To read Part I, click here.
In the previous installment of this short series on the recent 15th Annual Muslim Student Association (MSA) West Conference, which I attended at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I gave a general overview of the conference. The article summarized its pro-Palestinian political agenda, its preoccupation with hyping the threat of Islamophobia, its appeal to political activism in addition to its emphasis on strengthening one’s Muslim faith and community, and its support from some of the most influential Muslim Brotherhood front groups in America. Now let’s look at some of the principal individual speakers involved and their messages.
The conference featured a range of professors, imams, businesspeople, media representatives, linguists, and even engineers. The biggest names were Imam Siraj Wahhaj and Edina Lekovich, Director of Policy and Programming for MPAC, the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Lekovich, a prominent Islamic face in the mainstream media, has claimed in the past that Muslims are everywhere being slaughtered by “Zionists,” and she edited a UCLA Muslim student paper that cast doubt on Holocaust claims and praised Ayatollah Khomeini and bin Laden as freedom fighters. At the UCSB conference her topic was “Beyond the Muslim Bubble,” which emphasized the very innocuous-sounding aim of “integrating ourselves into American society” to “build bridges with non-Muslims”: “We weren’t made to sit on the sidelines and not play an active role in society.”
Siraj Wahhaj, the imam of the Al-Taqwa mosque in Brooklyn, spoke at two main sessions at the conference: “Messengers of the Messenger,” about committing oneself to carrying forth the message of Muhammad today, and “Cultivating Our Own Spring,” about “actualizing our potential” to create a concrete foundation and strategy for the future. Both of his presentations were very vague and rambling. In the program booklet’s biography of Wahhaj, it wasn’t mentioned that he had been named as a possible co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and had invited the infamous Blind Sheikh to address his congregation several times. It neglects to point out that he advocates replacing the U.S. government with an Islamic caliphate, and has supported violent jihad. “You don’t get involved in politics because it’s the American thing to do,” Wahhaj said in 1991. “You get involved in politics because politics are a weapon to use in the cause of Islam.” A few years later he stated that “In time, democracy will crumble, and there will be nothing, and the only thing that will remain will be Islam.”
The cagey Wahhaj and Lekovich said nothing so controversial in the course of their MSA West conference sessions, however. After all, in addition to avoiding exposing their radical message to outsiders like myself, they are also keen to seduce into the Brotherhood fold any naïve Muslim students who might be in attendance. But the mere presence of Wahhaj and Lekovich, as well as the involvement of Brotherhood legacy groups, as I mentioned, confirm the radical underpinnings of the MSA West conference.
With many of the speakers at the conference addressing spiritual matters, and the two most prominent ones steering clear of controversy, the more political material was left primarily to two or three other speakers. The first indication of a political agenda came from speaker Maryam Amirebrahimi, a former president of the San Jose State University MSA who referred to the companions of Muhammad as “the Prophet’s homeboys and homegirls.” She closed her rapid-fire, slang-filled talk by urging the Muslim students to strive to work together and to intensify their faith, so that by the time of the next West Coast conference a year from now, “inshallah, Palestine will be free.” Huh? That was quite a jarring leap, from strengthening one’s personal faith to “liberating” the imaginary country of Palestine from the “occupier” Israel – unless you understand that the religious and the political are inseparable for the Brotherhood, and that the Palestinian issue has been pushed as the global focus for the entire ummah, or worldwide Muslim community.
Another speaker, Taher Herzallah, proudly described as one of the notorious Irvine 11, presented a short “campus report” in which he discussed the state of campus pro-Palestinian activism. You may recall that the Irvine 11 were convicted of censorship in their orchestrated disruption of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s talk at UC Irvine three years ago. Their plan was to stand one after the other and shout prepared statements such as “You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!” and “Propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!” These shouts were greeted with cheering from their supporters in the audience, which further disrupted the event. Supporters of the Irvine 11 have used the conviction to promote the idea that the “Israel lobby” is all-powerful and that “Islamophobia is alive and well in Orange Country,” as one put it.
A year ago the UCSB Multicultural Center’s Students for Justice in Palestine group invited Herzallah to speak jointly with Santa Barbara sociology professor Robert I. Robinson, who accused the Israeli government of practicing ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians. Herzallah seconded that charge; his unrepentant message was, “My people are being killed, my people are being oppressed, I’m going to do everything I can do to stop this. I’m not going to follow a form of protest that fits the status quo that allows my people to be oppressed.” He asserted that Ambassador Oren is “a trained propagandist” who “was directly involved in the Gaza Massacre.”
But as with Wahhaj and Lekovich, Herzallah avoided much controversy in his UCSB talk, and simply offered up the usual pleas for students to commit to political activism. All in all, statements of overt radicalism may have been in short supply at the conference, but it was teeming with overt radicals who apparently have learned to tone down their message. In the next installment of this short series, we’ll look at some of the lesser-known speakers there whose presentations were even more political.
Mark Tapson, a Hollywood-based writer and screenwriter, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center. He focuses on the politics of popular culture.