLA Law School, and also faced a disruptive demonstration. Like Ambassador Oren, Mr. Taub responded with calm, dignity, and a sincere invitation to the demonstrators that they ask questions during the Q and A. Instead, they, too, refused to cooperate, and marched out, escorted by the police.
The main lesson from Ambassador Oren is that we must stand up with dignity and eloquence for free speech. If we do not, if speakers give up and walk off the stage, we risk sacrificing the civil dialogue essential to education and a bedrock of American values.