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.
The FBI has long considered Muslim students a danger to national security. The wealth of resources being allocated to investigate Muslim students might be futile, however, considering a recent study which concluded that Muslim Americans pose little threat of homegrown terrorism. The truth is that for most Muslim-Americans, there is no conflict between their Islamic and their American ideals. By profiling Muslim students and infiltrating their campus communities, the FBI is demonizing Islam and sending a dangerous and deeply unfair message: that anything Muslim is potentially criminal.
Unwarranted surveillance is not threatening MSA as an institution, but the principles that MSA embodies and stands for. By shadowing Muslim student groups, the NYPD is calling into question the legitimacy of the means by which all students practice civic engagement, community service and the building of common understanding on campuses. Had informants been spying on me during my years in MSA, they would have been privy to a scrapbook of the most memorable and formative moments of my life. MSA endowed me with a sense of community and family, and shaped me into the person I am today—an empowered Muslim American who strives to contribute positively to the world around me and takes pride in upholding the tenets of my faith. And I’m not the only one.
With over 150 MSAs operating in universities all over the United States, the students involved in these groups are as diverse as their respective campus populations. “Outside of the MSA itself, which comprises around 250 students, MSA members are actively involved in groups all over campus,” said Ahmed Desouki, member of MSA at UC-Davis and president of the MSA West—a coalition of MSAs across western states. “Many are involved with the Shifa Community Clinic, others are a part of an organization that reflects their cultural background and some are involved in political groups on campus, like the Davis Democrats, CALPIRG and others.” The Muslim Student Association draws students from different backgrounds and offers them a way to form communities based on shared ideals.
The groups are often reputable constituents of the greater campus community as well, and have longstanding positive relationships with school administrations. MSAs collaborate with other minority and religious groups to promote community activism and interfaith dialogue. “The MSA of Michigan was many times named student organization of the year, and we had the support of a lot of the administration,” said Dr. Abdulrahman El-Sayed, a social epidemiologist at Columbia University and Fellow at Dēmos, a New York–based nonpartisan policy center, who was vice president of the MSA at University of Michigan when he studied there. “We were normally at the lead of issues concerning minority student groups and religious organizations on campus.”
In a politically charged era in which Islamophobia is rampant, MSA serves as a tool to educate other students about what Muslims believe in and how they fit into the broader American narrative. “After 9/11, MSA was particularly important because it was an organization that allowed Muslims to organize in their youth around many of these very American values of empowerment, community service and interreligious organization and education,” explained El-Sayed. “It allowed Muslims to take a proactive role in a time when it would have been very easy to sink back, or be apologetic, and not allow both our American and our Muslim ideals to shine through.”
MSA alums like El-Sayed and Khan speak to the positive influence that MSAs can have in shaping Muslim American leaders who enhance the social fabric of the greater American society. They are accomplishing amazing feats that push America forward because of their time spent in MSA, not in spite of it. “MSA honestly developed me as a human being,” shared Khan. “When I came to UCLA, I really discovered my Muslim identity and I really came to learn my faith through the community there. MSA was where all of the principles and the ideals that we learned of our faith were actually realized. We learn to do good and help people, and MSA was the vehicle that allowed us to do that.”