Washington — In their cautious dialogue with American Muslims, national Jewish groups have long steered clear of the Muslim Students Association, one of the biggest Muslim groups in the country and one that many Jewish communal officials see as extremist. But that red line is increasingly being ignored by Jewish students at colleges across the country, where campus Hillel foundations are finding their local MSA counterparts to be congenial partners for interfaith activities.
National Jewish organizations, even those involved in interfaith ties, largely avoid interacting with the group, pointing to incidents in which MSA students were involved in anti-Israel activity. But according to activists and some experts on Islam in the United States, MSA, America’s leading Muslim campus organization, has long left ideology behind and now focuses chiefly on student affairs.
“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.”
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.
An NYPD agent signed up for, among other things, a whitewater rafting trip organized by MSA students at The City College of New York, where he recorded students’ names and noted in police intelligence files how many times they prayed. None of the participants was suspected of any links to terrorism.
“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.”
The surveillance, which took place between 2006 and 2007, included placing undercover agents in New York area MSAs and instituting digital surveillance of emails and of Web activity of chapters throughout the northeast. When the program was exposed, the NYPD pointed to 12 people arrested or convicted of terror charges who had once been members of MSA. In view of this information, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne told AP, the department “deemed it prudent to get a better handle on what was occurring at MSAs.”
Anwer, like most MSA members today, came of age in a post-9/11 era in which suspicion toward Muslims has been part and parcel of her life experience. Still, the news of the NYPD’s surveillance program took her and other MSA members by surprise, mainly because it came at a time when the FBI and local law enforcement agencies were engaged in an outreach effort to mosques and Muslim organizations, aimed at building trust between the two sides.
Founded in 1963, MSA initially focused on foreign Muslim students attending schools in the United States. The group drew much of its ideological background from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and from affiliated Muslim groups in Asia. But within a decade, the group began to cater primarily to American Muslim students. This shift also led the group to step away from the Ikhwan, the Arabic name for the Muslim Brotherhood, said Edward Curtis IV of Indiana University-Purdue University who studies American Muslim groups.