On February 8, the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) held a meeting with Muslim students across the University of California (UC) system. They reached out to Muslim Student Association West (MSA West) to gather the students throughout the state, and in turn, MSA West contacted Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) at UC’s to help set the agenda. Representatives from various schools attended the meeting; MSA presidents Tahmina Achekzai and Omar Awad from UC Berkeley and UC Davis respectively, Amal Ali, the MSA vice president at UC Riverside, Marium Navid, the Executive Activities Vice President from Berkeley, Aaliya Khan, a senator from Los Angeles,and Ossama Kamel an active MSA member of Irvine. Khwaja Ahmed, the Vice President of MSA West, and Rangeena Salim, the Tajdeed Retreat Chair and former President of Davis MSA, were also present.
The agenda consisted of going over the history of the relationship between that UCOP and the UC with Muslim students, the present danger of an increased Islamophobic atmosphere on campuses, and outlining four major concerns that MSAs collectively agreed upon. These are campus administrative support, institutionalisation of the universal reflection spaces, sensitivity training for UC staff and restructuring current police training, and the need for culturally competent mental health professionals.
The first concern focused on the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness of campus administration responding to incidents where Muslims were threatened or potentially could have been threatened. An example that was brought up was when administration was helpful in their response to the needs of Muslim students at UC Merced after the stabbings in November of 2015. Campus administration reached out to the MSA and asked needed anything in terms of safety and support. In contrast, poor administrative support at UC Los Angeles in response to posters produced by David Horowitz was cited as an example of ineffective administrative support. They failed to take timely action and made it seem as if it were an isolated event, which failed to recognize larger fears of Islamophobic sentiments on campus.
Attendees also addressed the the issues surrounding the Statement of Intolerance.This statement targeted anti-Semitism but made a correlation between taking an anti-Zionist stance as being anti-Semitic. By ensuring political criticism as equivalent to racism, it would effectively suppress pro-Palestinian activism at UC campuses. The attendees urged for a reexamination of the statement d so that it is more inclusive of other demographics and perspectives. This was controversial because Janet Napolitano, President of the UC system, has previously supported the language in this statement.
In regards to universal reflection spaces, attendees went over the benefits of having a dedicated spot to for meditation. They highlighted the space at UC Davis as the prime example. It is well maintained, centrally located on campus, hasstorage space, and is private. The only drawback is its limiting size because it cannot host more than approximately 20 students. it was noted that the MSA had fought hard this space and was looking to grow it. Attendees made it clear that Muslims were not the only ones who benefited from having such a facility, other religious groups, such as the Sikh community, use the space as well. Attendees used the space at UC Los Angeles as an example of an insufficient prayer space. It was a loading dock next to a large garbage disposal. After concerns regarding weather and sanitary conditions were raised, a small temporary space allocated to them on a six month lease. The purpose of the lease was to test if students actually used the space. This temporary space lacked proper walls and was only sealed off by a moveable barrier which failed to control noise pollution. The MSAs collectively asked that sustainable reflection rooms should be taken into consideration when designing new buildings or redesigning old. This would be to ensure reflection spaces are given their due instead of being just after thoughts in the minds of UC construction schemes.
Attendees emphasized the importance of sensitivity training for faculty towards Muslim students in an effort to combat Islamophobia. They mentioned that both campus police and faculty can be influenced by these larger fears of Islamophobia and can potentially perpetuate them. UCPD receives training from Urban Shield, an emergency response training group based in the Bay Area. This is concerning because their training includes scenarios of a Muslim student taking a Jewish student hostage. Despite Urban Shield’s variety of trainings, trainings like this create fear and danger rather than security. The representatives recommended diversity training for police officers by consulting Muslims in their trainings additionally, campus staff, can also perpetuate Islamophobic stereotypes in the classroom. For instance, some professors characterise Muslims in Orientalist terms, deny Islamophobia itself, and allow students to make Islamophobic comments. Attendees advised that schools should hire more Muslims across all departments, along with hiring Muslims to teach courses related to Islam. Like the recommendations for campus police, representatives asked that administration address such behavior with diversity trainings for professors.
Finally, the MSA representatives addressed the issue of the lack of professionals who are culturally equipped to handle the needs of Muslim students. The delegation mentioned the townhalls held by MSA West after the San Bernardino shootings, which were held as a result of a lack of options given by campus administration. Muslim students were essentially forced to organise support groups themselves. Many Muslim women expressed that they felt unsafe and they were not given the resources to cope with their fear. This is unacceptable considering that Muslim students school fees that are meant to support such services for them. The recommendations that were made to resolve this were establishing development offices that support Muslims and UCOP to make an active effort to share openings with Muslim mental health groups to encourage them to apply.
At the end of the meeting, the delegation asked for a way to ensure accountability of these promises. The office agreed to host a transition meeting once new MSA boards are elected. The biannual report would come in the form of a phone call with the office staff and the members who attended. Both UCOP and the MSA representatives have been working on action items since the meeting. MSA West hopes that these meetings will set a foundation for a healthy relationship between the UC administration and Muslim students throughout California.
Author: Khwaja Ahmed
Edited by: Afreen Hasan