Islamism's Campus Club
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."
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:
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. 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,
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. 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), 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), 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,
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."
Stephen Schwartz goes further, stating in his June 2003 testimony to the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security,
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:
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.
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:
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:
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."
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,
Shahbandar also explains what the MSA preaches on his campus:
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,
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,
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:
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 2002, when the number of anti-Semitic attacks in Europe hit a twelve-year high, French Jewish leader Roger Cukierman observed a peculiar phenomenon on the European street -a loose fusing of extreme Left, Right, and Muslim political forces-what Cukierman terms the "brown-green-red alliance." The three disparate constituencies have incompatible ideologies, but all three have a shared hatred for the pluralized world order, globalized market economies, U.S. preponderance, and the state of Israel. Cukierman has observed these forces forming an alliance of convenience in the post-9/11 world with potentially dangerous results.
The same pattern is also emerging in the United States with groups of the extreme Left forging bonds with specific Muslim organizations, and here again we find the MSA figures prominently. Given the MSA's propensity for radical politics in a campus environment, it is no surprise that it has become arguably the Muslim organization most enmeshed with American leftists. Consider the following:
As these examples suggest, the MSA boasts institutional ties with a host of radical issue-specific activist groups, all of them vehemently opposed to U.S. policy, and many of them openly anti-American.
The Center for Security Policy's Alex Alexiev argues,
The following examples illustrate both the degree and pervasiveness of
hate-America vitriol that characterize the MSA:
This anti-Americanism blends together almost seamlessly with a virulent
discourse against the Jews and Israel. Consider the following:
Ironically, although one of the founding missions of the MSA is to increase favorable awareness of Muslim life among non-Muslims, the effect of the MSA's activities is the opposite: they confirm the worst suspicions of American society at large. The MSA's refusal to identify jihadists and jihadist sympathizers within its ranks, its indiscriminate opposition to U.S. policies following the September 11 attacks, its vitriolic anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric, and its solidarity with "Leftover Left" radical activist organizations, together reinforce an image that the MSA, and by extension, Muslim college students, are a divisive, angry, and potentially violent group on our campuses. By monopolizing the Muslim student voice in America with "radical chic" to create a "single Muslim bloc," an opportunity to forge a healthy discourse on the diverse attitudes of Muslim students is lost to the confrontational language of radical dissent and resistance.
Universities that host student organizations have an obligation to enforce basic standards of conduct, standards that the MSA has clearly breached. At the very least, MSA's most egregious behavior must face censure from those responsible for monitoring student conduct. University administrators must unchain themselves from cultural relativism and the ideology of "validation" and deal squarely with such misdeeds.
More importantly, however, the problem of the Muslim Students' Association illustrates the great question that confronts the West today: how does it cultivate liberalism in Muslim communities living at home and abroad? Just as the U.S. policy of détente with the Arab world collapsed after September 11, to be replaced by a "forward strategy of democracy," it may be time to adopt a "forward strategy" within U.S. borders, focused on promoting moderate voices in mosques and campuses. To improve campus life for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, universities should work with moderate students to inaugurate a new Muslim students' organization, one that eschews the radical politics of the "old world" in favor of authenticity, diversity, and integration. A new Muslim student organization would return to the primary mission of religiously-based campus groups-to celebrate and share in the fellowship of faith.
Jonathan Dowd-Gailey is a writer in Washington State.
 "The Constitution of the Muslim Students' Association of the U.S. and Canada," Muslim Students' Association of the U.S. and Canada, Washington, D.C., at http://www.msa-national.org/about/constitution.html.
 WorldNetDaily, Mar. 18, 2003, at http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=31571.
 Frontpage Magazine, Apr. 4, 2003, at http://www.frontpagemagazine.com/Articles/Printable.asp?ID=7098.
 Alex Alexiev, "The Missing Link in the War on Terror: Confronting Saudi Subversion," Center for Security Policy, at http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/index.jsp?section=static&page=alexiev.
