Muslim Students' Association
The Muslim Students Association, or Muslim Student Union, of the U.S. and Canada, also known as MSA National, is a religious organization dedicated to establishing and maintaining Islamic societies on college campuses in Canada and the United States. It serves to provide coordination and support for affiliated MSA chapters in colleges across North America. Established in 1963, the organization now has chapters in colleges across the continent, and is the precursor of the Islamic Society of North America and several other Islamic organizations. The Muslim Students Association has garnered significant controversy, as well, in particular the New York Police Department's (NYPD) monitoring across several US college campuses of what they termed MSAs.
The Muslim Students Association of the U.S. and Canada is also known as MSA National. It is an umbrella organization for all of affiliated chapters at various campuses across the continent. Local chapters are only loosely connected with the parent institution, and often take different names, such as "Islamic Students Association", or "Muslim Discussion Group". Not all campus Muslim groups are necessarily affiliated with MSA National.
There is no fixed hierarchy between MSA National and local chapters; as such, the policies and views of the national organization are not necessarily shared by local chapters. The United States and Canada is divided into five zones, three in the US and two in Canada. Each zone has a zonal representative, chosen by the members of the affiliated chapters within that zone. Chapters make up regional councils.
The first MSA National chapter was formed in 1963 at the campus of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) by international students. The initial leadership came from Arabic-speaking and Urdu-speaking members, with guidance from students of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood and Pakistan-based Jamaati Islami movements. A Saudi Arabian charity, the Muslim World League, provided early funding for the group. Early goals for the movement included the promotion of "a self-definition [that] involves initially and fundamentally [an] Islamic identity" of its members, as well as an appropriate Islamic lifestyle while they were in the US.
With time, MSA groups became more interested in seeking how to integrate and institutionalize Islam and Islamic culture into American life. Current issues such as the position of women in Islam and problems in the Islamic countries began to be debated. The groups proved important as mobilizers in developing increasing Muslim political activity in the United States. Student leaders, as these graduated, went on to form the Islamic Society of North America. From the 1960s onwards, the MSA engaged in educational activities, including the translation and publishing of works by major Islamic scholars. In 1966 MSA founded the Islamic Book Service, to distribute magazines and books. In addition, books about Islam were distributed on campuses to both Muslims and non-Muslims. In the 1970s, a fiqh, or legal council was established by MSA; initially the fiqh rendered opinions on minor issues such as the start of Ramadan. By 1988, however, it was making decrees on a broad range of religious and social issues.
In 1994, after nearly 12 years of being virtually defunct, MSA National's leadership held a first-ever strategic planning retreat at the University of Michigan, bringing 27 undergraduate and graduate students from around the US and Canada together. This retreat would spark the re-emergence of MSA National as an independent, unique organization with a dedicatedly first and second generation focus. Nearly all of the 27 students were born or raised in the US and Canada, and were of the next generation of North American Muslims, signifying a radical shift in MSA National's future direction. From 1994 onward, MSA National held conferences on college campuses, convention centers and mosques around the US and Canada, with no guidance and direction from any other group or organization.
Fifteen years later, by 2010, yet another generation was poised to take the leadership of MSA National. Activities such as Project Downtown, the Fast-athon, and other regional and national projects were born. Now all of MSA National's leadership was born in the US and/or Canada, and MSA began to make its own decisions and take positions on a variety of issues without regard to other groups or organizations.
Today, the organization is present in various forms on several campuses across the United States and Canada. In contrast to early membership, members are now frequently American-born Muslims. The groups are funded by campus students as well as the university to which it belongs. Activities include prayer times, lectures, discussion, and social events, and seek to unify Muslim students from different cultural backgrounds. At a campus level, groups lobby universities for recognition of Islamic holidays and prayer times, the availability and size of prayer rooms and for the provision of religiously permitted food on campus. MSAs engaged in various charitable activities. They raise funds through events known as "Fast-A-Thons", which originated at the University of Tennessee. The MSA launched a "Peace...not Prejudice" campaign to dispel stereotypes and paint Islam in a positive light.
Islam Awareness Week
Islam Awareness Week was a project started in the early 1990s by the Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada. Its aim was to introduce Islam on a unified platform to all university and college campuses. During this week, each MSA offers information through a variety of resources and organizes activities in order to promote an understanding of Islamic principles and ideals. Information on Islam is presented in forms of topic tailored tables, free literature, and also through dialogue. Activities may include speeches given by prominent Muslim figures, interactive games, movie showings, or a night of Islamic entertainment and traditional ethnic dinners. Islam Awareness Week seeks to promote a positive understanding of Islam throughout the university community and hopes to build and strengthen connections and relationships within the university community for the promotion and recognition of Muslim North Americans.
Muslim Brotherhood Ties at MIT
Journalist Deborah Scroggins, in exploring how suspected al-Qaeda member Aafia Siddiqui became an Islamist extremist, wrote for Vogue that if Siddiqui "was drawn into terrorism, it may have been through the contacts and friendships she made in the early 1990s working for MIT's Muslim Students Association. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world's oldest and biggest Islamist movement, established the first MSAs in the country... and the movement's ideology continued to influence the MSA long after that. At MIT, several of the MSA's most active members followed the teachings of Abdullah Azzam, a Muslim Brother who was Osama bin Laden's mentor. According to Scroggins article, "[Azzam] had established the Al Kifah Refugee Center to function as its worldwide recruiting post, propaganda office, and fund-raising center for the mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan... It would become the nucleus of the al-Qaeda organization."
Muslim Student Union at the University of California, Irvine
The University of California Irvine Muslim Student Union is an affiliated chapter of MSA National, which was suspended for the 2010–11 school year for protesting against Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at a university sponsored event.
The program is being organized in conjunction with American Muslims for Palestine, a Chicago-based group that is dedicated to training college and high school students to advocate against Israel and its American supporters.
New York Police Department Monitoring of MSAs
The NYPD monitored Muslim student associations, what they referred to as MSAs, in Northeast US, citing a list of 12 people arrested or convicted on terrorism charges in the United States and abroad who had once been members of Muslim student associations. In rationalizing their monitoring activities, the NYPD noted they followed the same rules as the FBI. The universities involved in the student monitoring included Yale, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse, New York University, Clarkson University, the Newark and New Brunswick campuses of Rutgers, and the State University of New York campuses in Buffalo, Albany, Stony Brook and Potsdam, Queens College, Baruch College, Brooklyn College and La Guardia Community College. In one monitoring incident, a conference which was to be attended by MSA affiliated students was monitored which included as a speaker Siraj Wahaj, a prominent but controversial New York imam who has attracted the attention of authorities for years.
In June 2012, MSA National, along with other Plaintiffs, filed suit against the City of New York, in New Jersey federal court. The suit alleges, on behalf of two New Jersey MSA chapters, that Plaintiffs were deprived of their Free Exercise rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and seeks to force the NYPD to expunge all data, information and conclusions regarding the Plaintiffs compiled by the NYPD.
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