Jewish and Muslim Student Groups Overcome Distrust to Form Partnership

The Muslim Students Association is often shunned by Jewish groups as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. But some Jewish student groups find the MSA to be a reliable partner for interfaith dialogue. (Photo by Nathan Guttman)

Jewish students at colleges across the country are increasingly ignoring the “red line” that has separated them from chapters of the Muslim Students Association, The Jewish Daily Forward reports.

In the past, Jewish campus organizations have avoided MSA, a network of campus organizations that has been branded by some as extremist and anti-Israel. But now some leading Jewish groups such as Hillel, the Jewish campus life organization, are finding their local MSA chapters to be reliable partners for interfaith activities, reports Nathan Guttman in The Forward.

“We try to keep religion and politics separate,” said Rabbi Mordechai (Michael) Rackover of Brown RISD Hillel, which is actively reaching out to MSA on campus. Rackover rejected the claim that MSA is a radical group, saying that “just like any other generalization, those who say these things don’t have the facts.”

Still, some remain wary of this warming up to MSA.

Yehudit Barsky, director of the division on Middle East and international terrorism at the American Jewish Committee, on the other hand, advised “extreme caution if anyone is thinking to engage with them…. The image they try to project is not necessarily who they really are.”

Two events in recent years brought critics’ claims of extremism within MSA to the forefront. One involved an attempt by 11 activists of an affiliated group at the University of California, Irvine, to heckle Israel’s ambassador to the United States during a speech on campus. The other surfaced following a February investigative report by The Associated Press detailing an extensive effort by the New York City Police Department to infiltrate MSA chapters and to spy on activists.

The news of surveillance, which took place between 2006 and 2007, has surprised many in the MSAs, especially because it coincided with FBI and local law enforcement agencies’ efforts to build trust within the Muslim community.

“I felt so betrayed,” said Aamna Anwer, MSA’s national vice president, who is in charge of chapters in the United States, as she recalled learning about the undercover surveillance of her group. “When you spend so much time doing things for this country, trying to be a good citizen, and then you hear about this kind of spying tactics, it’s very hurtful.”

MSA has undergone significant transformation since its inception in 1963. It has shifted its focus from international Muslim students in US schools to American Muslims students’ issues. And although the MSA originally drew inspiration from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, among other organizations, that connection has not persisted, according to one scholar.

“In the ’70s, some students had a dream that societies will be ruled by Islamic values, but this was parallel to the dreams of some Christians and Jews at that time,” said [Edward Curtis IV of Indiana University-Purdue University], author of the 2009 book “Muslims in America: A Short History.”

He added that since the Gulf War in 1991, MSA has “left behind” any involvement in foreign affairs and focused on internal Muslim student issues. “To say there was any coordination with the Muslim Brotherhood is a fantasy of Islamophobes,” Curtis said.

But suspicions about MSAs still linger.

“MSA has gained legitimacy on American campuses as a benevolent collegiate faith club; however, under this moderate veneer, MSA advances a different agenda among impressionable college students,” the Investigative Project on Terrorism stated on its website. The Investigative Project’s extensive research of MSA noted calls by MSA activists for spreading Islam in America. The research also provided detailed names of activists who were later involved in terror-related activities.

No such extremism was evident at the MSA’s April 18-20 East Zone Conference in Washington, The Forward reports, where over 500 students attended workshops and lectures on Islam and Muslim life in America.

If it weren’t for the small group of male students praying in a nearby traffic median or for the few students wearing hijabs, one would be hard pressed to distinguish the MSA conference from meetings of any other student group.

In a session on racism, participants engaged in a candid discussion on the issue within their own community. One raised the matter of divides between Sunni and Shia Muslims; another noted with concern that after 9/11, African Muslims tried to distance themselves from Arab Muslims; several others spoke of their parents’ generation’s difficulty in accepting friends and spouses from diverse backgrounds. “My parents have sparks of racism,” one student said. Another added, “For our parents, it’s hard to realize that we are American.”

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