UC takes on Islamophobia

Alex Schmaus reports on how University of California students are standing up to anti-Muslim attacks on their campuses.

Tammi Rossman-BenjaminTammi Rossman-Benjamin

THE UNIVERSITY of California (UC)-Berkeley Student Senate voted to support a resolution condemning Islamophobic hate speech on March 20.

The resolution was a response to recently surfaced video of a speech delivered by UC-Santa Cruz lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin to the Ahavath Torah Congregation last June in Stoughton, Mass.

Rossman-Benjamin said that many Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine members "are foreign students who come from countries and cultures where anti-Semitism is how they think about the world."

She added, "These aren't your ordinary student groups like College Republicans and Young Democrats. These are students...who have ties to terrorist organizations."

Rossman-Benjamin is the head of the AMCHA Initiative, a Zionist group that combats Palestine solidarity activism on California university campuses.

UC President Mark Yudof remains silent on the issue. In response to an inquiry from Mondoweiss, Shelly Meron, media specialist with the office of the president, wrote, "We have no comment on this."

The Student Senate resolution condemns Yudof's "failure to address the matter." The author of the resolution, third-year social welfare major and Middle Eastern Muslim South Asian Coalition student senator Sadia Saifuddin said that Yudof's position is "unforgivable."

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ABOUT 50 supporters stood behind Saifuddin as she performed a satire to motivate her resolution.

"Order, order, order! I'd like to call this meeting on campus security to order," Saifuddin said as she banged her gavel. She continued: "today's hearing will be...dealing with the critical issue of the radicalization of Muslim Americans and the infiltration of sharia law at UC-Berkeley."

"I would like to remind this crowd...anything that can be misconstrued as a condemnation of the State of Israel is not allowed. Anyone who fails to follow the decorum set forth in this meeting is subject to arrest, suspension, expulsion, prosecution by Alameda County District Attorney, deportation and/or airport groping."

Saifuddin proceeded to "interrogate" members of the campus Muslim community.

When Saifuddin accused Muslim Student Association President Mohamed Haimoud of "seeking to destroy this campus," Haimoud asked, "What evidence, the fact that you put me here--in the criminal's chair?"

When Saifuddin accused Dawah Committee Head Maryam Hassan of "indoctrination," Hassan explained that "dawah is an Arabic word that means 'invitation'...part of a larger effort to present a clear and accurate portrayal of Islam."

The last student to be "interrogated" was Somaya Abdelgany, sister of Mohamed Abdelgany, the former president of the UC-Irvine Muslim Student Union. Mohamed is currently facing misdemeanor charges as one of 11 Irvine students who interrupted a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren in 2010.

In mock fulmination, Saifuddin said, "These students have chilled the speech of high-ranking government officials. They have slandered the only democracy in the Middle East! They have stripped lady liberty of her grace and chastity!"

"The Irvine Eleven where caught red-handed hooting and hollering! Did you hear that? Were they not hooting and were they not hollering? I will accept your public apology right now," she told Abdelgany.

But Abdelgany protested, "What's going on? Am I to understand that I'm guilty by association? You might as well call me an un-indicted co-conspirator. This is an abomination!"

"A bomb?" Saifuddin asked.

"In this nation? Terrorist! I believe we have conclusive evidence that there is an Islamic extremist in our midst," Saifuddin said, as her supporters exploded in laughter.

The senate vote in favor of the resolution was unanimous.

The decision follows several strong statements of solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle by California university students in recent months.

Last fall, when the state legislature passed a resolution that described student and faculty sponsored boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel as anti-Semitic, the UC Student Association responded with a counter-resolution, The student resolution condemned efforts to censure Palestine solidarity activists and demanded that the University of California stop profiting from Israeli human rights violations.

Last November, the UC-Irvine student government voted unanimously to call for divestment from companies doing business with the Israeli military and Israeli settlements. UC-Riverside and UC-San Diego student governments passed similar resolutions earlier this March.

These statements of solidarity have been made in defiance of what many Palestine solidarity activists say is a hostile atmosphere on California university campuses.

Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine member and sociology graduate student Tom Pessah said, "Islamophobic language and ideas have been problem on campus for many years, but this resolution is a decisive, significant step to counter that."