The Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, of which I am the Executive Director has been interested for some time in the situation of American Muslim students in the Rutgers University system -- the state university of New Jersey.
Young Muslims at Rutgers are unhappy that Islamic activities on campus -- funded by the university, i.e. the state authorities -- are dominated by adherents of the Wahhabi lobby, the American Muslim establishment. The Wahhabi lobby consists of a cluster of organizations backed by Saudi Arabia and professing the doctrines of the Wahhabi sect, the most radical form of Islam. Wahhabism is the exclusive, state religion in the Saudi kingdom.
In April, the Islamic Society of Rutgers University (ISRU) held an election. ISRU has more than four hundred members and receives significant financing from the university system. A courageous Muslim woman student named Fatima Agha has informed CIP and others of events she witnessed during the ISRU election campaign, and which she believes violate university policy.
On April 21, a university employee named Mostafa Khalifa delivered a lecture to ISRU members on the nature of leadership. The apparent intent of the lecture was to assure that the ISRU election would have an "Islamic," rather than a democratic and American character. Ms. Agha described Khalifa as an exponent of "fundamentalist thought." She complained that he not only exploited his position as a university functionary to support his ideological agenda, but that, since he is an alumnus of the university and not a student, as well as older than the students, his involvement in the voting process represented an inappropriate effort to steer students away from voting according to their own preferences and opinions.
Further, Ms. Agha complained, "His participation exert(ed) a chilling effect on the participation of any students who disagree with his ideas and all of whom are younger than he." For anyone who knows the American Muslim community, the 'shock of recognition' is immediate: in the authority-driven environment of American Islam, older males are listened to, obeyed and almost never challenged.
When voting itself took place, it was announced at the meeting that four male positions and three female positions were contested. According to Ms. Agha, there was no precedent for this decision in ISRU, yet it indicated that ISRU considers women students a lesser group -- and thus supporting one of the most serious charges leveled against Islam, that of sex discrimination.
While many religions, including Islam, restrict pastoral activities by women, barring them from leading services and similar duties, ISRU is supposed to be a student service organization for the betterment of life on the Rutgers campus. It must therefore adhere to state and federal laws against sex discrimination. The board of ISRU does not have religious responsibilities, and Ms. Agha therefore challenges its establishment of a sex or gender standard for membership.
The seven elected representatives would then choose the ISRU president, who would bear the title "amir" or "commander." This last detail, showing that ISRU had adopted the vocabulary of a paramilitary group rather than a student organization, is the most disturbing element in this story. Ms. Agha notes that, as announced during the elections, the "amir" of the Rutgers Muslim students would be required to be male and would enjoy "dictatorial power."
According to Ms. Agha, aside from the interloper, Mostafa Khalifa, the participants in the election, i.e. the candidates, were forbidden to make speeches; election tellers did not identify qualified voters or provide a structure to ensure fairness - they did not even ask to see Rutgers I.D.
In other words, the Islamic Society of Rutgers University has established a little Saudi Arabia on the Rutgers campuses, in which Muslims are required to abide by the authoritarian whims characteristic of Wahhabi governance. Ms. Agha has also alleged that ISRU leaders ostracize Muslim women students if they attend its meetings without wearing a headscarf. She described ISRU as a power unto itself, unaccountable to the university; it presents weekly speeches and lectures but ignores university requirements for contracting of speakers.
Further, and again embodying the Wahhabi manner, ISRU frequently sponsors lecturers who attack the beliefs of Shia and other pluralistic traditions in Islam, and engage in hate speech against non-Wahhabi believers. Ms. Agha describes ISRU as a university-subsidized vehicle for discrimination. For example, on the day of the election a Shia student, identified only as Ali, was told during Muslim prayer that, as a Shia, he was praying incorrectly by not observing the Sunni ritual. Such acts of harassment are also commonly alleged by Shia prisoners in the New York State correctional system, who have entered a legal complaint against the Wahhabi monopoly over the hiring of prison imams. Muslim clerics throughout the federal and state prisons are Wahhabis, routinely victimizing Shia Muslims who have the bad fortune to cross their paths - including by prison violence.
Ms. Agha writes accurately and eloquently, "Unfortunately, although the Rutgers University Administration has helped and funded ISRU because of the University's desire to be fair and equitable to students of all religions… funding for ISRU only serves to inflame sectarian differences and create hostile environments for certain members of the Rutgers student body."
On an official website, www.muslims.rutgers.edu, under the heading "Fundamentals of Islam Monotheism (Tawheed)", ISRU reproduces a screed by Bilal Phillips, a notorious American Wahhabi. Phillips expresses hatred of the Sufi tradition in Islam in a vulgar mass of insults and stupid fabrications against outstanding Muslim spiritual figures and practices. The site also promotes da'wa or Muslim missionization by the Islamic Circle of North America, a bullying Wahhabi militia active run by extremists from Pakistan. According to Ms. Agha, state money granted to ISRU maintains "an organization that mocks the beliefs of others and only perpetuates negative stereotypes… [and] an atmosphere of intolerance."
Nearing graduation, Ms. Agha warns that the university she will leave behind is "a place where a young woman such as myself… is made to feel inferior." Indeed, she asserts that second-class status is imposed on all the women students in her particular college, Douglass. She adds, "Many students do not speak out for fear of ostracism or retribution."
Fatima Agha has called for new elections to be held in ISRU, or failing that, a recount of votes under outside supervision. She has demanded that until ISRU cleans up its practices, its campus funding be denied.
Ms. Agha has taken a step that is potentially historic for thousands of American Muslim college students. The Center for Islamic Pluralism and I will assist her to the maximum of our ability, and we call on other Americans, committed to all religions and to real democracy, to do the same. Let us hope that the democracy America is fighting to establish in Iraq, with the help of Shia Muslims, may also regain its proper status at college campuses in New Jersey.