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Naming of Muslim student to University of Calif. board stirs controversy

By Laila Kearney

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The University of California appointed a Muslim American woman as a student member of its governing board on Wednesday in a move opposed by Jewish groups that objected to her pro-Palestinian activism.

Sadia Saifuddin, a 21-year-old social welfare major at the prestigious University of California at Berkeley, will become the first Muslim student member of the 26-person board of regents for a year-long term starting in 2014.

Jewish groups including the prominent Simon Wiesenthal Center strongly objected to her nomination, citing her involvement in a campaign to divest university funds from companies with business connections to the Israeli military.

They also objected to her sponsoring a student senate resolution that condemned a lecturer at the system's Santa Cruz campus for what the resolution said was Islamophobic rhetoric. The groups said it was Saifuddin who showed an intolerance toward opposing viewpoints.

"In a year where campus climate issues have been the dominant theme of the UC system, a vote to appoint somebody who has served to polarize thousands and thousands of people in the campus community and beyond is shocking," said Rabbi Aron Hier of the Wiesenthal Center, which petitioned the regents to deny Saifuddin a seat on the board.

"An appropriate Muslim candidate could have ably served in this position. We don't believe Sadia is that appropriate candidate," he added.

Despite the opposition, 25 university regents voted on Wednesday to confirm her appointment with one member, Richard Blum, abstaining from the vote. He cited concerns about Saifuddin's divestment efforts.

"I'm beyond blessed, and I'm very excited for this position," Saifuddin said after the vote, wearing a floral Muslim headscarf and beaming as she walked through a largely supportive crowd to accept her seat.

In her acceptance speech, Saifuddin said she hoped to make the university system accessible to more students. She could not later be reached for comment on controversies surrounding her nomination.

Saifuddin's supporters said she was an exemplary student who cared about students of all faiths and has worked to benefit the system as a senator in the Association of Students of the University of California and a member of the Muslim Student Association.

"Sadia is a remarkable young woman. She is committed to supporting all of UC students, and to this university and this country which she loves," said Regent Bonnie Reiss, who chaired the student regent selection committee.

Reiss, who is Jewish, said the committee would not have selected Saifuddin to be a student regent if they thought she was anti-Semitic, responding to complaints that the divestment campaign included elements of anti-Semitism.

Council on American-Islamic Relations spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said opponents who disagreed with Saifuddin's politics wanted to unjustly exclude her from civic participation.

"Anytime an American Muslim rises to a prominent position, or starts to rise to prominence, that tiny minority of 'Islamophobes' in our society goes into action and seeks to marginalize and disenfranchise that individual," Hooper said.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)

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