MSA National: For 50 Years, ‘Students’ Has Been Its Middle Name
As observers and analysts of nonprofit organizations will note, staying in existence for fifty years is a significant achievement for any organization, especially one which is of the students, for the students and run by the students. The Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada (MSA National) began as a spiritual and social support initiative for international students and transformed over the last five decades to become a truly American institution. On January 1, 2013, MSA National celebrated 50 years since its founding. This is a historic milestone for many reasons.
First, the small group of Muslim students who founded MSA National in the winter of 1963 on the campus of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) reflected a microcosm of the hundreds of thousands of young people who come to study at American universities and colleges. Although we have welcomed international students throughout our history, the cohort who founded MSA National were among the students who arrived post World War II. Many of these students were fleeing conditions of conflict and turmoil in their home countries. Some of these students represented the best and brightest of their nations with high hopes of returning home after graduation, having experienced democracy and civic engagement first hand in America. Some students did return home and led major reforms in education, medicine, science, technology and even government. Others were employed by various American public and private institutions and ultimately became permanent residents and then citizens. Both students who returned home and those who became naturalized Americans became the best ambassadors of American values and a testament to the goodwill we have generated through a meaningful immigration policy. This milestone is significant today because of the ongoing debate about the Dream Act and immigration policies related to international students, and visas to employ foreign nationals in critical industries, to name a few.
Second, the founding of MSA National fifty years ago is a historic milestone because it reflects the best of what America has to offer in terms of institution and capacity building. The students who founded MSA National alongside individual chapters of the MSA on American college and university campuses during these past five decades have done so because of the freedoms afforded to them in America. MSA National was an immigrant phenomenon, which transformed over time into an American institution. Just like other immigrant institutions founded by Catholics and Lutherans in the 1800s, it relied in the early years of its founding on financial support from Muslims and Muslim governments abroad. That early period is controversial because of allegations that some of those governments lent financial support in order to exercise control over a particular interpretation of Islam through sponsorship of the printing of literature and speaking tours of speakers. Just like other nonprofit organizations, it had its ups and downs, with periods characterized by inactivity while other periods were characterized by tremendous energy and programs and activities. As a large cohort of American born and raised Muslim students arrived on campus starting in the early 1990s, they took it upon themselves to revive the national organization through strategic planning retreats and leadership and management training programs. By the late 1990s, a critical mass of Muslim American students was vocal in its demands for an overhaul and restructuring of MSA National. Among the major reforms was the decision to finance MSA National operations entirely through funds raised in America. Today, thousands of Muslim students from diverse backgrounds find spiritual and social support in their MSA chapters, even as the national organization attempts to recalibrate itself to be more relevant and responsive to the needs of individual chapters and students.
Third, when one examines the American landscape, it is evident that for the last five decades MSA National has been a uniting force for Muslim Americans. The Muslim American community has benefitted tremendously from the vision, commitment and dedication of the pioneers of MSA National. Founders of major national Muslim organizations speak fondly of opportunities they had to acquire management and leadership experience while serving in MSA chapters and in some cases as leaders of MSA National. Organizations such as the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) trace their founding in 1968 directly to the involvement of ICNA pioneers in the ranks of the early cohort of leaders and members of MSA National. Profession specific organizations such as the Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers (AMSE), Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS), and the Islamic Medical Association of North America were also founded by the same cohort of Muslim students in the 1960s and early 1970s as constituent organizations of MSA National. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) was founded in 1981 as a direct outcome of strategic deliberations started in 1975, by the leadership of MSA National. The founders and some members of the Muslim American Society, incorporated in 1993, also served in various capacities of leadership and management during the founding and early days of MSA National as well as during the late 1980s through the mid 1990s. The “MSA” experience, whether acquired at the chapter level or at the national level, continues to be a uniting force for Muslim Americans because on campus, the members of the MSA are like a family, and the management experiences prepare today’s students to be contributing members of tomorrow’s community. Of course MSA National cannot take credit for every student who went on to become a leader or contributing member of society – but one cannot negate the fact that MSA National has the potential to unite the students and to continue to inspire them to preserve and perpetuate the MSA experience for generations to come.
Finally, throughout the past five decades, Muslim students have had varying degrees of attachment and detachment to MSA National but it has remained a viable and uniting force for all Muslim Americans. Despite unsubstantiated allegations of extremism and unfounded links to terrorism, Muslim students have continued to develop innovative programs and activities to address issues of social justice, poverty, and oppression in America and abroad. MSA National has been receptive to these programs and activities and has used its national platform to promote them for widespread adoption by MSA chapters throughout the US and Canada. Examples of such projects include the Islam Awareness Week, Fast-a-thon, and Project Downtown. MSA National has promoted civic engagement through educating and empowering students to register to vote. In addition, it has provided a unifying voice for students in the face of anti-Islamic bigotry through the Pride Not Prejudice initiative. Through organizing zonal and national conferences and a management training program known as COMPASS, MSA National has assisted thousands of Muslim students to be learn more about their religion, to develop a strong Muslim American identity, to aspire to serve the campus and society at large, and most importantly, to strive for the highest standards of personal and professional ethics.
MSA National’s legacy has been documented but a systematic archival process and critical analyses are long overdue to ensure that the experiences of the pioneers, in their words, can be a source of both history and training for generations to come. The real test will be whether MSA National can remain relevant and responsive to the needs of Muslim students for another fifty years. Gauging from the vision, commitment and dedication of the upcoming generation of Muslim youth, that potential remains strong.
Altaf Husain is a former vice president and two term president of the Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada. He served in office from 1997-2003. He presently serves as an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Howard University and is a research fellow at the DC-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is serving a second term as a member of the board of trustees of the Islamic Society of North America.