Over 300 UC Irvine community members gathered on Wednesday, May 30 to hold hands in a circle one quarter the size of Aldrich Park to support freedom of religion. The event was put on by the Academic Senate in response to rumors of religious intolerance at UCI.
Martha Mecartney, chair of the Academic Senate, gave a speech about the first amendment rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Then she thanked various religions leaders from Orange County for joining the ceremony.
Faculty and students, including religious groups such as the Baha’i Club, Hillel Foundation of Orange County, Muslim Student Union and Interfaith, stood for tolerance while the band Novus covered the song ‘All You Need is Love’ by the Beatles. At the end of the song, 20 white doves were released from cages to signify the end of the demonstration but not the end of UCI’s commitment to religious tolerance.
President of Interfaith at UCI John Stupar said, ‘We needed to have this today. There have been dissentions on campus between the faiths. It’s not all the people. It’s just some radicals who are not at peace with each other. But the majority, sometimes called the silent majority, wants peace.’
Problems have arisen between religious groups at UCI over the last few years, as was apparent by political demonstrations such as the MSU’s anti-Zionist week. Students have opposing views on the state of Israel. One view is that the living conditions in Palestine are intolerable, with 760,000 refugees struggling for stability. The other view is that the security of Israel is threatened by those questioning whether it should exist.
Religious groups participating in political debate can affect the way that arguments are interpreted: sometimes words are misconstrued to have religious overtones. ‘Talk about whether Israel should exist becomes hate speech for some people,’ Mecartney said. ‘We should stop hate speech by opening up dialogue and counter-arguing.’
Radical speakers came to UCI this year to talk about the state of Israel. Fringe thinkers used terminology that seemed to attack students’ ethnic and religious backgrounds, such as when a speaker referred to the Israelis as ‘Zionist Jews’ and said, ‘It’s just a matter of time before the state of Israel will be wiped off the face of the earth,’ or when Anteaters for Israel, Hillel and Alpha Epsilon Pi invited Pepperdine’s professor Daniel Pipes, who said, ‘The will of the Palestinians must be crushed.’
Despite political tensions among religious groups on campus, so far evidence of anti-Semitism or anti-Muslimism is arbitrary.
Instances of religious intolerance on campus are, if anything, rare and don’t represent the majority of students. ‘I feel like there is religious tolerance on campus because people of different religious, spiritual and ethnic groups come up to our [Baha’i] booth on campus,’ said first-year political science major Helia Ighani. ‘I feel that people are very open-minded.’
Mecartney said, ‘To talk about religion is taboo, but some of us come from very strong religions that invoke tolerance. To see religion as being negative, with slurs between different groups, concerned me. It pained me to see the events put a negative reputation at UCI.’
‘The media exploited the little tiffs between MSU and Hillel,’ said third-year mechanical engineering major Turaj Hosseimi. ‘Bad publicity was part of the motivation on campus for this event, but it was not the main purpose. The event was to show unity of spiritual groups. Tolerance is a precursor to unity.’
‘I’ve heard so much about hate speech and intolerance, but I wanted to come and be a witness for peace and respect,’ said Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Bat Yahm. ‘I was very strengthened by the number of like-minded people here.’
Miller came to the religious tolerance event with his friend Rev. Peter Haynes of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Parish Church. The two met at various religious diversity meetings. They bonded over their common interests. ‘It was God first, then baseball, then rock ‘n’ roll,’ Haynes said.
The president of Interfaith was neutral about religious groups on campus. Like many of the attendees, Stupar talked openly about religion.
He brought together the Abrahamic faith, saying that ‘Muslims believe in Jesus, and Jesus was a Jew. Jesus said, ‘The only two commandments I give you are love God and love one another.’ Whatever path you are taking