Campus Takes on Muhammad Cartoon Controversy

College Republicans at the University of California at Irvine display the controversial Muhammad cartoons at a campus forum on Islamic extremism. The event provokes strong protests from Muslim students who denounce the cartoons as racist.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

College campuses have become a new hot spot for the debate over the controversial Danish cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad. At least one campus newspaper has published the drawings saying the public has a right to see them. And last night in Southern California, a student group at UC Irvine went a step further. The group put the cartoons on public display. NPR's Mandalit Del Barco was there.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, reporting:

Tensions grew from the moment college Republicans said they would show the images at the University of California, Irvine. They called it a key part of their forum on Islamic extremism. Hundreds of Muslim students responded by gathering outside the auditorium in protest.

(Soundbite of crowd)

CROWD: All you do is instigate. . . Stop the hate.

DEL BARCO: The chanting didn't stop the show as then organizer Jesse Petrilla unveiled the controversial cartoons including the one showing the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban.

Mr. JESSE PETRILLA (Founder, United American Committee): These cartoons have caused the deaths of over 100 people, and tonight we're going to be here to, to discuss the reasons as why.

DEL BARCO: Audience members reacted as the three Danish cartoons rarely seen in the Western media were placed on stage on easels. Alongside them were three other cartoons, anti-Semitic images taken images taken from Arabic newspapers.

Petrilla, a student and founder of a group called the United American Committee, says the event was meant to provoke discussion.

Mr. PETRILLA: How can we address an issue if we're afraid to talk about it? And how can we address the issue that people are dying over this thing if, if we're afraid to talk about it?

DEL BARCO: The images were a backdrop for what was suppose to be a thoughtful panel discussion but emotions on both sides drove the dialogue inside and outside the auditorium.

Kareem Mosaid(ph) and Alya Abonasar(ph) are members of the Muslim Student's Union. They said displaying the cartoons was not only disrespectful to Islam, but fueled a dangerous mood on campus.

Mr. KAREEM MOSAID (UC Student): Their intent has been to provoke the Muslims and to incite hate, to incite Islamophobic sentiments on campus.

Ms. ALYA ABONASAR (UC Student): They do have the right to show the cartoon, you know, with freedom of speech. But with that freedom comes a responsibility.

(Soundbite of Islamic prayer being chanted)

DEL BARCO: As Muslim students bowed in prayer, police kept a watchful eye. Across the barricade, counter-protesters waved Israeli and American flags and sang patriotic songs.

(Soundbite of group singing)

GROUP: God Bless America, my home sweet home.

DEL BARCO: There was never any violence but lots of heated exchanges like this one between Sandra Belafano(ph) and UCI Alumna Lawrence Hashagi(ph).

Ms. SANDRA BELAFANO (Student): Freedom of speech, yes, we don't want to lose it here in. That's what America's about.

Mr. LAWRENCE HASHAGI (UCI Alumna): You have the legal right to do what you want, but you should morally refrain, but you should morally refrain from it. I can also go and make racist comments towards a certain group of people right? But why would I?

DEL BARCO: University officials put on extra security last night but didn't get in the way of the program saying students on both sides had a right to their say.

Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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