Syed Rizvi

Many people at the University of Texas, including both students and faculty, believe in the “zero-sum game” regarding Israelis and Palestinians. Essentially, they believe that Israeli success equals Palestinian failure and vice versa. As a member of Texans for Israel, the pro-Israel organization at UT, I can say that this could not be further from the truth. As an advocate for Israel, I want nothing more for the Palestinian people than for them to live in peace and prosperity alongside Israelis. The very essence of Zionism, the movement that calls for the Jewish people to have a state in our historic homeland, requires coexistence with Israel’s neighbors. In Syed Rizvi’s recent article, he argues that support for the Palestinian people is not a religious issue, but a humanitarian issue. We cannot agree more. To achieve peace, Israel advocates and Palestinian activists must come together in open dialogue and finally bring an end to the cycle of hatred. This can start today on UT’s campus.

Undoubtedly, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza suffer. Checkpoints can cause journeys of short distances to take hours; unemployment has reached 25 percent; and wars have decimated major cities, killing many civilians. No knowledgeable person denies these facts, and no compassionate person ignores them. Yet many people forget the cause of the Palestinians’ suffering. According to CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Yasser Arafat, the beloved leader of the Palestinians for over 40 years and founder of the Fatah party, diverted “over $1 billion in public funds to insure his political survival, [and] a lot more is unaccounted for.” He literally stole money from his impoverished people. This blatant corruption has plagued the Palestinian leadership ever since they received autonomy in the historic Oslo Accords of 1993. When Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, the people, tired of Fatah’s corruption, elected Hamas to power. Hamas’ charter calls for the destruction of the state of Israel as well as the murder of every Jew on the planet. Corruption caused the civilian population to get desperate, giving a terrorist group the ability to take over Gaza. Hamas, like Fatah, has neglected the Palestinian people and, instead, has spent millions of the dollars given for aid on weapons and tunnels to murder Israeli civilians. The only reason Israel established the checkpoint system is to prevent terrorists from attacking Israeli civilians. In fact, as the number of terror attacks has declined, so too has the number of checkpoints. However, the recent wave of terror attacks has escalated tension and can possibly lead to an increase in security.

Unfortunately, the pro-Palestinian movement on college campuses has been manipulated into becoming a crusade against the state of Israel. Pro-Palestinian student leaders should relish the opportunity to meet with Israel advocates and find common ground. We, at Texans for Israel, resent the accusation that we see the Palestinian people as “collateral damage that is executed by Israel for security reasons,” as Rizvi wrote, and we reach out our metaphorical hand to anyone who wishes to promote the coexistence between Palestinian and Israeli people. The next time there is an event promoting the Palestinian cause, we ask that Rizvi or another Muslim student leader invite a representative of Texans for Israel. I promise we will make the utmost effort to help.

On campus, advocates have a moral obligation to promote human decency throughout the world, but we must remember that the prosperity of one people does not impede the success of another and that corrupt leadership will not stand. Both peoples have suffered long enough. It is time for advocates of Israel and Palestinians to, as Rizvi said, “break bread” as we call for an end to the corrupt leadership and the beginning of peaceful times between Israeli and Palestinian people.

Finally, Rizvi’s accusation that Zionism equals racism is extremely offensive. I truly hope that it came out of ignorance and not malice because to say that Jews, a long-persecuted minority, have no right to a homeland would mean we are destined to live as minorities in lands that have historically discriminated against us.

Lefkowitz is a history freshman from Houston. This was written in response to Syed Rizvi’s Monday column titled “Palestine issues are humanitarian.” 

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Yousuf Kidwai | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed from its original length.  


Muslims are a part of the community here at the University of Texas at Austin. There are seven Muslim student organizations. Muslims take part in local charities, the same classes and enjoy Texas football much like the rest of the student body here at UT, but as a community that is increasingly discriminated against and underrepresented, it is important to know Muslims as your peers, friends and neighbors. The following are highlights of an interview conducted with Yousuf Kidwai, a finance and pre-med senior and president of the Muslim Students’ Association here at UT, an organization that I am also a member of. 


