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[whitespace] No Justice, No Peace: Muslim Student Association President Afrah Abdullah, center, and other Muslim students at Santa Clara University have had an intense learning experience this year, in the wake of staff and student criticism of the MSA's "Anti-Zionism" week in May and other recent activities on campus.

Photograph by George Sakkestad


Higher Learning

Santa Clara University's Muslim Student Association tries to ride out a sandstorm of protest and finds that with current international tension, their issues may be too hot for the university to handle

By Genevieve Roja

THE WORDS "COLD BLOOD" stand out prominently against the spinach-green-colored chalkboard. They are pasted on in strawberry-red bubble letters, the kind of stick-on letters that can be found at a craft shop like Michael's. On the poster are sequential photographs--mostly fuzzy blurs of guns, a soldier, blood, a dead child and the words, "The killing of the child Muhammed Al-Durreh by the Israeli occupying forces was intentional and happened in cold blood."

Tonight's discussion--open to all Santa Clara students and faculty and the general public--has drawn an audience of about 40. Most of the students in attendance are Muslim, Jewish, athletes, self-described history and sociology majors and members of the Muslim Student Association at Santa Clara University, the group which has sponsored this forum on Palestinian history, one of many events during the MSA-sponsored "No Justice, No Peace Week." Even Vice Provost Philip "Boo" Riley has been sitting quietly at a desk in the audience.

Judging from the abrupt exits as soon as the fluorescent lights switch back on, some students are there for extra credit. But many have come and gone on their own volition, perhaps curious about the nature of tonight's discussion and its contrast to the controversial "Anti-Zionism Week" held in May.

In the center of the classroom, when it is over, sits MSA President Afrah Abdullah, a Muslim-born African American woman dressed in a khaki-gray scarf dotted with oblong circles in bright pastels. The scarf, or hijab, covers her entire head, exposing only the round shape of her caramel-tinged face, wide-set, dark eyes, wire glasses and petite mouth.

"I can't wait until this is over," she says quietly to a circle of peers, before burying her face into her hands.

It's only Tuesday, and the stressed history major is facing something larger than her impending midterms. "No Justice, No Peace Week" is the MSA's week of redemption, a Band-Aid to the gaping wound left by the "Anti-Zionism" campaign five months ago which propelled the entire campus community into a sandstorm of frustration and accusations. The faculty--representing various departments including ethics and religious studies--engaged in a heated, written debate, printed in the student newspaper, The Santa Clara. One letter, signed by anthropology professor Alma Garcia, history professor Barbara Molony, English professor Marilyn Edelstein and finance professor R. Hersh Shefrin, read, "Although freedom of speech represents a fundamental right to be defended, it carries with it a moral responsibility to avoid hateful, inflammatory speech," and chided the MSA that "Anti-Zionism is usually a thinly-veiled form of Anti-Semitism."

Vice Provost Riley wrote an email to Santa Clara faculty and staff, part of which read: "I question whether some of the information that has been posted and disseminated this week is sufficiently balanced to inform the campus community of the complexity of the issues raised. Unfortunately, this information has caused feelings of hurt, anger and alienation within the university community." One Jewish MBA student was so distraught over the matter that his complaint reached the Santa Clara Network for a Hate-Free Society, who investigated the problem as a potential hate crime.

Diversity Challenges

THE PRESENCE OF Muslim students on a Jesuit campus would seem to fall outside the stereotypes of a Catholic university. But these days the university does not even ask students about religious preference when they enroll and there are an estimated 11 ethnic clubs on campus, as well as the MSA and a Jewish student union that is organizing itself this semester. And the school prides itself on offering courses reflecting the students' religious and ethnic makeup. According to the 2000-2001 academic bulletin, there are courses catering to all faiths, with classes such as "Islam in the Modern World" and "Faith and Politics in the Middle East."

The MSA hatched in 1989 as a result of the growing Muslim student population at the university, under its current adviser, history professor David Skinner. In the MSA's decade-long history, Skinner and former members recall no real tension on campus until last spring's episode, with just a few grievances in the more recent and re-named "No Justice, No Peace" week.

Former president Sarah Azad, now a first-year medical student at Saint Louis University in Missouri, recalls that in the past, the club booked key speakers, including former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Dennis Haliday.

Insensitive Remarks

EVEN WITHOUT meeting Sarah Azad face-to-face, I sense she has a hurricane of a mouth, collecting words in a twirling madness, getting louder and bigger until she is finished making her point.

"Have I said too much?" she asks after talking for an hour on the phone from St. Louis.

She has told me about the time she was sitting with two other MSA members at the end-of-year Student Life Awards, held at the historic mission church. The Provost, Father Steven Privett, now president of the University of San Francisco, remarked to the crowd how far the university had progressed.

"He knew I would be in the audience," Azad recalls. "He was making this speech about change and his analogy was having to cover your head [before entering the mission, a former campus policy required of its female students]."

Azad abides by the traditional custom of covering her head with a hijab, and, that night, was wearing one inside the church. The trio of friends, who were seated toward the back of the church, immediately felt discomfort, stood up abruptly without making a scene, and exited.

"It's one thing to have us go to the mission for the awards ceremony," says Azad, whose religious belief only recognizes Jesus Christ as a prophet, not as the crucified Son of God. "A priest follows us out and says, 'I hope what he said didn't offend you,' and I said, 'Of course he offended me!'"

Later, in a meeting between Privett, Azad, members of the MSA and their faculty adviser, the Provost promised he would clarify his comments at the next awards assembly, the Senior Awards. At the ceremony, Azad was given the Leadership Award; Privett had made no remarks recounting his misstep at the mission. In September, Azad drafted a letter to Privett and stated her discontent.

