- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

From combined dispatches

IRVINE, Calif. — A student panel discussion that included a display of the prophet Muhammad cartoons descended into chaos, with one speaker calling Islam an “evil religion” and audience members nearly coming to blows.

Organizers of Tuesday night’s forum at the University of California at Irvine said they showed the cartoons as part of a larger debate on Islamic extremism.

The panel, which included one Muslim speaker, was sponsored by the College Republicans and the United American Committee (UAC), a group that says it promotes awareness of internal threats facing America.

But several hundred protesters, including members of the Muslim Student Union, argued the event was the equivalent of hate speech disguised as freedom of expression.

The protesters gathered before the 7 p.m. forum behind security barricades and later waved placards and shouted to those entering the auditorium, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“Hey, Republicans. Stop the hate. All you do is instigate,” the crowd shouted.

During the discussion in a nearly packed 424-seat campus auditorium, six cartoons were displayed: three depicting Muhammad and three anti-Semitic cartoons.

The discussion got off to a contentious start with the Council on American-Islamic Relations — an invited guest — boycotting the event and calling the UAC a “fringe group.”

Tensions quickly escalated when the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, founder of the conservative Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, said that Islam was an “evil religion” and that all Muslims hate America.

At one point, campus police removed two men, one of them a Muslim, after they nearly came to blows.

Thousands of Muslims worldwide have protested, sometimes violently, since the cartoons were published in a Danish newspaper and in other European newspapers. Islam widely holds that representations of Muhammad are banned for fear they could lead to idolatry.

Osman Umarji, former president of the Muslim Student Union, equated the decision by the student panel to display the prophet drawings to the debasement of Jews in Germany before the Holocaust.

“The agenda is to spread Islamophobia and create hysteria against Muslims similar to what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany,” said Mr. Umarji, an electrical engineer who graduated from Irvine last spring. “Freedom of speech has its limits.”

Brock Hill, vice president of the College Republicans, said his group had a First Amendment right to display the cartoons.

“We’re not going against Islam whatsoever,” he said. “This is about free speech and the free marketplace of ideas.”

Lauren Chramosta, 18, a freshman, said she didn’t know much about Islam and attended the forum hoping to learn more.

“It was helpful to listen to different views,” she said. “But I think [the Muslim panelist] was shut down so many times that he didn’t get a fair shake.”

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