Syed Rizvi: What is the Muslim Students’ Association? 


Yousuf Kidwai: It serves as a platform for like-minded individuals, whether Muslim or non-Muslim … It’s just an open community for people to come together to appreciate Islam and the religion that it is and move forward in creating a joint community, a social community.



Rizvi: Why did you join MSA?


Kidwai: It was a place of belonging. There were so many things that MSA was doing that piqued an interest in me. For example, they did a lot to try to clear up the negative image of Islam and what’s going on around the world … they let people know that what Islam is really about helping people, being peaceful, like throwing events like Fast-a-Thon, where they [alleviate] hunger for the poor, raising money for breast cancer awareness; they are for the community.



Rizvi: What do it mean to be Muslim? What does that mean for the importance of MSA? 


Kidwai: Religion plays a major role in my identity because it is my belief system …  Therefore, [religion] is very important. That is why the Muslim Students’ Association is so important … because it a way to help and propagate those morals… and help create a greater understanding [of religion].



Rizvi: Does this  greater understanding translate to personal, academic and professional success? 


Kidwai: Yes it does because the teachings of Islam … teach people to be good people, to do good unto others, be the best person you can be … by solidifying my faith, I am solidifying my academic life … my social life … and the community at large. 



Rizvi: What is the typical student life for a Muslim?


Kidwai: You can’t pigeonhole an entire group into one mold. So what I’ll explain to you is what a stereotypical Muslim who will take the rules and regulations of Islam and apply them to their life [will and won’t do] … drinking is prohibited, so a stereotypical Muslim instead of drinking … though there are many that do … will hang out, sports are big, there is a giant basketball culture among the Muslim community. People love to play FIFA and Madden … board games… [watch] TV … it’s not about what you’re doing but who you’re with.



Rizvi: It seems, besides the drinking, what you described sounds like the life of a typical student. Do you concur?


Kidwai: I do concur. We are just normal people. We’re students, working toward our degree and we are just trying to find our way in life. It’s like everyone else. We struggle with our grades … half the seniors I know are freaking out about what they are going to do next year, myself included… [We might not] tailgate before a football game, [but it] doesn’t mean we are not going to enjoy the football game. We’re just as big of fans of Texas football as anyone else. 



Rizvi: Have you experienced racism on campus?


Kidwai: Yes. Yes, I have. I am not going to claim that I have experienced racism to the degree that others have; [racism experienced] has mostly been in arguments and fights … there was a discussion that I was having with a class fellow … we used to eat lunch together and he flat out told me that he believes all Muslims are terrorists.  



Rizvi: [For] MSA, the organization [and] the community, is racism commonplace? 


Kidwai: You don’t get outward racism, but sometimes when you’re tabling for a cause, as I mentioned before East-African Famine, or different things, people come up to us and ask and be really interested in our cause and ask us, “Who are you?”; well, “We are the Muslim Students’ Association on campus,” and you see the looks on their faces change, you can see their attitude change, they no longer want to talk to us or be a part of this greater cause … That is something the MSA has felt, and it has held us back. Sometimes we will be fighting for great causes and trying to do major things in the Austin community … and you can tell people are much less willing to partake because of the name “Muslim Students’ Association.”

Editor’s Note: Rizvi is an active member of all seven Muslim student organizations on campus, serving as an officer for United Muslims Relief and as founder and chairman of Texas Muslim Council.

Three weeks ago, the New York City Police Department curtailed its surveillance program that devoted a special task force to surveil Muslims and their communities. This program was criticized for its indiscriminate surveillance of Muslims. The news of NYPD’s decision to curtail its surveillance program was commended by the general public; however, the Muslim community has little reason to celebrate since the police will continue the use of “undercover informants” to gather intelligence on Muslims deemed worthy of investigation. This breach of privacy in spaces including mosques, an intimate place of prayer for Muslims, is just another example of why fear has become commonplace in the Muslim community, including the community here at UT.