"I was surprised when no comments were made before the awarding of the Leadership Award, but I accepted it, thinking comments might be made afterward. Then I excused the absence of a correction to forgetfulness. But as summer came, passed, and has now gone, I have yet to see any type of further communication ... I cannot believe that the entire incident has been forgotten. I must accept that the issue has been given a low priority."

Prayers Not Answered

THE SAME COULD BE SAID of another important issue, the permanent establishment of a prayer room on campus. As part of their religion, Muslims pray at sunrise, a little past noon, late afternoon, sunset and at night--making it necessary for a central place. Because of their prayer schedule, Muslim students choose classes that won't conflict with prayer time; otherwise they ask teachers for permission to leave class for about 10 minutes.

"It's preferable to go to the mosque," says Omar Idrees, a second-year student at the SCU Graduate School of Engineering. "I have my prayer rug, I find a nice place, pray and come back."

The MSA has had some difficulty in securing a room for several years, dating back to 1996 or 1997, when the prayer room was located in the Multi-Cultural Center. Then the group moved to Benson Memorial, the hub of student activities, in a narrow space formerly inhabited by Outback, a camping and outdoor goods rental store.

"It was the size of a prison cell," Azad says.

In one instance, the group settled into the space known around campus as the Nerd Aquarium, aptly named for the nontraditional species inside and for the room's clear visibility from the outside. They fixed the problem with long rolls of butcher paper taped to the glass. Today, the group prays in the campus housing office inside Benson, where they must enter through a door to reach another room for prayer. Being a campus office, it closes at about 5pm daily, shutting out the students who need to pray.

"We need that space open five times a day," Azad says, her voice rising again. "We need it to be convenient to us."

Shock Values

EVEN THOUSANDS OF MILES away, Azad keeps tabs on the MSA, communicating daily with her former MSA ally, Abdullah, via email. When asked why the MSA chose the theme "Anti-Zionism Week" and not something like "Pro-Palestinian Week," Azad says the concept for the controversial theme came from another campus.

"I'm not a nationalist," she says, picking up speed. "I'm not pro-Palestinian as long as Yassir Arafat is a leader ... I'm anti the concept of forced settlement of a territory on another people, when that [territory] is rooted for other people. That's Zionism. That's why I strongly wanted to use that term."

And perhaps for shock value?

"Yeah, it was a tactic, definitely," Azad says. "I think it was successful."

Abdullah agrees that the goal this time around was to "bring things into focus." The speaker invited by the MSA last spring, Bazian, suggested that the MSA find a less contentious theme.

"We followed his advice and, out of respect for people here, we decided to change the angle," says Abdullah of the kinder, gentler name.

Despite the name change, trouble still brews. Weeks ago, Abdullah says Vice Provost Riley called her into his Student Life office--where Abdullah works part time--and informed her that students were still calling in upset. Someone else had "complained about having an uncomfortable work environment because of our table display," Abdullah says. All week, MSA members sat at a table in Benson, displaying the aforementioned poster and distributing pamphlets. It's as if the four-month lapse had done nothing for repairing or changing campus attitudes toward the MSA.

"I'm still pretty frustrated," Abdullah says, "because I'm again seeing the same hidden objections."

On October 18, SCU President Father Locatelli posted an email, part of which read that the community "remember that whatever disagreements we have over the issues, our expression of those differences of opinion and belief should be characterized by respect and civility. Peace will only come through genuine dialogue."

That dialogue is fast becoming silenced. During Abdullah's meeting with Riley, she was told that, should disruptive events such as "Anti-Zionism Week" and "No Justice, No Peace Week" continue, all future MSA events might face termination. But Abdullah counters that the notion of presenting her views on a world issue--whether or not it has the potential for serious repercussions or contradicts views held by the Santa Clara community--is her prerogative.

"The issue presents many different sides. It's very emotional; people have different opinions on it, no matter how I present it. If people object, namely faculty, then I feel it's a limit to freedom of speech and freedom of expression."

In the May edition of The Santa Clara, faculty members and administration alleged that the MSA had gone too far with its anti-Zionism theme, and wrote letters to the editor to voice their discontent. "When you reduce complex ethical and political issues to narrow and shrill labels, you do not engender the attitudes needed to make fruitful dialogue possible in a diverse university community," wrote David Perry, Director of Ethics Programs and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. David Pinault, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, wrote, "I ask the students of MSA, as members of an association that strives to make its activities conform with Islam principles, to reconsider the phrasing they use with regard to this issue."

Even with the faculty criticism, Abdullah said the hardest bullet to bite was Riley's email.

"The university, in a way, sided with the faculty, and we felt somehow excluded by them," she says. "In an effort to hush the people that were complaining, they had to send out this letter and, in a way, it was like they were apologizing for us, for something we had done. The letter had implied that our actions were outside what the university would deem peaceful and objective."

A Time for Peace

THE MSA AND ITS MEMBERS have yet to recoil in their quest to educate their peers, despite what they see as a glaring double standard. A university that claims to promote the exchange of free ideas scraps that notion when challenged in a firestorm. But this is a volatile time, and the nature of this debate is a reflection of the ongoing developments in the Middle East.

"There's hurt and pain on both sides here," says Vice Provost for University Programs and Multicultural Education Father Manuel. "I think people are speaking out of the hurt and pain and, you know, the desire to be understood on their own terms, and that's true of both sides here. It's difficult to say, 'Well, you're right, and you're wrong.'"

For Abdullah, who wants to see Israel replaced with a multi-ethnic Palestine, she'll continue her activism.

"I'm still frustrated, but it's not going to divert me from my goal, my purpose, which is to raise awareness."

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From the November 9-15, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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