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Islamism's Campus Club By: Jonathan Dowd-Gailey
Middle East Quarterly | Wednesday, June 02, 2004


The northern Virginia-based Muslim Students' Association (MSA) might easily be taken for a benign student religious group. It promotes itself as a benevolent, non-political entity devoted to the simple virtue of celebrating Islam and providing college students a healthy venue to develop their faith and engage in philanthropy. Along these lines, its constitution declares the MSA's mission as serving "the best interest of Islam and Muslims in the United States and Canada so as to enable them to practice Islam as a complete way of life."[1]

Today, over 150 MSA chapters exist on American college campuses (divided into five regional chapters), easily establishing this organization as the most extensive Muslim student organization in North America. A Washington, D.C.-based national office assists in the establishment of constituent chapters and oversees fundraising and conferences while steering a plethora of special committees and "Political Action Task Forces."

Yet consider some of these recent activities of the MSA:

·       At a meeting in Queensborough Community College in New York in March 2003, a guest speaker named Faheed declared, "We reject the U.N., reject America, reject all law and order. Don't lobby Congress or protest because we don't recognize Congress. The only relationship you should have with America is to topple it ... Eventually there will be a Muslim in the White House dictating the laws of Shariah."[2]

·       During an October 2000 anti-Israeli protest, former MSA president Ahmed Shama at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) stood before the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, shouting "Victory to Islam! Death to the Jews!" MSA West president Sohail Shakr declared at the same rally, "the biggest impediment to peace [in the Middle East] has been the existence of the Zionist entity in the middle of the Muslim world."[3]

·       Prior to September 11, 2001, the MSA formally assisted three Islamic charities in fundraising: the Holy Land Foundation, Global Relief, and Benevolence Foundation. After that date, all three were accused by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of having serious links to terrorism and were ordered closed. The MSA issued a formal statement of protest: "How three of the nation's largest Muslim charities could be made inoperable at the peak of the giving season of Ramadan seemed unbelievable."[4]

This is only the tip of the iceberg. There is overwhelming evidence that the MSA, far from being a benign student society, is an overtly political organization seeking to create a single Muslim voice on U.S. campuses-a voice espousing Wahhabism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism, agitating aggressively against U.S. Middle East policy, and expressing solidarity with militant Islamist ideologies, sometimes with criminal results.

A Saudi Creation

On its website, the MSA describes its emergence as spontaneous and disavows any link to foreign governments.[5] In fact, the creation of the MSA resulted from Saudi-backed efforts to found Islamic bodies internationally in the 1960s. Alex Alexiev of the Center for Security Policy states, "The Saudis over the years set up a number of large front organizations, such as the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, the Al Haramain Foundation, and a great number of Islamic "charities." While invariably claiming that they were private, all of these groups were tightly controlled and financed by the Saudi government and the Wahhabi clergy."[6]

In the United States, two leading Saudi-backed organizations were the MSA and the Islamic Society of North America (the MSA's adult counterpart), both of which received major funding, direction, and influence from Riyadh.

Personnel, money, and institutional linkages bound these organizations together from their inception, and all roads led eventually to Riyadh. Ahmad Totonji, an MSA co-founder, later served as vice-president for the notorious Saudi SAAR Foundation (a network of charities named after Saudi benefactor Sulayman 'Abd al-'Aziz ar-Rajhi), which closed down in 2001 after federal agents discovered links to terrorist groups.[7] Another MSA co-founder, Ahmad Sakr, served on a number of Saudi-affiliated organizations, such as the World Council of Mosques. The MSA is very much a result of Saudi "petro-Islam" diplomacy.

Current estimates suggest that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia spends $4 billion annually on international aid, with two-thirds of that sum devoted to strictly Islamic development. Much of this largesse has ended up at Islamist organizations like MSA. Funded through private donations or through foundations and charities (only some of which the MSA officially reports),[8] MSA offers its Saudi benefactors a powerful tool. However, until the MSA's tax records are made public (on January 14, 2004, the Senate Finance Committee publicized a list of Islamic organizations whose financial records are sought, including the MSA),[9] the exact extent of foreign funding for the organization cannot be known.

