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, Irvine, said they showed the cartoons as part of a larger debate on Islamic extremism.
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.
Although there were numerous heated exchanges, no violence was reported.
The panel, which included one Muslim speaker, was sponsored by the College Republicans and the United American Committee, a group that says it promotes awareness of internal threats facing America.
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 United American Committee 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.
People repeatedly interrupted the talk and, at one point, campus police removed two men, one of them a Muslim, after they nearly came to blows.
Later, panelists were cheered when they referred to Muslims as fascists and accused mainstream Muslim-American civil rights groups of being "cheerleaders for terror."
"I put out a call to Muslims in America: Put out a fatwa on [Usama] bin Laden, put out a fatwa on [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi," said panelist Lee Kaplan, a UAC spokesman. "Support America in the war on terror."
Thousands of Muslims worldwide have protested, sometimes violently, after 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 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."
Mohamed Eldessouky, 20, a criminology student who attended the discussion, said he was disappointed because he felt the panel and the audience were biased against Islam.
"I entered it with an open mind, but I thought it was totally biased. I thought the panelists would be more balanced. I think it did more harm than good," he said.
Lauren Chramosta, 18, a freshman, said she didn't know much about Islam and attended 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."