New York University Chaplin Khalid Latif gestures while speaking to students during a round-table discussion at the Islamic Center at New York University on Friday, February 24, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
In 1992, the forbidding streets of South-Central Los Angeles played host to the Rodney King riots—a violent juncture in the city’s history. The discord left the impoverished city blocks tinged with despair and yearning for compassion. When the smoke cleared, a group of seven UCLA and Charles Drew Medical students moved in. They saw a community that was bleeding, and they hoped to help mend it by providing free healthcare to one of the country’s poorest neighborhoods. This was the modest beginnings of the UMMA Community Clinic, now a beloved fixture in South Los Angeles, which has served more than 25,000 patients in the last fifteen years.
UMMA stands for University Muslim Medical Association, and the acronym spells a word that translates to “community” in Arabic. The organization, which has been recognized by President Obama and on the floor of Congress, is grounded in the Islamic principles of charitable giving and social justice, and it traces its roots to the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at UCLA. “UMMA Clinic was born in the MSA office,” explained Dr. Mansur Khan, one of the founders of the clinic. “That’s where it all happened. In a sense, UMMA clinic is the direct result of the success and the mindset of MSA-UCLA.”
Last week, news broke that the NYPD had been monitoring Muslim student groups in several different universities, looking to identify terrorists by their prayer habits and adeptness at paint-balling. They spied on Muslim students and infiltrated MSAs at campuses not just across New York City but as far away as Yale University. MSAs at sixteen colleges were under regular and unchecked surveillance by the NYPD, without being suspected of any wrongdoing.
As a beneficiary of a Muslim Student Association myself, the news left me torn—I did not know whether to laugh quietly or to scoff in bitter fury. My years in MSA were spent packing lunches for homeless feedings, mentoring kids at an underprivileged high school and learning about my faith with my best friends. The idea that a police force could trail a group of students who are trying to be assets to their community, seemed preposterous to me. Congregating on campus—whether it is to pray, discuss current events or plan a party—is not grounds for suspicion. Being a Muslim, though, apparently is.
As far as I knew, Muslim student groups on university campuses were breeding grounds not for radicalism or violence but for intellectual discourse, community service and the formation of Muslim American identities. MSAs function within the means of school rules and bylaws, often play a vital role in their campus communities and provide a safe space for Muslim students to express themselves. Targeting these groups as a potential threat could work to alienate young Muslims and stifle life on campus for all students. It is a shame that this unsettling turn of events could potentially prevent the next generation of Muslim students from engaging in a vibrant, meaningful and constructive part of their college lives. Many Muslim students will become anxious—prone to retracing their every step, always looking over their shoulder and being distrustful and wary of those around them.