But even without the tax records, there is plenty of evidence for the MSA's strident advocacy of the Saudi-style Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. In "Wahhabism: A Critical Essay," Hamid Algar of the University of California-Berkeley writes, "Some Muslim student organizations have functioned at times as Saudi-supported channels for the propagation of Wahhabism abroad, especially in the United States ... Particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, no criticism of Saudi Arabia would be tolerated at the annual conventions of the MSA. The organization has, in fact, consistently advocated theological and political positions derived from radical Islamist organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaati Islam."[10]

The MSA has played a major role in spreading Wahhabism. "Its numerous local chapters," Algar explains, "would make available at every Friday prayer large stacks of the [Mecca-based] World Muslim League's publications, in both English and Arabic. Although the MSA progressively diversified its connections with Arab states, official approval of Wahhabism remained strong."[11]

Stephen Schwartz goes further, stating in his June 2003 testimony to the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, "Shia and other non-Wahhabi Muslim community leaders estimate that 80 percent of American mosques out of a total ranging between an official estimate of 1,200 and an unofficial figure of 4-6,000 are under Wahhabi control ... Wahhabi control over mosques means control of property, buildings, appointment of imams, training of imams, content of preaching including faxing of Friday sermons from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and of literature distributed in mosques and mosque bookstores, notices on bulletin boards, and organizational and charitable solicitation ... The main organizations that have carried out this campaign are the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which originated in the Muslim Students' Association of the U.S. and Canada (MSA), and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)."[12]

The MSA reflects a prime characteristic of militant Islamic groups: a refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of secular society and personal spirituality. The MSA's Starters Guide contains an open call to Islamicize campus politics: "It should be the long-term goal of every MSA to Islamicize the politics of their respective university ... the politicization of the MSA means to make the MSA more of a force on internal campus politics. The MSA needs to be a more "In-your-face" association."[13]

All of this, the guide explains, results from the MSA's duty "to bring morality back into the campus" and to convince students to practice Islam "as a complete way of life."

In the process, the MSA preaches a creed of "special treatment" and "self-segregation" that sounds reminiscent of, and may actually borrow from, Afro-centric campus politics of the 1990s. Demanding that universities be more "Muslim-friendly," the MSA's newly established National Religious Accommodations Task Force (RATF) directs local MSA chapters to insist that universities provide separate housing and meals for Muslims only.[14]

The politics of segregation practiced by the MSA have included blanket marginalization of its own female members. Shabana Mir, writing for the American Muslim, summarizes the plight of Muslim women on campus: "It is particularly important to know what is happening with Muslim women pursuing higher education. Many Muslim women in MSAs are working toward the justice and the equality that Islam ordains for humankind. A survey of sisters' participation in MSAs conducted in 1994 shows that women's activism in MSAs is at an abysmally low level due in large part to "brother domination." A related problem is "there is a common attitude that strict segregation should exist between the genders and that sisters should not appear in public!" On an MSA mailing list, a popular article gives a long list of conditions that women must fulfill to gain access to the mosque. These include obtaining permission from her male guardian, wearing hijab [veil], not wearing "fancy clothes" or perfume, not mixing with men, leaving immediately after the prayer, and so on!" [15]

Political Monopoly

Just as the MSA promotes a single theology, it similarly projects a monolithic political voice, one openly antagonistic to Muslim American diversity and in complete opposition to existing U.S. foreign policy. Although Muslim students in the United States exhibit the full range of political views found in America today, the MSA invariably adopts lopsided adversarial positions, as in these three cases:

Patriot Act: The MSA categorically opposes this legislation, describing it as "infamous." Chapters across the country have agitated against it, as well as against virtually every other security initiative since 9/11. At an MSA rally at the University of Pennsylvania, the co-chair of Muslims for Justice declared, "the Patriot Act is sending us in a backwards spiral, where the destination is chaos."[16]

Afghanistan: The MSA opposed the military intervention against the Taliban regime, instead calling for a "police investigation." MSA National further advised that the entire matter would be best addressed at the International Criminal Tribunal. MSA chapters organized rallies demanding a ceasefire and held "Solidarity Fasts" to honor Afghans who, the MSA charged, would face massive starvation as a result of the war.

