Last week, the UC Board Of Regents took a historic step by confirming the first Muslim student regent-designate, Sadia Saifuddin. Despite Saifuddin’s tremendous record of accomplishment, in the weeks leading up to the meeting, dozens of groups slandered Saifuddin with baseless claims. They sent messages to the board, urging it not to appoint Saifuddin — primarily citing her actions in the ASUC Senate involving her sponsorship of SB 160 — a controversial bill that encouraged targeted divestment from companies complicit in human rights violations in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
To no one’s surprise, the negativity came from right-wing, conservative, heavily pro-Israel groups who very clearly used the vote as a way to exercise their Islamophobic and racist agendas. Students at UC Berkeley and throughout the UC system should stand united in supporting Saifuddin, whose actions exemplify a student leader who remains committed to defending higher education and the University of California.
All the pressure came from groups and individuals with little to no affiliation with the University of California. Rather than assessing Saifuddin’s entire track record at the ASUC and her time working to register voters, champion Proposition 30 and stand up for all students in the UC system, the likes of David Horowitz and the pro-Israel group StandwithUs only focused on the smallest of issues, which have zero relevance to the UC’s mission.
Saifuddin has worked tirelessly to advance the UC mission. This past fall, students around the UC system worked tirelessly to register more than 50,000 voters and ensure the passage of Prop. 30. As the ASUC external affairs vice president at this time, I worked closely with the ASUC Senate for this cause. I can say without a doubt that Saifuddin was among the hardest-working, most committed student leaders on campus. She understands the importance of grassroots work; she would consistently take voter registration forms to different classes, meetings and even to extended family, ensuring that everyone understood the importance of civic engagement. When election time came, she phone-banked hundreds of friends, family and strangers to relay the importance of Prop. 30. This alone speaks volumes about how much Saifuddin cares about the university.
Her efforts didn’t end there, however. As soon as the election was done, she went on to advocate for various communities at Cal. In the spring, she secured $30,000 to create a food pantry in Berkeley in order to help students struggling to make ends meet. At the same time, she stood up to the administration to secure a meditation space on campus. These efforts were coupled with constant town halls and conversations with members of various campus communities in order to find solutions that would benefit the entire student body — Saifuddin is a firm believer in the power of dialogue and consensus. The critics, including UC Regent Richard Blum, cited her allegedly “divisive” nature on campus. I beg to differ. Her work to improve the campus climate was exemplary. She helped organize various events to foster interfaith dialogue so that people could start cultivating real relationships with fellow students of all faiths instead of being divided by different backgrounds and identities. And when divestment came around, I personally witnessed Saifuddin sitting down with her friends who had different views on SB 160 and explaining her reasoning in a gentle and poised manner. Even those who disagree with Saifuddin would agree that she was anything but divisive in her approach.
These traits remain with her as she champions the mission of the UC system through her work on campus. Freedom of speech and the embrace of diversity are long-standing traditions at the university. A true leader does not stand down in times of controversy but expresses his or her views and fights for what he or she believes in. And what Saifuddin believes in are principles that align with the UC mission. This belief, coupled with her passion for higher education and strong track record of making change, is clearly indicative of her strength as the student regent-designate.
Before StandwithUs was attempting to promote its Islamophobic agenda, Saifuddin was standing with the university. Before Horowitz was meddling in issues that didn’t affect him, Saifuddin was fighting for students. And before the folks at the Simon Wiesenthal Center were trying to silence campus advocacy and block Saifuddin’s nomination, Saifuddin was championing higher education. It’s unfortunate that individuals and groups filled with such clear hatred are trying to divide the university into a dichotomy where the Israel-Palestine issue defines a student’s identity. If Horowitz, StandwithUs and other groups actually care about the students of the UC system, I call upon them to go out and do just one thing to help the university, fight for just one policy to help students struggling to make ends meet because of high tuition or advocate for just one issue that will foster dialogue and understanding rather than spread hatred. It’s extremely disheartening to see individuals like David Horowitz make false allegations, make bigoted statements and promote racist tendencies rather than do something to improve the lives of students.
Fortunately, most of the board was not influenced by this Islamophobic agenda, although Regent Blum’s abstention is extremely disappointing. While he has every right to abstain, someone who is allegedly so
committed to the principles of the university should be able to look past disagreements on controversial political issues and look at Saifuddin’s comprehensive track record of fighting for students.
As a new wave of UC leadership starts, I urge UC students, alumni and faculty to stand up for freedom of speech and to stand behind Saifuddin — not because of her identity but because of her vast qualifications and experience defending the university. As for me, I have no doubt that she will perform excellently and, as her character has shown, will not stand down in the face of hatred. Neither should we.
Shahryar Abbasi was the 2012-2013 ASUC external affairs vice president.