I am a Muslim third-year at the UT, and through my time here and active engagement with the Muslim community I have learned that there is an undeniable fear of being politically active. Speaking from my own experience, my father has on several occasions advised me to abstain from raising legitimate political concerns. While my father urges me against such activism, I am lucky that he does not stop me  probably because he does not have the heart to stop something he believes in as well. My experience reflects what I understand as the norm for the Muslim community. The heart of this fear is the breach of privacy in our community.

The importance of privacy is articulated through Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs where Maslow puts safety and security as one of the basic needs. Safety and security are undermined when privacy is violated  ironic given that increased surveillance is supposed to increase them both. Because of that, privacy has become a popular topic of discussion for all Americans, especially considering the recent leaks of the once-secret NSA surveillance program dubbed PRISM. In fact, according to Gallup, 53 percent of adults disapprove of the government’s surveillance program and only 10 percent have no opinion. However, the popular discourse tends to leave out the discriminatory targeting of Muslim Americans. It is this specific targeting of the Muslim community that has introduced fear into the community.

In March, Edward Snowden spoke via webcam at the annual South By Southwest Festival hosted here in Austin. His talk highlighted the issue of privacy and PRISM, but it did not address the Muslim community’s marginalization in these breaches of privacy. Shortly after 9/11, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act, which greatly expanded the federal government’s power to surveil suspected terrorists. What followed were policies and legislation that target Arab and Muslim citizens. In response, writes Arun Kundnani in “The Muslims Are Coming,” national Muslim organizations had to decide whether to assimilate or to take on the “movement-building tradition of black civil rights” in order to protest the violations of their rights. They chose to follow the “strategy of declaring one’s loyalty to America and presenting Muslims as model citizens.” Again, fear was the major barrier.

Like those Muslim organizations, Muslims here at UT are afraid to speak out. According to Veneza Bremner, senior police officer of the Public Information Office, the Austin Police Department does not have a surveillance program that specifically targets any one community. There may be surveillance programs based on investigative interests, but those details cannot divulged. This does not quell the fears of Muslims, however, especially when U.S. Representative Peter King (R-NY), former Chairman and current member of the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, and people like him say that surveillance of Muslims should increase. Muslims’ fears are further validated when our own community here in Austin reinforces such racism. For example, two years ago when a bomb threat was issued for the UT campus, the caller was described as having a “Middle Eastern” accent. This turned out to be false. Furthermore, such a characterization is impossible considering that there is no one set accent for the Middle East, a region of many languages.

We should note that fear has become a vicious cycle. Terrorists sought to instill fear in the hearts and minds of Americans on 9/11. In the wake of that horrific day, Americans passed and instituted a complicated system of surveillance and discrimination, thereby introducing fear into the Muslim community. In short, fear has given into fear; which is why as Longhorns, staying true to the motto “What Starts Here Changes The World,” we have an obligation and responsibility to break this cycle.

With this call to action, it is imperative to recognize that the gravity of this situation, the continued discrimination and surveillance programs, urges haste, but we can also find hope in what we have accomplished thus far. Students here at UT are starting to engage with issues that matter, and the Muslim Community is making strides in advancing UT and, more generally, America. During Islam Awareness Week at UT, Muslim organizations on campus held events to combat ignorance, one of the root causes of fear. The event on Sharia Law, or Islamic Law, aimed to clarify one of the religion's most misunderstood concepts. Nationally, the Council on American-Islamic Relations continues to work with law enforcement and legislatures on mutual understanding. These are just a few examples which show that by working together, Muslims and non-Muslims can break down the barriers of fear between them and establish in their place a new relationship built on trust. 

Correction: An earlier version of this column's headline was misleading about the connection between surveillance programs and the UT Muslim community. The surveillance program mentioned is a project of the New York City Police Department, not the Austin Police Department.