In April, 2013, the student government at the University of California-Irvine (UCI) approved a resolution condemning a faculty member, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, at the University of California-Santa Cruz for allegedly making hateful and inflammatory comments about the Muslim Student Association. In her efforts to draw attention to what is happening on California’s campuses, Rossman-Benjamin has incurred the wrath of the Muslim Student Association and chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine. They have accused her of racism and Islamophobia. They have recently launched a coordinated campaign to have the student governments at many UC campuses pass resolutions calling on the University of California to condemn her and censure her for her speech. In particular, they point to a recent speech she made in Boston, where she named names and recited the history of the Muslim Student Association and its connection to the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamic groups. To date, four UC campus governments have passed such resolutions (Berkeley, Irvine, Santa Barbara and Davis.) As we speak, Rossman-Benjamin says she is being hounded at Santa Cruz, subjected to vicious emails and various forms of harassment.
Are the accusations of extremism made against the Muslim Student Association justified?
We do not know what happens on all campuses, but we do know what happens at ours, UCI, where the Muslim Student Association is called the Muslim Student Union (MSU). This is the organization that was suspended for three months because it coordinated and planned a disruption of a public speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren; several of its members were convicted by a unanimous jury for a misdemeanor in connection with the disruption.
Though much of the activity of the MSU is directed against Israelis, and some of it veers into anti-Semitism, a general disgust of the United States also appears.
Every year, this group organizes a week of rallies on our university campus whose mission is to vilify the Jewish state of Israel. To be sure, they claim their words are not directed to Jews as people or to the Jewish faith-only against Zionism. However, the end result of these group’s activities on campus is a week of tension and intimidation for many Jewish students. Though there have been no serious incidents involving injury or death, Jewish students have been insulted, and accosted, had cameras shoved in their faces, and have been surrounded at their cars as they tried to leave.
The MSU has opposed tolerance. A letter written jointly by Students for Peace and Justice, the Muslim Student Union and the Worker Student Alliance said “What is the true significance of tolerance but to allow injustice to occur? Tolerance is a tool to control the population through blind acceptance. Support of tolerance only serves to allow exploitation of workers and students.”
The intolerance appears to extend to fellow Muslims. A professor of anthropology at UCI wrote that “…Muslim student groups on American campuses have been critiqued by the Sufi scholar Marcia Hermansen for promoting “`culture-free,’ increasingly conservative, and/or Wahhabi-influenced versions of Islam. Her observations were based on her years of teaching at several institutions and a Muslim herself, she has been increasingly troubled by what she sees. … I have seen the same trends in the Muslim Student Union at UCI. Muslim students who are not members say that it is not really open to Shias, Sufis, liberal or secular Muslim and various others (its website used to make fun of the Nation of Islam).”
A statement signed by some one hundred faculty at UCI in 2010 complained about a speaker repeatedly invited by the Muslim Student Union who said that “the Zionist Jew is a party of satan,” and complained about a statement by another MSU speaker that the “Holocaust was God’s will.” The faculty statement continued with “Some community members, students, and faculty indeed feel intimidated, and at times even unsafe.”
An article published in 2006 by a Jewish student in the UCI student newspaper said that “More than a dozen Jewish student leaders met with Chancellor Michael Drake and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Manuel Gomez … The students present expressed their displeasure regarding the current tense situation on campus between Muslim and Jewish students and the recent vandalism. “I hate that things like this happen,” Drake responded, acknowledging that there has been speech on campus promoted by the Muslim Student Union (MSU) that is largely hateful. Drake called hate-speech “vile,” “awful,” and “stupid…” Many Jewish students at the meeting blamed the Muslim Student Union for creating an environment in which hate speech can prosper, which they felt had a direct connection to the vandalism. Some of the Jewish students at the meeting revealed that they and others had been subject to verbal and physical intimidation at the hands of MSU members.”
At a lecture sponsored by the MSU in May 2012, a speaker compared protesting Oren to protesting Hitler. Does that analogy also suggest that killing Oren is justified? Showing no remorse at the illegal actions, a speaker said “I dare UCI to bring Oren again, because believe me we will be there.”
Not content with vilifying Israel, in May 2013, a speaker invited by the MSU said that Irvine was like a “colonial settlement,” that it is “occupied.” He continued that the US resembles a “settler-colonialist state.” At the same event, an invited speaker saw 9/11 as “reinvigorating white supremacy.” When asked which he hated more, Israel or America, the speaker implied that it was America.
We believe that all such statements are protected by the First Amendment. Perhaps the MSU does not currently support all statements made in the past—though we have never heard a retraction of them or any apologies for them. It is telling that the resolution mentioned above concerning Tammi Rossman-Benjamin accuses her of “racist and Islamophobic rhetoric,” but disputes none of the facts she claims. We do hope that University leaders, including administrators, faculty, and students, criticize some of the extremist views espoused by the Muslim Student Union or its invited speakers, rather than criticize those who bring them to light.
The following piece was co-authored by Amihai Glazer an Economics Professor at UC Irvine and a member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME)