The showing of three cartoons of the prophet Muhammad at a conference last week on radical Islam at UC Irvine attracted a near-capacity crowd of about 400, including leaders of some local Jewish groups, while protesters demonstrated outside.
A palpable tension descended on the audience at the unveiling of the three cartoons, including one that depicted a bomb in a turban on the prophet Muhammad's head. The printing of these cartoons -- and several others -- in a Danish newspaper prompted some Muslim religious leaders and governments to incite violent protests, which have sometimes turned deadly. The display at UC Irvine also included three anti-Semitic cartoons that have run in the Arab press.
The conference's co-sponsors, the College Republicans and the conservative United American Committee, said they wanted to affirm the First Amendment and to stimulate an important discussion about the growing threat of radical Islam.
"We believe unfettered speech is the only way we can come to a better understanding of what's going on in the world," said Francis Barraza, treasurer of the College Republicans. "Things that are obscene, things that are crazy, things that are uncomfortable should be exposed. And they can't be exposed if they're shrouded."
The Muslim Student Union vehemently complained to university officials about the showing on the grounds that the cartoons are an affront to Islam. Instead they held a raucous protest outside, where more than 350 Muslims prayed and carried signs against hate speech and in praise of Muhammad.
"As a civilization and a society, we speak of spreading world peace, democracy and compassion," said Osman Umarji, a former Muslim Student Union president who now advises the group. "Inciting religious hatred goes against that and only seeks to polarize a world in which we need more understanding and compassion."
No violence was reported, although a Muslim heckler and another audience member nearly came to blows during the panel discussion.
Some of the Jews in attendance accused the Muslim Student Union (MSU) of hypocrisy. They asserted that, over the years, the MSU has invited speakers to campus -- over the objections of Jewish students and groups -- whose attacks on Zionism crossed the line into anti-Semitism. The Muslim group has denied the charge, saying it opposes Israel and its oppression of Palestinians -- not Judaism.
Jewish leaders called that a double standard.
"When hate speech is aimed at Jews, it's OK," said Gary Ratner, executive director of the local chapter of the American Jewish Congress. "But when they perceive hate speech aimed at Muslims, it's not OK."
Security was tight, with metal barriers separating protesters from those lined up to enter.
Inside, the commentary was hardly all about conciliation. The Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, president and founder of the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, repeatedly called Islam an "evil religion," although he said Muslims weren't. Homeless activist Ted Hayes seemed to blame Muslims for selling Africans into slavery during a heated exchange with an audience member.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) declined an invitation to participate, citing the sponsorship by the United American Committee, which it finds objectionable, said CAIR spokeswoman Sabiha Khan.
Besides Ratner, other politically active Jews in attendance included Larry Greenfield, California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition; Roz Rothstein, executive director of the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, and Allyson Taylor, associate director of the American Jewish Congress, Western Region.