Iraq: Even before the crisis of 2003, the MSA opposed every U.S. policy towards Iraq over the last twelve years. It strongly opposed the United Nations (U.N.)-authorized sanctions, claiming that the sanctions were "nothing short of a systematic genocide being carried out against civilian people."[17] The MSA condemned former president Clinton's 1998 strike against Iraq following Saddam Hussein's ouster of U.N. weapons inspectors, declaring that its "brothers and sisters in Iraq are once again being terrorized by the self-appointed champions of democracy."[18]

MSA National consistently pledges support for the war on terror and claims to merely "represent" student views. But it maintains control of the political agenda, leaving the chapters simply to mobilize support. Its chapters pointedly ignored the New York Shi'ites who held vigils for their Iraqi brethren and the Michigan Kurds who rallied for Hussein's ouster. The MSA's decision to mobilize against the Bush administration took place without public debate and with no attempt at representing diverse views within the MSA. This approach is in keeping with the MSA's goal, as its official literature states, that the student body "be convinced that there is such a thing as a Muslim-bloc."[19]

Muslim students who refuse to submit to the MSA's position often find themselves harassed by their MSA peers. Oubai Shahbandar, an Arizona State University (ASU) student, expressed support for the Iraqi invasion and suffered condemnation from MSA members. Shahbandar states, "When I, a proud American of Arab descent and Muslim faith, took a stand on behalf of the liberation of my oppressed Iraqi brethren, the ASU Muslim Students' Association personally attacked me for not being a real Muslim and announced to the ASU student body in editorials in the student paper that I, Oubai Mohammad Shahbandar, was a hater of Arabs and Muslims."

Shahbandar also explains what the MSA preaches on his campus: "We are told America's foreign policy is based on racist neo-imperialism; we are taught that national security is a foul epithet to be reviled; we are told the Jews and Israel are to blame for the hatred against us."[20]

Playing the Victim

The MSA's adoption of the politics of victimization is reminiscent of wider campus trends of the 1990s. In the days immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the MSA stated, "In light of the Bush administration's casting blame for the attack on Osama Bin Laden, MSA National recognizes that Muslim students on college campuses will be subject to backlash."

Ominously, an "awareness" document describes post 9/11 Homeland Security policies in the same terms as do extremist Muslims abroad-that is, as an assault explicitly against Islam. America: Post 9/11, an MSA document, states, "Soon after [9/11], the attacks against our religion began at the hands of the media and the political establishment."[21]

Not surprisingly, the MSA has expressed resistance, outrage, and cynicism with virtually every high-profile arrest of Muslim Americans charged with conspiring with terrorists. When former University of South Florida (USF) professor Sami al-Arian was arrested for directing U.S. operations for the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Florida campus MSA chapter held a press conference and stated: "We come before you today on behalf of the Muslim Student Association at USF as well as the National Muslim Student Association of the U.S. and Canada to express our shock, deep concern, and plea for justice regarding the recent arrests of two USF professors, Dr. Sami al-Arian and Sameeh Hammoudeh ... we are concerned that the USF professors were arrested for their political views."

The problem is that the MSA has been unable or unwilling to recognize that some Muslims, including its members, have crossed the line between political advocacy and material support for jihadist activities. In fact, MSA members and activities have repeatedly surfaced in police investigations. Some of these arrests received national media coverage, including the following:

·       In February 2003, former head of the MSA chapter at the University of Idaho, Sami Omar al-Hussayen, was arrested with an indictment that he raised over $300,000 for the Islamic Assembly of North America, a group under federal investigation for funding terrorist groups. FBI agents believed Hussayen was communicating with two radical clerics, nicknamed the "awakening sheikhs," known for inspiring young Muslims to pursue the path of jihad and credited as major ideological mentors to Osama bin Laden.[22]

·       In April 2003, the home of Arizona State University MSA president Hassan Alrafea was raided by the FBI, whose agents confiscated his computer and unspecified documents.[23]

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