 FrontPage Magazine, Apr. 23, 2003, at http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=7395.
 "List of Organizations that Donate Islamic Books and Da'wah Materials," Muslim Students' Association of the U.S. and Canada, Washington, D.C., at http://www.msa-natl.org/resources/Donation_Books.html.
 "Senators Request Tax Information on Muslim Charities for Probe," Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, Jan. 14, 2003, at http://usinfo.state.gov/xarchives/display.html?p=washfile-english&y=2004&m=January&x=20040114155543zemogb0.8868524&t=usinfo/wf-latest.html. For details, see http://www.danielpipes.org/blog/164.
 Hamid Algar, "Wahhabism: A Critical Essay," in Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Adair T. Lummis, eds., Islamic Values in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 124.
 Stephen Schwartz, "Terrorism: Growing Wahhabi Influence in the United States," testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, June 26, 2003, at http://www.globalsecurity.org/security/library/congress/2003_h/030626-schwartz.htm.
 MSA Starter's Guide: A Guide on How to Run a Successful MSA, 1st ed. (Washington, D.C.: Muslim Students' Association of the U.S. and Canada, Mar. 1996), at http://www.msa-natl.org/publications/startersguide.html.
 "Religious Accommodations Task Force," Muslim Students' Association of the U.S. and Canada, Washington, D.C., at http://www.msa-national.org/taskforces/religious.html.
 Shabana Mir, "Gender-based Exclusionism at a Muslim Student Association, Part I," The American Muslim, July/Aug. 2003, at http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/2003jul_comments.php?id=347_0210_C.
 "Rally against the Patriot Act," University of Pennsylvania Muslim Students' Association, at http://www.upenn-msa.org/subcommittees/pmj/patriotact.html.
 "MSA National Demands an Immediate End to the Inhumane U.N. Sanctions," Muslim Students' Association of the U.S. and Canada, Washington, D.C., Apr. 6, 2001, at http://www.msa-national.org/media/pressreleases/040601.html.
 "Muslim Students Condemn U.S. Attack on Iraq," Muslim Students' Association of the U.S. and Canada, Washington, D.C., Dec. 17, 1998 at http://www.msa-national.org/media/pressreleases/121798.html.
 MSA Starter's Guide, at http://www.msa-natl.org/publications/startersguide.html.
 Oubai Mohammad Shahbandar, "Open Letter from an Arab-American Student," FrontPage Magazine, June 2, 2003, at http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/Printable.asp?ID=8143.
 "MSA National Political Action Task Force, America: Post 9/11," Muslim Students' Association of the U.S. and Canada, Washington, D.C., at http://www.msa-national.org/media/actionalerts/political.pdf.
 The Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2003.
 Oubai Shahbandar, "U.S. Muslims as Patriots," The Arizona Republic, Oct. 11, 2003.
 Quoted by Mark Strauss, "Anti-Globalism's Jewish Problem," Foreign Policy, Nov./Dec. 2003.
 "National Conference against War, Colonial Occupation and Imperialism, May 17-18, New York City," ANSWER, at http://www.internationalanswer.org/news/update/041203m17conf.html.
 Alexiev, "This Missing Link on the War on Terror," at http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/index.jsp?section=static&page=alexiev.
 Syed Rahmatullah Hashimi, "Taliban in Afghanistan," University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Mar. 10, 2001, at http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/Taliban/talebanlec.html.
 Al-Talib, July 1999, quoted in FrontPageMagazine.com, Apr. 23, 2003, at http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/Printable.asp?ID=7113. Al-Talib is listed as an official MSA Project by the UCLA chapter of MSA, at http://www.msa-ucla.com/projects.htm.
 Erick Stakelbeck, "Islamic Radicals on Campus," FrontPage Magazine, Apr. 23, 2003, at http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=7395.
"UCLA Sponsors of Terrorism," FrontPage Magazine, Apr. 4, 2003, at http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=7098.